Tuesday, January 17, 2012

"Density Form and Transportation"

“Density Form and Transportation.”
Inspired by ‘What is Lost Space’ (Roger Trancik, 1986)

This essay will explain how the city forms and how the constraint such as transportation development configured the city form. City is an arrangement of various forms and functions of buildings.

‘A city is a relatively large and permanent settlement’.

Referring to the explanation above, there are several elements that make up a city. The city's development started from the hierarchy of logical rehabilitation stages. Human has natural behaviour. Natural behaviour creates social life. Social life creates activity. Activity creates function system. Function system creates buildings and roads, and finally buildings, and roads build a city. This theory called the functional city’.

In an effort towards functional city, another problem has arisen, creation of lost space’. According to Roger Trancik in his book, finding lost space: theories of urban design; lost space is an unshaped anti space that existed at the leftover unstructured landscape, unused sunken plaza, parking lots, and abandoned waterfronts, train yards, vacated military site and industrial complexes. 

The characters of lost space are ill defined, without measurable boundaries and fail to connect elements in a coherent way. 

This problem has become more complex and lead to a loss of identity of city’s density. Among the causes been listed by Trancik, dependence on the automobile is the most difficult to deal

This essay will explain the transition process by studying the history of urban development. It will also questioning how the emergence of the modernisation of transportation technology has an enormous impact to forming urban density form.

The Problem

Figure 1: Ancient City Concept

Diagram above describes the layers forming an ancient city. The concept denies the existence of lost space. Normally, walking or cycling is the suitable methods of communication for this kind of city.

‘From the 1950s, the growth of suburbs was mainly taking place adjacent to major road corridors, leaving a lot of vacant/farm land in between. Later, intermediate spaces were gradually filled up, more or less coherently. Highways and ring roads, which circled and radiated from cities, have favored the development of suburbs and the emergence of important sub-centers that compete with the central business district for the attraction of economic activities.’ 5  

Based on the above statement, the construction of road corridors have developed empty space in between, which also called ‘lost space’.

The Evolution

The Ancient Cities

The ancient cities generally were formed by the function of the city itself. The formation of the cities usually consisting of a center building (palace or administrative or religious building) while streets and other buildings surrounded it. The examples are Timgad (Romans) and Beijing (China).

 ‘The Romans modified the Greek order of town planning to suite their own order, with its intense centralization of the power structure, by introducing the axis and creating major linear focus in the grid organization.’ 6
Figure 3: Old Timgad Layout 7 & Diagram of Timgad (Roman)

While in Beijing China, the form and grid had related to the political sense. Where the palace is situated at the center of the city and the rest were developed around it. 8

‘The Chinese grid was more of a political diagram, a square or rectangular form was established and the city was aligned in the four cardinal directions.’ 9
Figure 4: Satellite Photo of Beijing 10 & Diagram of Old Beijing (China)

Most cities in the 20th century are not using the traditional grid concept. The modern building typologies had replaced it. The enclosed blocks with large open courtyards is the main character of this concept. It was used in Berlin in 1890s. 11

Figure 5: Berlin, Germany (1890s) 12 & Diagram of Berlin

The other example is Amsterdam; the city traditional grid form was replaced by the modern building typology. The grid is likely having long courtyard-framing housing blocks with similar uniformity of facades. 13
Figure 6: Amsterdam, Netherland (1915) 14 & Diagram of Amsterdam

Historically, movements within cities tended to be restricted to walking, which made medium- and long-distance urban linkages rather inefficient and time consuming. Thus, activity nodes tended to be agglomerated and urban forms compact.’ 15

Comparing the grid pattern of ancient cities with the 20th century cities, we can see the urban sprawl has changed dramatically from a dense populated to a courtyard-framing area.

‘However, the increasing growth of traffic couldn’t make do without the grid. The boundaries of cities increased due to automobiles, leading to growth in traffic, making streets extremely dangerous.’ 16

There are three major factors why the urban form changes. First, the urban population growth (doubled since 1950), 17 invention of modern highways in 18th century and the creation of modern gasoline or petrol cars in 1885. 18

‘The evolution of transportation has generally led to changes in urban form. The more radical the changes, the more the urban form have been altered.’ 19

From the diagram below, there is no significance change from 100 AD to 1406 cities, but the gaps between buildings emerged started from 1890 city and continue wider in 1915 city diagram.
Figure 7: The Evolution of City Pattern

Case Study: Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (1857)

Kuala Lumpur is the capital city of Malaysia. The city has begun in 1857 at the confluence of the Gombak and Klang rivers. Founded by Raja Abdullah, a member of the Selangor royal family, he opened up the Klang Valley for tin prospectors. 20

At the other end of the spectrum, the dispersed urban forms of most Australian, Canadian and American cities which were built recently, encourage automobile dependency.’ 22

As the technology grows Kuala Lumpur is relying so much on roads and railway tracks. Since then, it has continuously influencing the city form making Kuala Lumpur an automobile dependency city.
Figure 9: Kuala Lumpur Map (1889) 23 & Diagram of KL 1889

The maps and diagrams show the urban sprawl in Kuala Lumpur. It was concentrated along the rivers and railway track, as they were the main transportations modes.
Figure 10: Kuala Lumpur Map (1895) 25 & Diagram of KL 1895
Figure 11: Kuala Lumpur Map (1908) 26 & Diagram of KL 1908
Figure 12: Kuala Lumpur Map (1922) 27 & Diagram of KL 1922

The dispersion or urban sprawl in Kuala Lumpur and the other 20th century cities were fast and uncontrolled. Therefore, lost spaces formed indirectly between urban core and suburban areas.
In sustainable urban design strategies, these lost spaces should be integrated in the design and transformed into functional sustainable spaces.

Functional Sustainable Spaces

To create functional sustainable spaces in urban, designers should view the city as a whole. The urban elements such as buildings, roads, parking spaces, and etc. should be designed within the demands of the users. The following are some strategies to create functional sustainable spaces.
Compactness - ‘Compactness of urban space can minimize transport of energy, water, materials, products and people.’ (Elkin, McLaren, and Hillman 1991) 28. Compact city design can create better sustainability and resilience of energy and resources. Through the compactness as well, empty space can be reduced, for example building a multilevel car park can reduce a large parking area.
Sustainable Transport - ‘Sustainability is defined as diminishing both mobility and the negative of traffic.’ (Elkin, McLaren, and Hillman 1991) 29 Transportation is the biggest issue in urban area, providing a sustainable transport system can improve urban quality even more economical.
Density - ‘Increasing the urban density; strengthening the city center; extending the proportion of a city that has inner-area land use; providing a good transit option; and restraining the pro-vision of automobile infrastructure.(Newman and Kenworthy 1989) 30. High density in a city will encourage the usage of public transport while low density will promote the use of private vehicles.
Mixed Land Uses - ‘Mixed land use reduces the probability of using a car for commuting, shopping, and leisure trips, since jobs, shops, and leisure facilities are located nearby.’ (Alberti 2000; Van and Senior 2000) 31. This concept is similar to the ‘new urbanism’ concept that supports utopian goals. If all the daily needs are accessible by walking, there will be less use of private vehicles.
Diversity - ‘Diversity is vital; without it, the urban system declines as a living place and a place to live.’ (Jane Jacobs 1961) 32 Makes the place lively and attract people to be apart of the community, which at the same time encouraging walking to experience the desirable place.
Greening - Greening of the city makes urban and suburban places appealing and pleasant.’ (Van der Ryn and Cowan 1995; Nassauer 1997) 33 Greening the city can contributes positive impact to surrounding which offers fresh air and look.


The modernization of transportation technology has given a big impact to urban density form. In connection with that, sub-core areas have been emerging and indirectly create lost spaces in between. However, these lost spaces could be a new element that provides a positive impact to urban form.


1. Jean-Paul, R., 2006. Chapter 7: Urban transportation. In The geography of transport systems. New York: Taylor & Francis.
2. Trancik, R., 1986. Finding lost space: theories of urban design, New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
3.  Kostos, S., 1991. The city shaped: urban patterns and meanings through history, Boston: Bulfinch Press.
4. Jabareen, Y.R., 2006. Sustainable urban forms: Their typologies, models and concepts. Association of Colegiate Schools of Planning, pp.39-48.
5.  Falconer, J 1987, A vision of the past: a history of early photography in Singapore and malaya, Times, Singapore.
6. Anon, 2009. History of railways around kuala lumpur. Asian Railways. Available at: http://searail.mymalaya.com/ [Accessed November 9, 2011].
7. Wikipedia. Available at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ [Accessed November 16, 2011].

Prepared by:
Mohd Firrdhaus Mohd Sahabuddin 
The University of Edinburgh
Edinburgh School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture (ESALA)


  1. salam firdhaus,

    interesting writing on development of urban sprawl. saya sedang buat study about KL mapping, boleh saya tahu kat mana dapat main source of map Kuala Lumpur sebelum 1900's?

    Terima Kasih