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A cognitive spatial approach to informal settlements (Advert Reference: RDF22/EE/ABE/VIALARD)

   Faculty of Engineering and Environment

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  Dr Alice Vialard  No more applications being accepted  Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

Concern over the sustainability of metropolitan urban footprints has reached new heights in recent years following the continued expansion of land consumption to accommodate an ever-growing urban population. One of the consequences of rapid urbanization is the development of informal urbanism currently hosting a quarter of the world’s urban population. The speed and scale of urbanization pose challenges to the existing structure of cities which often fail to provide the appropriate infrastructure for the new developments creating strong spatial inequalities.

In general, the perception of informal settlements is of a labyrinthine, chaotic and complex urban form, reinforcing prejudices about their safety and contributing to their segregation. Relying on quantitative methods developed in the fields of space syntax and urban morphology, the research will aim to understand the properties of urban public space embedded in its configuration and its form which participate in the spatial segregation. In addition, it will address the notion of spatial segregation and intelligibility from a cognitive perspective, examining in detail the cognitive mechanisms involved when experiencing urban structures and forms specifically related to informality.

The research will attempt to integrate all the different approaches into a single comprehensive framework. To establish this framework, the research will include:  

  1. Recording the evolution of urban informal areas
  2. Listing and benchmarking their mechanisms of growth;
  3. Measuring and linking formal and syntactical properties at the local scale (building, parcel, and block) to the global scale (street layout);
  4. Identifying cognitive properties associated to spatial segregation
  5. Clarifying the relationship between cognitive spatial properties and inequalities.

The research will borrow approaches and concepts from different fields (spatial cognition, computation, sociology, neuroscience & urbanism). It will include the use of Geographic Information System, descriptive statistics, graphic modelling and syntactical software.

The Principal Supervisor for this project is Dr. Alice Vialard.

Eligibility and How to Apply:

Please note eligibility requirement:

  • Academic excellence of the proposed student i.e. 2:1 (or equivalent GPA from non-UK universities [preference for 1st class honours]); or a Masters (preference for Merit or above); or APEL evidence of substantial practitioner achievement.
  • Appropriate IELTS score, if required.
  • Applicants cannot apply for this funding if currently engaged in Doctoral study at Northumbria or elsewhere or if they have previously been awarded a PhD.

For further details of how to apply, entry requirements and the application form, see 

Please note: Applications that do not include a research proposal of approximately 1,000 words (not a copy of the advert), or that do not include the advert reference (e.g. RDF22/…) will not be considered.

Deadline for applications: 18 February 2022

Start Date: 1 October 2022

Northumbria University takes pride in, and values, the quality and diversity of our staff and students. We welcome applications from all members of the community.

Funding Notes

Each studentship supports a full stipend, paid for three years at RCUK rates (for 2021/22 full-time study this is £15,609 per year) and full tuition fees. UK and international (including EU) candidates may apply.
Studentships are available for applicants who wish to study on a part-time basis over 5 years (0.6 FTE, stipend £9,365 per year and full tuition fees) in combination with work or personal responsibilities.
Please also read the full funding notes which include advice for international and part-time applicants.


Vialard A. (2021) Intelligibility of French historical towns: assessing the impact of 19th century urban interventions. In Proceedings of the 28th International Seminar on Urban Form. Strathclyde University, Glasgow, UK.
Zied, E., & Vialard, A. (2020) Reintegrating informal settlements into the Greater Cairo Region of Egypt through the regional highway network. Regional Studies, Regional Science, 7(1), 333-345.
Vialard A., & Zietsma R. (2020) Motion Features of digital path tracing in urban map navigation. In: Šķilters J., Newcombe N., Uttal D. (eds) Spatial Cognition XII. Spatial Cognition 2020. Lecture Notes in Computer Science, 12162.
Vialard, A. (2020) Cognitive assessment of “To” and “Through” movement in neighborhoods. Ecological and Environmental Architecture International, KIEAE (Korea Institute of Ecological Architecture and Environment): Seoul, Korea, Vol 1: 12
Zied, E., Vialard, A., & Dalton, R. (2019) Syntactic stitching II: Further developing urban interventions in Informal Settlements in Cairo, Egypt. Proceedings of the 12th International Symposium on Space Syntax: Beijing, China.
Zied, E. & Vialard, A. (2017) Syntactic stitching: towards a better integration of Cairo’s urban fabric. In Proceedings of the 11th International Symposium on Space Syntax: Lisbon, Portugal.
Sakellaridi, S., Christova, P., Christopoulos, V., Vialard, A., Peponis J., & Georgopoulos, A. (2015) Cognitive mechanisms underlying instructed choice exploration of small city maps. In Frontiers in Neuroscience: 9 (60), 1-12.
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