Overcoming the subject-object dichotomy in urban modeling: Axial maps as geometric representations of affordances in the built environment
Journal article, 2018

The world is witnessing unprecedented urbanization, bringing extreme challenges to contemporary practices in urban planning and design. This calls for improved urban models that can generate new knowledge and enhance practical skill. Importantly, any urban model embodies a conception of the relation between humans and the physical environment. In urban modeling this is typically conceived of as a relation between human subjects and an environmental object, thereby reproducing a humans-environment dichotomy. Alternative modeling traditions, such as space syntax that originates in architecture rather than geography, have tried to overcome this dichotomy. Central in this effort is the development of new representations of urban space, such as in the case of space syntax, the axial map. This form of representation aims to integrate both human behavior and the physical environment into one and the same description. Interestingly, models based on these representations have proved to better capture pedestrian movement than regular models. Pedestrian movement, as well as other kinds of human flows in urban space, is essential for urban modeling, since increasingly flows of this kind are understood as the driver in urban processes. Critical for a full understanding of space syntax modeling is the ontology of its' representations, such as the axial map. Space syntax theory here often refers to James Gibson's "Theory of affordances," where the concept of affordances, in a manner similar to axial maps, aims to bridge the subject-object dichotomy by neither constituting physical properties of the environment or human behavior, but rather what emerges in the meeting between the two. In extension of this, the axial map can be interpreted as a representation of how the physical form of the environment affords human accessibility and visibility in urban space. This paper presents a close examination of the form of representations developed in space syntax methodology, in particular in the light of Gibson's "theory of affordances." The overarching aim is to contribute to a theoretical framework for urban models based on affordances, which may support the overcoming of the subject-object dichotomy in such models, here deemed essential for a greater social-ecological sustainability of cities.

Space syntax


Sustainable urban design

Urban modeling

Spatial cognition


Lars Marcus

Chalmers, Architecture and Civil Engineering, Urban Design and Planning

Frontiers in Psychology

16641078 (eISSN)

Vol. 9 APR 449

Subject Categories

Architectural Engineering


Human Geography



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