A Complexity-Cognitive View on Urban Design

Stolk, E. H., & Portugali, J. (2016). A complexity-cognitive view on scale in urban design. In J. Portugali & E. H. Stolk (Eds.), Complexity, Cognition, Urban Planning and Design (pp. 217-236). Heidelberg: Springer.

Urban designers ‘design across scales’, moving between streetscapes, neighborhoods and entire cities or regions. In contrast to product design, focusing on relatively small-scale objects, urban design objects are relatively big compared to the human body. In the domain of design cognition, design is commonly understood as small scale design. In the paper ‘A Complexity-Cognitive View on Urban Design’, we explore the relations between the scale of the design object, the design medium and the design process. First, we present five ’embodied levels of scale’, which describe the relation between the scale of the body and the design object. Second, we show that large scale design objects are complex in nature, compared to small simple design objects. Third, we show how with scale, the psychological distance increases. This has implications for both the design medium and the design process. An example from the domain of urban design is given to illustrate this view.

Embodied levels of scale: a the manipulable object space—objects rotatable by our body; b the non manipulable object space—objects we need to move around to get a full impression; c environmental space—which can be explored completely in time; d environmental space/geographic space—which cannot be explored completely because of its scale; and e geographic space, which is not explored at all. Additionally, the grey zone represents the panoramic space or isovist space, visually linking different types of spaces and scales.

Graduates, first half of 2016

In the first half of 2016, 4 of my MSc-students graduated. More information can be found in the repository of the TU Delft.

  • Hariyono, Wahyu (2016) Entrepôt: Opportunity in Airport-Driven Urban Development. Repository.
  • Hu, Xiangyu (2016) Towards a restorative and liveable urban environment. Repository.
  • Huls, Sebastiaan (2016) The dike ribbon of Dordrecht. Repository.
  • Vries, Onno de (2016) Densification of Amsterdam. Repository.

New book: Complexity, Cognition, Urban Planning and Design


This book, which resulted from an intensive discourse between experts from several disciplines – complexity theorists, cognitive scientists, philosophers, urban planners and urban designers, as well as a zoologist and a physiologist – addresses various issues regarding cities. It is a first step in responding to the challenge of generating just such a discourse, based on a dilemma identified in the CTC (Complexity Theories of Cities) domain. The latter has demonstrated that cities exhibit the properties of natural, organic complex systems: they are open, complex and bottom-up, have fractal structures and are often chaotic. CTC have further shown that many of the mathematical formalisms and models developed to study material and organic complex systems also apply to cities. The dilemma in the current state of CTC is that cities differ from natural complex systems in that they are hybrid complex systems composed, on the one hand, of artifacts such as buildings, roads and bridges, and of natural human agents on the other. This raises a plethora of new questions on the difference between the natural and the artificial, the cognitive origin of human action and behavior, and the role of planning and designing cities. The answers to these questions cannot come from a single discipline; they must instead emerge from a discourse between experts from several disciplines engaged in CTC.

Graduates, 2015

In the the year 2015, 9 of my MSc-students graduated. More information can be found in the repository of the TU Delft.

  • Aragone, Andrea (2015) Migrated Space Contrasts. Repository.
  • Gaasbeek Janzen, Judit (2015) A design in the light of the relation between climate change adaptation and recreational development in the IJsselmeer region. Repository.
  • Gupta, Reshu (2015) Beyond the edge: Complexity Approach to Urban Fringes. Repository.
  • Kant, Joppe (2015) Een stad om in te verblijven: Het verbeteren van de verblijfskwaliteit van de binnenstad van Rotterdam. Repository.
  • Kong, Pui-Yi (2015) Common Ground: Briding the polarities in the Ringzone area of Amsterdam. Repository.
  • Koster, Bob (2015) Identifying Lost Space. Repository.
  • Rodenburg, Ruben (2015). Ruimtelijk sturen: Onderzoek naar de visuele representatie van de statische en dynamische waarneming van ruimtevormen. Repository.
  • Sun, Wenwen (2015) Design as a Mediating Instrument. Repository.
  • Zimmerman, Dries (2015) A world of acquaintances: How spatial patterns on various scales can form an integrated strategy to facilitate collective efficacy in Beverwaard. Repository.

PhD thesis: A complexity-cognitive approach to urban design

2016-08-05 at 13.00 On October 19th at 15:00 2015 I successfully defended my PhD thesis in the Senaatszaal of the Auditorium at Delft University of Technology.

  • The thesis (in Dutch) can be downloaded here.
  • An English summery can be found here.

Graduates, 2014

In the the year 2014, 8 of my MSc-students graduated. More information can be found in the repository of the TU Delft.

  • Dekkers, Arjan (2014) Cauliflower Revisited: The regeneration of cauliflower neighbourhoods using an environment-behaviour approach. Repository.
  • Haaren, Warner van (2014) The private house & the collective home: In search of privacy in dwelling. Repository.
  • Koomen, Iren (2014) Street Smart: A Social Learning Perspective on the Restructuring of Oud-Charlois. Repository.
  • Korst, Laurien (2014) Mare; de Reisgids – een verkenning van verhaal en verbeelding, beweging en beleving in de zoektocht naar een verhalende stedebouw. Casus Katwijk aan Zee. Repository.Lugten, Martijn (2014) Re Sil(i)ence. Design patterns for an aircraft noise abating spatial environment. Repository.
  • Oudenaarden, Sarah (2014) Framed Space vs. Free Space – degrees of freedom in urbanism. A design study for Hirzbrunnen South, Basel, Switserland. Repository.
  • Slabbers, Thomas (2014) Herinrichting Haagse Binnenstad. Repository.
  • Somoza, Susane (2014) My immigrant neighbour. Social interaction and public spaces in multicultural neighbourhoods. Repository.

Graduation project: Iren Koomen

On December 16 2014, Iren Koomen graduated on ‘Street Smart – A Social Learning Perspective on the Restructuring of Oud-Charlois’.

The graduation process Street Smart focuses on the problems prevalent in problem neighbourhoods, particularly those that affect young people. By creating a link between the social sciences and urbanism, this projects aims to create socio-spatial interventions that target both the social and spatial dimension of the problems at play. This approach is illustrated through a practical case study of the neighbourhood of Oud-Charlois. It’s design is specifically focused on supporting children and adolescents, who are not merely target groups but also co-designers of the project.



Besides addressing an investing societal topic, it is an example excellent thesis from a methodological point of view: developing a (innovative) theoretical framework, an in depth context analysis (including workshops at a primary school), the development of design patterns, and an elaborated design proposal integrating the various elements.

Iren’s work can be found in the repository of the TU Delft.

  • Main mentor: Egbert Stolk
  • Second mentor: Maurice Harteveld

Graduation project Martijn Lugten

On July 1st, Martijn Lugten graduated on ‘Re-sil(i)ence – design patterns for an aircraft noise abating spatial environment’. Instead of focusing on the noise source (the aircraft) this research aims to develop mitigations which can be applied within the built environment for different varieties of aircraft noise.

The project showed that the resulting twenty-four design patterns are effective to translate (technical) information to design and planning tools and incorporates today’s complex realm of (airport) urban planning and design. One of the design proposals is the development of a multi-functional noise barrier (page 234 of his report):

Pages from Lugten_2014_Re-sil(i)enceBesides addressing a highly relevant societal topic, the project is an excellent example of the development and application of a pattern language to deal with the complex nature of the urban environment.

Martijn’s work can be found in the repository of the TU Delft.

  • Main mentor: Egbert Stolk
  • Second mentor: Frank van der Hoeven, chair of Urban Design

Update: news items related on ‘Re-sil(i)ence’:

Graduation project Sarah Oudenaarden

On June 27, Sarah Oudenaarden graduated on a MSc-thesis called ‘Framed-space versus Free-space’. She developed a design method based on notions of control and complexity, and applied this in a design study for Hirzbrunnen South, Basel, Switserland. The conclusions of the literature review are summarised in the following diagram (see page 37 of her report):

Pages from 2014_Framed space vs copy. Free space

One of the contributions of her work is the application of a schema proposed by Findlay and Thagard in their paper ‘How parts make up wholes‘ within the domain of urbanism. In doing so, the project clarifies the relations between the various scales in urbanism.

Sarah’s work can be found in the repository of the TU Delft.

  • Main mentor: Egbert Stolk
  • Second mentor: Denise Piccinini, chair of Landscape Architecture
  • Third mentor: Robbert Jan van der Veen (external mentor, Plein06)

Graduation project Laurien Korst

On April 15 2014, Laurien Korst graduated on her MSc-thesis ‘Mare;’ an exploration of the relation between narratives and imagination, movement and experience – in search for a narrative approach to urbanism – and was inspired by the PhD thesis ‘Urban Literacy’ (Havik, 2012). The project focused on the inner harbour of Katwijk aan Zee, The Netherlands – an illustration (see page 45 of her report):


The project is an excellent example of a reflective design process, in which different types of representations are used in parallel: narratives, stories, interviews, sketches, water-colours, mock-ups, etc. This process is illustrated by an extensive logbook.

Laurien’s work can be found in the repository of the TU Delft.

  • Main mentor: Egbert Stolk
  • Second mentor: Daniel Jauslin, chair of Landscape Architecture
  • Third mentor: Klaske Havik, department of Architecture