urban map

Social-Ecological Urbanism

​ACEX35, Masters’ thesis direction, 2020/20201

"Research-based design is needed to guide cities towards trajectories of greater environmental and social sustainability"


The dramatic continual growth rate across many human activities, also referred to as the Great Acceleration, may well be the defining trend of this century. Urbanization is part of this trend with 70% of the world population that is expected to be living in urban areas by 2050. At the same time, cities consume almost 80 per cent of the world’s energy, produce more than 60 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions and are generally associated with lower levels of physical and mental health. Furthermore, rapidly expanding cities are facing biodiversity losses, as well as other environmental threats. Although cities, in many ways, have contributed to current problems, they also have the potential, if designed and planned well, to contribute to sustainable development and human well-being.

The concept Social-Ecological Urbanism integrates two lines of thinking of the city as an ecosystem, dealing not only with designs for mitigating problems, but also with adaptation measures to enhance adaptive capacities in cities. Social-Ecological Urbanism looks for synergies between ecological and sociospatial systems, acknowledges the existence of conflicts between them and expands the systems’ capacity, through design, to absorb shocks, utilize them, reorganize and continue to develop without losing fundamental functions and thus building resilience.

Description and aim​

The master thesis direction Social-Ecological Urbanism is an urban design and planning direction engaged in the form and structure of cities and how their design can be used to
create urban environments that promote citizens health and wellbeing, but also increase biodiversity and reduce climate change impact. The understanding of the intriguing relation between the city as we design and materialize it and the urban life that it affords, is central for this direction. Literature, seminars and spatial analysis tools help you to assess whether your proposed design interventions contribute to the set goals in the thesis.

The thematic focus can differ across projects but what connects them is that the proposed design solutions simultaneously support social-economic goals and ecological goals. For example, projects that propose densification in support of walkability should also take into consideration the negative impact densification might have on biodiversity. This will call for innovative spatial solution that combine densification with urban greening. What further connects the projects is the combined design-analysis approach where the role of architecture and urban design to support e.g. walkability or biodiversity is made explicit. We believe that such a research-based design is required to live up to the great expectations of cities to contribute to a more sustainable future. Research-based design supports design decision with empirical evidence, tests proposals using advanced spatial analysis to deliver designs that are both esthetically appealing but also perform as is aimed for.


Primarily, master thesis projects should be design-oriented and, in line with this direction, base design choices on urban theories, empirical evidence and spatial analysis. We also support more theoretical thesis if they take a clear position in how this will affect the practice of urbanism. The scale of projects can range from a few urban blocks to city districts or a whole city.

Preparation course: purpose, method and process 

The purpose of the preparation course is to develop and finalize your project plan. under the guidance of assigned examiner(s) and supervisor(s). During the preparation course, you explore specific theories and design methods associated with social-ecological urbanism. This will help you to, first, evaluate design alternatives using spatial analysis. Second, urban theories and empirical studies are discussed to develop a better understanding how the urban environment affects human health and wellbeing, ecosystem services, economic activities, etc. Next, this knowledge is actively used to steer the development of cities in directions of greater sustainability and resilience. The use of analytic tools such as GIS (Geographic information system) will for many projects be important and tutorials are available for those with no prior knowledge. The final deliverance in the course is a project plan.​

Specific evaluation criteria 

Independent of the type and scale of the project, the project plan will be evaluated based on a clear description of the problem you want to address, the knowledge gap, the research question related to that, the method you propose to help you find an answer and finally, a hypothesis in the form of the spatial solution. The thesis will be assessed by its design qualities, but especially the evidence base that is used for the design decisions or recommendations. This means that the thesis must give a well-argued spatial answer to the problem described where both theoretical and analytical arguments can be used to support design decisions.​

Specific submission requirements project plan

Besides a powerful title and relevant image or sketch, the choice for the type and scale of the project, the project plan should include the following:
  • Problem description where especially the spatial dimension should be emphasized
  • Background where the larger context should be described including knowledge gaps and relevance for practice
  • General aim and specific purpose of the project (link to the ´problem description´ and ´background´)
  • Delimitations (that is, what will not be addressed in the thesis)
  • Theories, methods and tools that will be used
  • Schematics drawings that provides an overview of your topic: spatial dimension of the problem and spatial strategies to address these problems based on theories or your own hypothesis
  • Project references to clarify what kind of final product you have in mind
  • Time schedule and students’ background and skills, relevant to the project (related to theories, methods and analysis tools)​

Exemplary thesis projects

RURBANITY. Exploring the integration of rural qualities with density and urban life by Hanna Kampers (2019). The world population is growing, and more and more people move to cities. Densification is discussed as one of the important strategies for sustainable urban development. On the other hand, the dream home for a large majority of people is still the one-family home on the countryside, in a calm environment and close to nature. This thesis takes these contradicting interests as a starting point and explores how experiences of nature, privacy and ownership can be combined with the ‘urban buzz’, high density and proximity to service.

The city-friendly car? Urban development in a new mobility age by Sophia Haas (2019). This thesis explores potential impacts of autonomous cars on greenery and walkability in cities. Implemented by the development and assessment of scenarios that translate current visions and trends of industry and policy into a tangible design of the future city, using the case of Gothenburg.

EMBRACING DUALITY. Space syntax's role in navigating the impossible profession by Moa Rydell (2019). This theoretical thesis investigates why urban professionals often agree on the goal to create more sustainable cities but are not always aware of the means to realise them. Through interviews, literature studies and based on experience, the thesis studies the attitude towards research-driven design (and especially the theories and methods central to space syntax) versus design as an art. It concludes that it is important to not define the architect as either an artist or scientist, but Instead embrace the duality.

EMBRACING DUALITY. Space syntax's role in navigating the impossible profession

Suggested literature​ and projects

Scientific papers and books
Barthel et al. (2013). Principles of Social-Ecological Urbanism, KTH.
Berghauser Pont, M. and P. Haupt (2010). Spacematrix. Space, density and urban form, NAi Publishers.
Hillier, B. (1996). ”Cities as movement economies”, in Space is the machine, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, pp. 149-182.
Hillier, B. (2009). Spatial Sustainability in Cities, keynote lecture 9th Space Syntax conference.
Marshall, S and O. Caliskan (2011). “A joint framework for Urban Morphology and Design”, in Built Environment, vol 37, No. 4, pp. 409-426.
Martin, L. & L. March (1972). ”The grid as generator”, in Urban space and structures, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, pp. 6-27.

Practice oriented reports
Legeby, A., Berghauser Pont, M., Marcus, L. (2015). Dela(d) Stad – Stadsbyggande och segregation I-V, (2015), KTH, Mistra Urban Futures, https://www.mistraurbanfutures.org/sv/publikationer/delad-stad-perspektiv-och-​utgangspunkter
Berghauser Pont, M., Gren Å., Ahrné K., Marcus, L., A. Kaczorowska (2017). Bee Connected – Ekosystemtjänsten Pollinering - Gröna Kopplingar för Resilienta Städer, rapport från delprojekt inom forskningsprojektet C/O City, https://research.chalmers.se/publication/254355

Popular-scientific papers (in Swedish)
Berghauser Pont, M. (2020). Framtidens stad är både tät och grön, in ETC 1 juni 2020, https://www.etc.se/debatt/framtidens-stad-ar-bade-tat-och-gron
Marcus, L. and M. Berghauser Pont (2020). Teorier om stadsform för att mäta städer, http://alvstranden.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/FP02_Teorier_om_stadsform_for_att_mata_stader.pdf
Marcus, L. and M. Berghauser Pont (2020). Texter om stadsform, http://alvstranden.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/FP03_Texter_om_stadsform.pdf
Berghauser Pont, M. (2019). Munken som kan rädda vår stad, in Stadsbyggnad 2019:2, https://stadsbyggnad.org/2019/munken-som-kan-radda-var-stad/
Berghauser Pont, M., C. Caldenby, A-J. Klasander, O. Nylander (2018). Tät blandstad passar inte överallt I Göteborg, in: GP 7 januari 2018, https://www.chalmers.se/sv/institutioner/ace/nyheter/Sidor/Blandstad-passar-inte-overallt-i-Gbg.aspx​

Direction faculty

This direction is led by the research group SMoG, part of the Urban Design and Planning division. See https://www.smog.chalmers.se.

Meta Berghauser Pont, Lars Marcus, Gianna Stavroulaki, Jorge Gil

Meta Berghauser Pont, Lars Marcs, Gianna Stavroulaki

Published: Thu 01 Oct 2020.