This theme is concerned with understanding the evolution of metropolitan spatial structure, and the performance of different regional spatial structures in terms of economic competitiveness, environmental sustainability and social well-being. It is concerned with linking planning strategy and practice positively with improved knowledge of spatial structure and performance.

Through the twentieth century to today the region has occupied a privileged position in thinking about urban form and process. The emphasis on the region as the critical scale for understanding urban development goes back to Patrick Geddes. He replaced the city as the unit of analysis with an ‘organic’ region whose relations and dynamics included the city and its functional and meaningful surround. Lewis Mumford and Clarence Stein saw the region as context and condition of an organic city and society of the future. Jean Gottmann saw it as an effect of a dynamic process of metropolitan urbanisation and social reorganisation. Today we understand regions as those spaces within which diverse types of agglomeration economies coexist, triggering urban synergies once only a character of the nuclear city.

The metropolitan region is today a complex configuration of places, functions and movements that is by its nature polynuclear. This polynuclearity can take different forms, from the ‘monocentric’ extreme where one centre dominates the others and concentrates power, to more ‘polycentric’ versions where more or less complementary centres distribute power across regions. Today the metropolitan region is the frame for thinking about processes like agglomeration, centrality, sustainability, (auto)mobility and (sub)urbanisation. It is the frame for thinking about transformation under conditions of modernisation, globalisation, new movement and communications technologies, new business organisation, new global and regional economies and other regionally specific conditions of growth and development. It is increasingly the frame for discussion about changing urban localities and identities, social, functional and migration patterns, and scales and institutions of governance. Our concern is with urban form and structure at all scale levels from that of the street and neighbourhood to that of whole regions. The region is however the structure and frame in which smaller-scaled structures such as neighbourhoods are contextualised and understood, often as problems of increasing social and spatial fragmentation.

We develop models of urban and regional structuring and transformation. We use these to research the relationships between regional form and economic competitiveness, environmental sustainability and social well-being and to model the social, economic and environmental performance of regions. We continuously track and interpret changes in patterns of urbanisation and in regional structure in the Randstad and other regions, and compare different regions using common modelling protocols and indicators. We formulate methods and guidelines for the building of economically and socially advantageous and sustainable cities and metropolitan regions in order to bring the results of this research to planners, designers and policy-makers in usable forms.

Our perspective on the region is, at least partly, a consequence of our situation in the Randstad, an archetypical polycentric agglomeration, from which we derive knowledge that may inform views of other agglomerations.

Track record

We have a strong track record of funded research, for the European Spatial Planning Observation Network (ESPON), the Nederlandse Organisatie voor Wetenschappelijk (NWO) (Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research) and Zeeland Province. Our previous work also includes a number of PhD projects on metropolitan structure in relation to transport and infrastructure led by Professors Dirk Frieling and Joost Schrijnen. We have a long-running close association with the Space Syntax Laboratory and Space Group at University College London and have recently been conducting research into metropolitan structure using space syntax techniques.

Research has been reported in many journal articles and book chapters including papers in Urban Studies, Environment and Planning B, Progress in Human Geography and Town Planning Review. See for example:

–        Burger, M.J. and Meijers, E.J. (2012) Form follows function? Linking Morphological and Functional Polycentricity, Urban Studies, 49 (5), pp. 1127-1149.

–        Meijers E.J. and M.J. Burger (2010) Spatial Structure and Productivity in U.S. Metropolitan Areas, Environment and Planning A, 42(6), pp. 1383-1402.

–        Read, S.A. (2009) “Another Form: From the ‘Informational’ to the ‘Infrastructural’ City” in: Footprint 5. Special Issue: Metropolitan Form, pp. 5-21.

–        Read, S.A., & J. Gil (forthcoming) “Amsterdam and its region as a layering of socio-technical systems” in: Environment and Planning B; Planning and Design.

PhD research

Recent promotions

–        Patterns of urbanisation in the Randstad-Holland (1200-2000), Nikki Brand (2012)

–        Conditions for re-conceptualising the contemporary urban local scale: considering communication networks to attain conditions for space appropriation, Marta Mendonça (2012)

–        Timespace matters: exploring the gap between knowing about activity patterns of people and knowing how to design and plan urban areas and regions, Jeroen van Schaick (2011)

–        Changing centralities under urban configurational ‘scale-structure’, Qiang Sheng (2011)

–        Urban dispositif: an atlas of spatial mechanisms and the contemporary urban landscape, Gerhard Bruyns (2011)

–        Synergy in polycentric urban regions: complementarity, organising capacity and critical mass, Evert Meijers (2007)

–        Station – the new centrality, the effects of urban form on the live ability of the area around the railway station, Camelia Mulders Kusumo (2007)

Current PhD candidates

–        Urban form and the multi-modal mobility network structure: evaluating the sustainable accessibility of urban areas in the city-region, Jorge Gil

–        Transformative planning systems and peripheral housing developments in Shanghai, Jinghuan He (Hebe)

–        Centrality and sustainable city policies in contemporary urban regions, Fabio Hernandez

–        Transforming the future: an empirical study of the modernisation and regionalisation of the Tehran metropolis, Azadeh Mashayekhi

–        Public visibility of Anatolian immigrants in Istanbul and Amsterdam, Ceren Sezer

–        Complex adaptive systems and urbanism, Sharon Ackerman

–        Formation of centralities as a result of infrastructure building: transformation of small towns in the Yangtze Delta region, China, Jung Ying

–        Territories-in-between: European permeability in territories between urban and rural, Alexander Wandl

Key research projects

Finalised projects

Networks, agglomeration and polycentric metropolitan areas: new perspectives for improved economic performance (NAPOLEON), a Kennis voor Krachtige Steden project, 2012 to 2014

Planning for energy-efficient cities (PLEEC). This is a European 7th Framework project running from 2012-2015 that will explore the link between metropolitan spatial planning and energy-efficiency.

Please look below for Cohesify, COMPASS and Repair projects (ongoing)

Research agenda

The aim for this theme is to create a substantial regional research and modelling project involving a number of PhD candidates focussing on the Randstad and other regions around the world as a foundation for regional comparisons. What makes this theme distinctive is that we do not just describe and explain the evolution of metropolitan spatial structure, but we also shed light on how spatial structure influences metropolitan competitiveness, environmental sustainability and social well-being. Moreover, we translate these findings into models and designs that can assist in planning and designing cities and metropolitan regions for all. Our future research agenda is strongly centred on this triangle of understanding spatial structure, evaluating its performance, and applying this knowledge to improving planning and design.

PhD candidates will be recruited in the following topics as spaces become available:

regional and metropolitan urbanisation, form and structure; models of regional form and transformation;

urbanisation and development of metropolitan regions; the evolving functional geography of regions;

the performance of regional forms; indicators of performance.


The research theme of metropolitan spatial structure has a strong relationship with the Urbanism MSc graduation studio Complex Cities which builds on experience of such studios from 2001. More than 50 students have graduated since 2008  studying almost an equal number of cities around the world. Graduation projects provide a resource for comparative overview of, and a methodological approach to, metropolitan structure and performance in different global contexts. We see teaching as a way to open and articulate research questions and refine and test methods. Projects address parts of the triangle ‘spatial structure – performance – planning and design’. They develop better understanding of linkages between built urban form and interpretations of performance, and make recommendations for the planning and design of metropolitan regions.