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Editorial comment - 2000 Vol 4.2

An intellectual legacy for ISUF

It is a chastening thought that the personal intellectual legacy that most of us leave is at most a few small increments to knowledge. Furthermore, on their own, such increments are barely perceptible in the sweep of history. Most scholars and researchers play practically no part in shaping the map of knowledge by which they and those that follow them navigate. This is not to belittle the fact that many individually small contributions may, by their combined effect, hasten the acceptance and further exploration of path-breaking advances. But in most fields it is conceptual or methodological developments by a relatively few individuals, occasionally teams, that are, on the whole, the primary academic influences on the direction taken by later generations of researchers.

The research community is in fact one in which a tiny proportion of members leave a legacy strikingly disproportionate to their numbers. This accords with the findings of citation analysis: only the work of a tiny proportion of researchers and scholars is heavily cited.1 And even then much of the work of that tiny proportion of individuals is cited largely because of the sheer number of publications that those individuals have authored and the majority of citations are perfunctory rather than reflecting a fundamental indebtedness to the cited author. Those researchers that have a lasting influence, reflected in numerous references to their work long after its publication, are rare indeed.2

The turn of the millennium coincided with the passing of one of those very rare figures in urban morphology (see pp. 90-5 of this issue). M.R.G. Conzen's life spanned almost the length of the twentieth century, but more remarkable is the fact that his work is being referred to much more now than in the middle years of the twentieth century, when he was at his most productive. References to his work have appeared in every issue of Urban Morphology since the journal began publication in 1997, and it will come as no surprise to many readers to learn that the most cited work has been his monograph on Alnwick, published 40 years ago.3

A proper assessment of Conzen's intellectual legacy must await a great deal more thought and, in all probability, the passing of many more years. This is not only because interest in, and investigation of, Conzen's work is in the ascendant - itself a testament to the lasting significance of his contribution and remarkable for a scholar who retired nearly 30 years ago - but because a significant part of his work was, at the time of his death, practically unknown even to those closest to him. Not only is it important to consider more fully the implications of, and build upon, that part of his scholarly output that has appeared in print, but there is a need to sift through and evaluate a large quantity of his manuscripts, maps, plans, photographs and slides, many of them intended to provide the basis of future publications.

In both these tasks it is necessary that we consider, and learn from, Conzen's mode of thinking and working. This is especially so with respect to the importance he attached to basic principles, particularly ontological principles, not only in his own field but in other fields, and indeed other disciplines. This feature of his work was an operational aspect of a breadth of view that is almost incredible as we look back at a century, and and an individual life span, during which both education and research became so highly compartmentalized.

It is no coincidence that a similar breadth of view is represented in two central ideals of ISUF: to integrate relevant aspects of the various disciplines that have a bearing on urban morphology and, at the world scale (but by no means forgetting other scales), to employ the comparative method. On both counts it is clear, the more so now that previously unpublished manuscripts have been brought to light during a search of Conzen's files in his private study, that ISUF can look forward to a rich legacy.

However, making the most of that legacy will be no mean task. And some of us may balk at attempting to emulate its creator by teaching ourselves in later life to read Japanese, or indeed at seeking to root our work in the fundamental issues of time and space if this takes us, as Conzen believed it should, into such important foundations for advances in scientific knowledge as quantum theory and the theory of relativity. It was the same impulse to reach back to first principles that led him, especially in the last few years of his life, to explore the logic of the humanities. Most of us, I fear, will fall short of his ideal. Yet in striving for the widest possible perspective, in accord with Conzen's work and aspirations, we can at least identify in spirit with Albrecht Penck's exhortation to his students, Conzen among them, 'when you see the particular, always look for the general' - a maxim oft repeated by Conzen.

Conzen died without writing the major treatise on the nature and development of urban morphology that he had been working towards during much of his retirement and for which he had been explicitly formulating a structure during the last 8 or so years of his life. It was to have been a monumental work, as is evident from the outline and notes that he prepared. While little more than a skeleton of the monograph is available, and only Conzen himself could have added the flesh that it largely lacks, sufficient exists to provide us collectively with a challenge. If individually none of us is capable of the major work of integration that Conzen's outline anticipated, there is at least the exciting prospect of attempting to fulfil, in some cases perhaps in collaboration, if not in concert, some of the tasks that must be undertaken if we are to make the most of Conzen's vision. Since central to that vision were both regional types of form complexes and insights deriving from a host of different disciplines, the objectives of ISUF could scarcely have been more apposite if Conzen himself had formulated them.

At a time when many of us communicate internationally by e-mail almost daily, when ISUF provides a structure for meetings, collaborative ventures and publication, and when research is a less solitary activity than it was half a century ago, it is hard for many, in the developed world at least, to imagine the almost lone trail that Conzen followed when he was preparing the Alnwick volume. In the early post-war years, and indeed until his death, he stuck resolutely to what he saw as key issues, founded on a wide philosophical view acquired in his German homeland. And he had the strength of character to pursue, with remarkable determination and attention to detail, lines of thought and investigation that followed from that view, unperturbed by passing fashions that turned the heads of those with less secure roots. He thus created, practically single-handedly over some 15 years, a highly sophisticated form of town-plan analysis that is now deeply rooted in our conception of urban morphology. On its own this is a rich legacy, but it is only one part of a much wider contribution that extends from the fundamentals of geography to the bases of planning practice.

The future assessment of Conzen's contribution and the prospects of building on his work by future generations have been aided greatly by two very recent developments. The first is the generous gift by M.R.G. Conzen's son, Michael P. Conzen, of his father's entire collection of papers, professional correspondence, books, maps, plans, photographs and slides to the School of Geography and Environmental Sciences at the University of Birmingham, England. This is a collection of extraordinary depth and breadth, and it is hoped that it will become a Mecca for members of ISUF. Proper access to it, and appreciation of its significance, must await cataloguing. The aim is that the catalogue should be on-line, for it is important that scholars world wide should have access. The collection includes not least a remarkable range of town plans, the coverage of Japanese towns and cities being quite exceptional.

The second development is the editing, and preparation for publication, by Michael P. Conzen of a volume of sixteen of his father's papers, written between 1932 and 1998, most of them previously unpublished. Among the papers are four whose existence was unknown until recent months. The volume will have a series of appendices, including a glossary of technical terms, a chronology of M.R.G. Conzen's career, and the outline of his proposed monograph on the nature and development of urban morphology. It is hoped that it will be published in time for the next ISUF conference, in September 2001, in Cincinnati. It is bound to create even further interest in one of the great intellectual legacies in our field.


  1. Cole, J.R. and Cole, S. (1972) 'The Ortega hypothesis: citation analysis suggests that only a few scientists contribute to scientific progress', Science 178, 68-75.
  2. Whitehand, J.W.R. (1985) 'Contributors to the recent development and influence of human geography: what citation analysis suggests', Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers New Series 10, 222-34.
  3. Conzen, M.R.G. (1960) Alnwick, Northumberland: a study in town-plan analysis, Institute of British Geographers Publication 27 (George Philip, London).

J.W.R. Whitehand