Urban environments, as the basis of our perception of space, have an undeniably significant impact on human behaviour. The ground is literally the basis upon which land animals establish their behaviour. A method of analysing space that incorporates this behaviour could therefore be beneficial to urban design. Space syntax,  developed by Bill Hillier at University College London, does this, and has been applied in urban studies since the 1980s. It unites science and intuition in the modelling of urban environments and can be used to enhance the planning and design of cities.

What is Space Syntax?

Space syntax is used to measure relationships in an urban environment. The two primary measures are: ‘to movement potential’ between street segments and ‘through movement potential’ of street segments with respect to each other. Computer technology has enabled the application of space syntax in large urban environments as computer models can be produced quickly with a high degree of accuracy. The models produced can represent not only the inherently complex relations within a street but also how streets in a city interrelate with one another. With this, comparison can be made between spatial configurations and societal activities such as pedestrian flow, crime distribution, and land use patterns as the information can be overlayed onto the axial map model typical of space syntax.

Fig 1 and 2. Space syntax integration pattern of Greater London (left) and Space syntax choice pattern of Greater London (right)

Two fundamental elements in human movement are illustrated here: firstly, the selection of a destination (Figure 1), and secondly, the selection of a route (Figure 2). Space syntax illustrates the patterns of potential movement and action in the environment through lines. These lines join one action to another and one space to another. The lines are not merely a representation of space but an intrinsic part of our being. The configuration of space syntax models with coordinated colour makes complex data comprehensible for not only scientists but designers, politicians and residents too.

Space Syntax Applied

There is a vast amount of information that can be learnt through the application of space syntax. Recent developments have enabled a technical multi-scaled analysis of axial maps upon which functional data such as land uses can be layered. The following examples show how space syntax can be used to illustrate changes in an environment’s social fabric through a history of urban morphology, and how this logic can also be applied to the evaluation of future urban design proposals.

Cities and towns do not function independently, they are deeply integrated into the network of the surroundings. Figure 3 & 4 show two traditional English market towns, Oxted and Uckfield. Market towns are particularly dependent on their hinterlands and therefore can clearly illustrate the interconnected effects of urban morphology. The cases of Oxted and Uckfield illustrate the social effects of environmental changes.

Fig 3 and 4. Global axial line integration map of Oxted (left) and Uckfield (right)

Oxted (Figure 3) is a historic market town situated between Kent and Surrey, which has a long history as a route of pilgrimage between the east and west. As Figure 3 illustrates, the high street coloured in red reflects the town’s relationship to the historically typical east or west bound traffic through the town. The addition of a north-south rail line to the east rotated the axis of the town 90 degrees, which had an interesting effect on the fabric of the town. The east-west A25 (main road) remains the most integrated route. Despite this, the western end of the old high street became severed as shown in circle 1 of figure 3. The new high street, located by the station (circle 2) is relatively secluded from the rest of the town. As a result, Oxted has become less harmonious within itself, demonstrating urban change that didn’t account for existing relationships in the environment.

On the contrary, Uckfield, situated on the A22 north-south road between London and Lewis, incorporated the station at one end of the high street. This addition of the station was better integrated with the existing environmental relationships of the town, as the road and rail are complimentary. The high street remains an integral part of the town and regional fabric despite the nearby presence of a bypassing ring road. complementary. Oxted and Uckfield demonstrate a difference in response to change, and highlight the interconnectivity of our networks, showing that change can have not only local but regional influences.

Fig 5 and 6. Berlin in 1940, before the wall (left) and in in 1989, with the wall separating east and west (right)

Another interesting historical analysis to consider is the effect of the Berlin Wall on the city network of Berlin. When space syntax analysis is applied here, the effects are clear to see. As typical with most models in space syntax, red represents a highly connected street and blue a relatively unconnected street. After the wall is built, separating east and west, many roads lose their connecting function entirely.

In 2006, an evidence-based development strategy and design guideline developed with space syntax was adopted by the municipality of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. The proposal aimed to rebalance the growth of the city through the integration of social, cultural, economic, and environmental aspects. For Jeddah to prosper from the social diversity of its population, it was essential to form an inclusive society for which manipulation of an urban environment’s spatial structure is an imperative mechanism. The versatility of space syntax enables spatial analysis models to be configured with additional layers of information. With such composite models, more specific issues can be addressed, which would not be possible with spatial analysis alone.

Fig 7. Jeddah: Citywide grid analysis (left) and Local urban grid analysis (right)

When space syntax analysis is applied to Jeddah, a clearer understanding of the city can be derived. Figure 8 shows distinct areas, such as the historic centre and other unplanned settlements, while Figure 7 shows a different pattern. The distinct urban areas highlighted in Figure 8 are further isolated by a super grid network which functions as the dominant traffic system. Through space syntax, extremely complex data can be deciphered and processed quickly, enabling a faster and more effective targeted response from design teams. Since 2006, the Jeddah strategic planning framework developed largely with space syntax has improved Jeddah as a city and continues to have a significant role in the city’s development.


Space syntax is also limited in some ways. Hillier’s ideas and the teachings of space syntax are certainly not contested here nor are they proposed to be new. Hillier’s work, in many cases, explores similar directions to Ildefons Cerdá’s ‘general theory’ of urbanity from the 19th century. Both are based upon the synergy of streets, buildings, and people. Spatial structure alone, however, cannot fully summarise or determine the characteristics of urbanity. Therefore, it is important to consider space syntax as a means of, rather than a replacement for urban analysis.    

By 2050, the global population is predicted to rise to 9.7 billion people, 68% of whom will live in cities. Therefore, it is paramount that urban environments are developed appropriately. Science and technology in design and planning remain underutilised. Through an evidence-based approach to spatial analysis, space syntax, when applied judiciously, can offer a holistic perspective in evaluating future urban design proposals. Hopefully, this can lead to the design of cities that function well for their citizens by being sustainable, healthy and pleasant to live in.