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Urban morphology and cold climate

What is urban morphology and how is it effected by the climate? In this article, Dr David Chapman discusses his recent research.
A street half covered with snow

‘Urban morphology’ is the ‘study of urban form’ and allows us to better understand a place’s formation and transformation over time. Here, the climate is an important consideration in the process of shaping places. The climate influences urban form in all places and we can use climate knowledge to create places with enhanced human comfort.

In hot climates we may want to design places that afford protection from the sun and provide urban cooling via winds and water. In cold climate locations, we may alternatively want to maximise solar access, reduce winds and manage snow. Here climate is a part of a wider morphological framework of understanding places. To visualise this, cold climate locations are particularly useful as the winter season physically changes the urban form of a place.

In such places, the impact of winter can occur at the detail of the street, with snowdrifts burying ground-floor accesses or the scale of the urban structure, with entire streets and spaces becoming unusable by snow build-up. This is important because during this time, the urban form and its complexity is changed by interactions between the winter season and the built form.

In these settlements, these conditions can be designed and planned for. Recent research at Luleå University of Technology has shown that today critical design considerations for public spaces are:

  • Icy surfaces

  • Rain

  • Coldness

  • Darkness

  • Wind

  • Snow

  • Snow covered surfaces

Such conditions have lead designers and planners to set out principles and rules for the urban design of these places. For example, the City of Edmonton, Canada has created extensive supplementary design guidance for how to design the City for winter.


Chapman, D. (2021). Is climate a modifier and shape-giver in urban morphology? Journal of Urban Morphology, 25.1, 5-8.

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