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Editorial comment - 2000 Vol 4.1

From explanation to prescription

As Urban Morphology enters its fourth year of publication it is not too early to take stock. Judging by the flow of communications to the editorial office and views expressed at Editorial Board meetings, Council meetings and General Meetings of ISUF, the journal would seem to be fulfilling the purposes for which it was set up: namely to disseminate the results of research on urban form that is of interest to a multinational readership, to record the activities of ISUF and kindred bodies, and to facilitate discussion among urban morphologists and others interested in the form of the city.

The journal is remaining firmly connected to its international origins, if judged by the locations of its authors and the variety of areas of the world that are the subjects of its articles. It has not so far been characterized by a high proportion of authors from the United States and the United Kingdom. In this respect it is unlike most social science journals that use the English language, including many that profess to be inter-national. Only a minority of contributions to Urban Morphology have emanated from English-speaking countries, although it cannot be claimed that authorship is worldwide as long as there is a lack of contributions from Latin America and Africa.

In at least one respect, however, the journal has been slower to make progress than the Editorial Board had hoped. Although the membership of ISUF comes from several disciplines, most of which have been represented in the journal, it is evident that some of the disciplinary and other divisions are insufficiently permeable. The gap between academic disciplines and professional practice requires particularly active bridge building if a healthy two-way flow of intellectual traffic is to be achieved. Despite the fact that ISUF has many members who are affiliated to professions that are inherently prescriptive in their goals - most notably architecture and planning - few papers are submitted to the journal that are concerned with the prescription of future urban form. An important part of the explanation for this is undoubtedly the fact that most of the architects and planners who are interested in urban morphology as it has developed within ISUF have strong historical predilections: they are more interested in how forms have been created than in the implications that their findings might have for the prescription of future form. Most are academics rather than practising architects or planners. Those that are involved in practice seem more content with the prevailing academic ethos of ISUF than might have been anticipated.

One consequence is that hitherto ISUF has done little to develop links between fundamental thinking in urban morphology and architectural and planning practice. The two activities remain in largely separate realms. The mutual isolation is broken by the occasional `guest lecture' from across the divide, as at the Fourth International Seminar on Urban Form in 1997 and at the Annual Conference of the British Association of Conservation Officers in 1994. It is also broken when government planning officials join the steering committees of research projects and, perhaps potentially more effectively, when academic researchers become involved in development projects. But such occurrences are too infrequent to have more than a minor influence on the bulk of urban landscape development.

The gap in the United Kingdom between research on the historical development of urban form - urban morphogenetics as some academics would term it - and urban planning practice exemplifies the problem. Although the importance of historical buildings is frequently acknowledged in central and local planning documents concerned with the built environment, such buildings tend to be treated as isolated relics or groups of relics. They are rarely conceived of as part of a wider, constantly developing, integrated environment that is in its entirety permeated by history. By the same token, there is little awareness outside academe of theories of the historically-composite character of cities and their potential for application in planning practice. It is not surprising, therefore, that historical vision has been lacking in dealing with the increased pressure to which the physical form of cities has been subject.

This suggests a role for ISUF that has arguably hitherto received insufficient acknowledgement: to explore the no-man's land between planning practice and existing morphogenetic theory, and to promote a more integrated view of urban form and its management. Apart from the recognition of certain buildings and areas as meriting special treatment, for example based on their age, planning practitioners have shown at best an uncertain grasp of the fact that the city has importance as a long-term asset that goes far beyond its contemporary functional value. The fringe-belt concept, for example, has received little attention outside academe, yet its recognition provides a basis for a more holistic view of the city, lessening the reliance of planning practice on site-by-site decision making and providing a plank for a strategy rooted in the long-term development of the city as a whole.

As if to belie my concern about the poor representation of planning practice in the journal, this issue contains two `viewpoints' that go some way towards rectifying this deficiency (pp. 29-34). It also contains an article that at least touches on the fringe-belt concept (pp. 3-8), albeit not in relation to its prescriptive role. More contributions on these matters would be welcome. Members of ISUF are also reminded that the Council wishes to encourage the formation of working parties, especially on themes and topics for which ISUF's multidisciplinary composition makes it particularly suited.

J.W.R. Whitehand