Who we are

Planning Complex Cities is a graduation studio at the Department of Urbanism, Faculty of Architecture and the Built Environment, Delft University of Technology. As other graduation studios at this department, it is set up to align graduation students’ research with the research programme of the department. The studio involves MSc Urbanism graduation students and researchers at the Spatial Planning & Strategy and the Urban Studies sections.


Planning Complex Cities graduations build upon the expertise in spatial development, spatial planning, territorial governance, and participation, present at the Department of Urbanism.

The basic starting points of graduation projects in this studio are observations of disparities and conflicts arising from the distribution of spatial resources across communities and territories. In a typical graduation trajectory, central propositions on the institutional causes and drivers of these spatial manifestations of inequity are formulated first. Those propositions may concern formal institutions embodied in e.g. legal and regulatory planning frameworks, policy delivery mechanisms, obligatory cooperation between governments, or formal distributions of power. Propositions may also concern informal institutions, e.g. the voluntary engagement and participation of communities and non-governmental organisations in planning processes, invisible power distributions, planning and governance cultures and traditions, or even ideologies. During Planning Complex Cities graduation projects, the interrelations between spatial and institutional circumstances are elaborated in depth. Conclusions from projects typically recommend institutional change and demonstrate how this can lead to new spatial development patterns, by means of design.

Planning Complex Cities graduation projects investigate planning schemes, governance arrangements, and civic engagement in regions and urban areas, how these influence the transformation of spatial structures and how they can be enhanced to achieve more sustainable spatial outcomes. This is done using an enlarged notion of design, conceptualised here as the design not only of physical structures or places, but also of processes, and organisations.  A more detailed scope of graduation projects stems from a focus on substantive issues (a particular interest in, for instance, energy transition, housing provision or economic transformation), normative values (a particular wish to improve, for instance, environmental sustainability, socio-spatial equity, economic competitiveness or democracy), and from placing graduation projects in particular focus areas (for a general, description of these, see below). A more detailed scope is also derived from positioning projects in a ‘playing field’ that is composed of the interaction between spatial development (and consequently planning and governance approaches) at different scales. Two Planning Complex Cities sub-themes form starting points for the elaboration of the multi-scalar nature of any intervention in spatial systems and therefore this this positioning.

The multi-scalar playing field

The Planning Complex Cities studio distinguishes two sub-themes as starting points of graduation research: Complex Regions in Transformation and Planning as Critical Engaged Practice. The principal distinction between sub-themes is in the initial and primary attention that is given to different scales of spatial development and – consequently – planning approaches. While the sub-theme Complex Regions in Transformation focuses on regional spatial development and usually government-led regional spatial planning approaches, the sub-theme Planning as Critical Engaged Practice focuses on local development, and co-creative and community-led approaches to spatial and societal change. Implications of the division are wide-ranging. Table 1 lists some important keywords indicating these.

Sub-themes are defined to trigger a consideration of multi-scalarity in graduation projects (see Figure 1). Spatial developments at different scales do and planning at levels of government should influence each other. Planning Complex Cities graduations explore these interactions. For example: an in-depth understanding of how community-led development and planning can change one location should be accompanied by an imagination of how similar development in other locations can change a region. Or vice versa: an in-depth understanding of regional development and planning should be accompanied by an imagination of how this affects local places and communities within this region.

Figure 1: The Planning Complex Cities playing field


Table 1: Distinguishing Planning Complex Cities sub-themes

Complex Regions in Transformation  Planning as Critical Engaged Practice
Planning approaches Regional spatial planning,
Strategic spatial planning,
Regional development policy,
Transition management,
Soft planning,
Adaptive planning,
Planning for Resilience,
Communicative planning,
Bottom-up / Community- led development,
Action Research,
Co-Production / Co-Creation,
Tactical Urbanism (DIY Urbanism),
Communicative planning,
Methods Regional spatial analysis,
Interviews with key actors,
(online) Surveys,
Actor network analysis,
Policy analysis,
Discourse analysis,
Social media analysis,
Quantitative data analysis,
Scenario analysis,
Local spatial analysis,
(walk-along) Interviews,
Actor network analysis,
Policy analysis,
Social media analysis,
Metaplan analysis (crowdsourcing),
Field observations,
Observational drawing,
Action research,
Innovative qualitative methods,
Scenario analysis,
Research fields Spatial planning,
Political sciences/governance,
Regional studies, Social/economic/political/critical geography,
Spatial planning,
Political sciences/governance,
Urban geography,
Urban sociology,
Urban political ecology,
Actors Local/regional/national government,
Governance arrangements,
Supra-national organisations,
Civil organisations,
Communities of interest,
Voluntary associations,
Local/ regional governments,
Housing providers,

Focus areas

Students in the Planning Complex Cities studio are generally free to choose the region, city or neighbourhood they wish to work on. However, in order to gain a deep understanding of spatial and institutional development patterns, we strongly encourage students to focus on areas they are either very familiar with or that relate to an ongoing research initiative at the Department of Urbanism (see also page linking graduations to projects and networks). Both circumstances should enable easy access to data, experts and stakeholders. To guarantee a successful graduation under the conditions that the current SARS-CoV-2 pandemic imposes, (remote) access will gain particular scrutiny during an assessment of project proposals.

The international orientation of the Planning Complex Cities studio has resulted in a rich repository of projects that deal with spatial planning in different countries around the globe (for an overview, see our library) (Figure 2). To combine knowledge from these projects for additional learning, we distinguish three parts of the world, each with distinct paces of urbanisation, institutional environments, dominant social models and political systems. Below developments in these parts of the world are very briefly characterised. We note that accounts are soft; individual countries in respective parts of the world may diverge in aspects from general descriptions.

  • Europe: Since the mid-1980s many European regions have been experiencing strong agglomeration of economic functions in and around their central cities. In a context of globalization and market liberalisation, these regions became the new economic motors of nation states. However, the results of this regionalisation are not positive only. Many peripheral regions, particularly in ‘old’ industry and rural areas, have faced economic decline and shrinkage. Within the more successful ‘metropolitan’ regions the concentration of economic opportunities in few areas and gentrification have produced socio-spatial segregation, a loss of cultural heritage and place identity. Disparities between and within regions are growing and are, as recent elections showed, leading to discontent, raise of populism and tensions between centre and periphery. Although political systems in Europe build upon rich traditions in democratic decision-making – guaranteed by highly regulated and accountable decision-making procedures, a relatively high degree of sensitivity of the public towards decisions and a high degree of participation in the political process – they often lack synchrony with problems that arise from spatial development. Mismatches between fixed administrative boundaries and spatial development lead to inefficient planning and increased political tension.

  • China: Urbanization in China is an on-going process that leads to the formation and transformation of city regions, characterized by rapid urban (re)development and the flow of large numbers of migrants. At the same time, China is taking initiatives to stimulate transnational/cross-border development, such as the Belt and Road Initiative, enhancing connectivity of Asia, Europe, and Africa. Both phenomena are driven by global and/or regional economies, posing questions to regional spatial planning. Innovative and integrated regional solutions to urban (re)development that enhance social resilience and facilitate economic transition, in the context of globalization, urbanization, and migration are in high demand.

  • The Global South: Triggered by rural to urban migration, many regions and cities in the Global South are challenged by explosive urbanisation and low planning capacity. Informality in urban growth and management is a highly prevalent but at times controversially disputed issue in this context. Slum upgrading is, for an instance, the preferred approach to address informal urbanisation in many cities in Latin America, as opposed to strategies of slum eradication, which are more common in Africa and Southeast Asia. As regions and cities are growing rapidly, they also become the locus of formally planned national projects of industrialisation and modernisation. The effects of these projects can, however, be problematic. Coupled with often inadequate governance and weak institutional capacity, they raise urgent questions about environmental sustainability, social and economic equity, citizenship, and power. While urbanisation rates in Africa are generally still relatively low, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region and Latin America are highly urbanised, but are in dire need of urban reform. As infrastructural and trading networks expand beyond national borders, many secondary cities gain importance as regional urban centres. However, local authorities often are ill-prepared to handle this situation, for instance in terms of resource management. They often lack the organisational capacity the material and financial resources, and the institutional and regulatory frameworks to cope with an exponential growth of urban populations and activities.

Figure 2: Locations of Planning Complex Cities graduation projects since 2010



Planning Complex Cities graduations build up upon methodological skills that students acquired during their MSc 1&2 Urbanism curriculum. In addition they typically use the below listed methodological approaches.

  • Research-based graduation: Planning Complex Cities graduation projects are research based. Students are encouraged to develop an academic base for their graduation results, including evidence-informed planning. Research here means to deepen but also to go beyond the critical understanding of theoretical concepts. This implies the interconnection between planning theory, design practice, and practical policy-making. Feasible solutions are developed through active accounts of and in consultation with real-world stakeholders. These might include UN-Habitat, the Dutch Ministry of Aid and Development, The Dutch Association of Municipalities (international section), African, Latin American and Asian universities and institutions, The World Urban Campaign, the Union for the Mediterranean and many others. On a lower scale, stakeholders may include local authorities, housing and care providers, voluntary associations and social enterprises. To enhance a relationship between practice and research we encourage students to link their graduation proposals to recent and ongoing research projects and activities at the Spatial Planning & Strategy and the Urban Studies sections (see here).

  • Linking institutional and spatial analysis: Urbanism is concerned with understanding the spatial organisation and dynamics of the built environment and with inventing new ways to maintain spatial quality and equity. The MSc Urbanism education develops core knowledge and skills as a basis for innovative and trans-disciplinary practical and theoretical applications. Planning Complex Cities graduation projects focus on knowledge from the fields of design, geography, the political and planning sciences. They rely on methods that allow for a comprehensive understanding and integration of knowledge from these fields.

  • Comparative planning research: An important methodological approach in Planning Complex Cities graduations is comparative planning research. The Department of Urbanism holds an internationally recognised expertise on spatial planning systems and cultures. Graduations use this expertise for an understanding of the relative advantages and disadvantages of planning and governance approaches at their attention. A comparative perspective is also used to facilitate peer-to-peer learning.

  • Internationalisation: Due to the international profile of research and researchers at involved sections as well as the scope of graduations of alumni students, the Planning Complex Cities studio has a strong international profile. Students who undertake Planning Complex Cities graduations are welcome to engage with locations of their preference (considering access to information wisely!). In terms of methods they become trained to consider the theoretical, practical and ethical challenges that cultural differences imply.

  • Design and research: Urbanism at the TU Delft is a scientific design education, characterised by interaction between thinking (analysis and reflection) and doing (the speculative/intuitive imagination of spatial interventions). As in other MSc Urbanism graduations, design-led approaches play an important role in explorations of the Planning Complex Cities research theme. A particular angle on design is taken though: it is seen as an approach to not only explore desirable spatial outcomes but also desirable institutional and societal change. Many related methodological approaches rely on social-constructionist premises and focus on the analysis of actors’ perceptions of spatial development.

Graduation results

Planning Complex Cities graduations typically lead to the below listed results

  • Integrating knowledge: Planning Complex Cities graduations draw on knowledge from the fields of design, planning, the political sciences, and geography. They are trained to apply trans-disciplinary approaches.

  • Appreciating plurality: Planning Complex Cities graduations investigate Urbanism in regions around the globe. Through an orientation towards a variety of settings, students learn to systematically encounter and appreciate differences among spatial, cultural and political circumstances.

  • Understanding planning systems, approaches, and tools: All Planning Complex Cities graduations involve knowledge about planning. They consider planning systems in place, as well as the approaches and tools that there are. Their ability to develop projects that have a procedural and strategic quality is enhanced.

  • Institutional design: Planning Complex Cities graduations pay particular attention to the role of institutions in Urbanism projects and strategies. Students learn how to involve the interests, responsibilities and resources of actors. Their ability to position themselves in societal and political debate is enhanced.

2 thoughts on “About this graduation studio

  1. Pingback: Complex Cities – Planning for Change |

  2. Pingback: Next round! | Planning Complex Cities TU Delft

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