Diffusionary Urbanism

Project Title: Diffusionary Urbanism 

Principal Investigator:  Andrea Palmioli, (DLA-HKU)

Project Funding: Pending


The research program focuses on the study of systems of urban diffusion, which are an emergent mode of urbanization in mega urban regions. Differently from terms such as “sprawl”, which is commonly understood in the urban field as the spreading-out of urban elements to contexts with a lower gradient of urbanity, “diffusion” refers to varied, uneven concentrations of different urban and natural elements that are themselves tied to a complex mosaic of (eco)systems.  In other words, diffusion in mega urban regions entails tangled interactions between different systems that are intrinsically dynamic, open and interconnected.Contemporary urban figures such as Città Diffusa in Northeast Italy or Desakota in Asia, fine grained settlements of dispersion in Flanders or Zwischenstadt in Germany are just some of the examples able to effectively describe this emergent urban condition, increasingly related to the dispersion of the urban fabric within the agricultural landscape. Reflections on diffusion must consider these figures beyond a simplistic center/periphery opposition, revealing the dispersed condition as a potential asset, rather than a limit to the construction of a sustainable and innovative urban dimension (Viganò 2015).

It is assumed that the development of water networks in delta regions have implications on land and irrigation rights, which can in turn influence types of cultivations, in particular rice or cotton and density of human labor. In addition, land and water rights can also generate frictions in urban development of delta regions through progressive expansion and densification over rural land.

The aim of this research is to explore forms of diffusion across the world and its contemporary relevance as ecological and social design framework.  By grounding questions and theories arising from different urban contexts, the study aims to develop interdisciplinary approaches. The ultimate goal is to show that the concept of urban diffusion can provide an integrated framework for understanding the complex entanglements between different infrastructures associated with the natural and man-made environments.

Intertextures. Polarization and Diffusion in Yangtze River Delta: social ties, environment, economy

Project Title: Intertextures. Polarization and Diffusion in Yangtze River Delta: social ties, environment, economy.

Principal Investigator: Andrea Palmioli DLA, HKU

Project Funding: UKNA, University of Paris-Est EDVTT


The current study is designed to examine the spatial relationship between dynamics of polarization and diffusion embedded in rural-urban transformations in China’s urban regions.

Scholarship in urban studies have focused on urbanization as a prime agent of economic growth, emphasizing metropolitan areas as catalysts for regional development. In this view the process of urbanization facilitates the transition of rural areas into conurbations of urban sub-urban units scattered in a predominantly rural landscape”.

This urban-centered approach, which focuses on the separation between rural and urban contexts, suggests that the urbanization process would lead to urban sprawl and ongoing encroachment of the countryside. The consequence is spatial fragmentation, which will in turn leads to imbalance of the ecosystem, thereby raising further concerns for ecological sustainability of Chinese mega urban regions.

Using empirical evidences gathered from the Lower Yangtze Delta, this study explores how development patterns in China since the 1950s have been significantly shaped by indigenous practices of guanxi (networks) and the onset of rural reforms. These processes have led to ongoing diffusion of settlements with formation of new networks and functional clusters of enterprises scattered over the countryside. Consequentially, this mode of productivity has in turn reshape the relationship between the natural environment, economy and local communities.

Building upon Vivienne Shue’s hypothesis of intertextures and McGee’s formulation of Desakota, this study draws attention to the spatial and social implications resulting from the overlapping processes of diffusion and polarization. It ultimately argues for an urgent need to reconsider the programmatic sequence that underlie the morphology of the mega urban region through an examination of the interactions between physically disjointed systems.