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I am looking for the closest word which refers to the changes that occur in a place, such as a town or city, over time. The word "development" is often used, but that seems to imply that the place is expanding or modernizing, when I need a more general term which does not have this implication. A professional term, such as one used in the field of urban planning, is preferred.

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Do you know of an equivalent word in another language? Perhaps that will help some understand the exact meaning you're after. –  congusbongus Jun 27 '13 at 1:54
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12 Answers 12

I think this is best described by "evolution." It can be used in whatever form works in context. For example, "The town had evolved into a place he no longer recognized."

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+1, but, strictly speaking, while "evolution" implies "change", "change" doesn't always imply "evolution". In fact evolution is what it is, whereas "devolution" is a bit different thing, just the contrary. –  user19148 Jun 23 '13 at 7:30
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@Carlo_R. I think you're taking "evolution" to imply something positive and good, but I take it to mean change of any kind. In other words, even "devolution" is a form of "evolution." It's a shorthand way of saying "negative (or degenerative) evolution." If you look at my example sentence, would you assert that "evolved" is wrong, or can't be used in that way? I don't think so. Yet the sentence strongly implies that a negative change has occurred. –  John M. Landsberg Jun 23 '13 at 7:50
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90% of the time, the word 'changes' would probably be happily used. –  Edwin Ashworth Jun 23 '13 at 10:24
    
@Carlo_R. The origin of evolve is ex volvere, to turn or roll out of. While we think of development as moving toward more complex, and "better", some evolution lead to over specialization, extreme characterisicts (such as oversized antlers) and extinction. In sum evolve means change not improve. –  bib Jun 23 '13 at 19:12
    
@EdwinAshworth You're quite correct. I simply had the sense that since the OP included "changes" as the starting point, he was looking for something else. I would point out to him that he can accept your reassurance that something else like "evolve" is a good option, but there's nothing wrong with "changes" in the first place. –  John M. Landsberg Jun 24 '13 at 5:27
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I think change is entirely appropriate here.

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Succession could work here.

In ecology, "succession" is defined as:

The gradual and orderly process of ecosystem development brought about by changes in community composition and the production of a climax characteristic of a particular geographic region.

Typically, "succession" suggests that a predictable sequence is at work, such as can be expected during "primary succession," which characterizes the transformation of an environment from barren new substrate (ie. lava) to pioneer species (ie. lichen) growth to "climax community." An analogous process may be said to occur during the evolution of an urban environment.

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The term morph can mean

to transform or be transformed completely in appearance or character: he morphed from nerd into pop icon

Derived from metamorphosis, it is commonly used to refer to images, but can also be found in other contexts.

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How about transform? –  Jim Jun 24 '13 at 2:49
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How about transmogrify? –  Cyberherbalist Jun 27 '13 at 22:36
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I'm not entirely satisfied with it, but I do like the word vicissitude. The OED gives this definition for it:

  1. a. The fact of change or mutation taking place in a particular thing or within a certain sphere; the uncertain changing or mutability of something.

Dictionary.com gives:

A change or variation occurring in the course of something.

Vicissitudes has its own slightly idiomatic meaning, which suggests a more particular kind of change than implied in the above definitions:

successive, alternating, or changing phases or conditions, as of life or fortune; ups and downs: They remained friends through the vicissitudes of 40 years. [Dictionary.com]

You asked for a word that means "changes". Note that vicissitude describes the fact of change, not the changes themselves. I have assumed that that is what you are looking for, given that other words you have used in your question (e.g. expansion, modernization) also describe the fact of a particular kind of change. Development can mean both the process and the result.

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I think that the most suitable word depends on the time frame and the scale of view that you have in mind for observing the changes.

If you are tracking changes in an entire town or city over the course of several centuries, for example, transformation might be appropriate.

If your view is more day-to-day and close-up, alterations might work.

And if your focus is on undirected change—that is, change seen neither as progress toward a higher state of organization nor as some kind of predictable process—mutability might be a good choice.

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I've looked at the answers here and I don't agree.

For example the top answer 'evolve' would certainly imply the town got better. Evolve pretty much means develop so you can't use that answer.

For example 'the town evolved into a bustling metropolis'

But if the town became worse, you wouldn't really say 'the town evolved into a dump' you would probably use regressed.

There is nothing wrong with what you used (changed) if you do not want to state if it became better or worse.

If you want to say it changed for the better, use 'developed' and if you want to say that it become worse then use 'regressed'

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On the other hand, devolve is not an antonym for evolve. All changes are evolution, in a sense. The opposite of evolution is stagnation. –  Patrick M Jul 2 '13 at 16:25
    
Did you check the dictionary for evolve? –  Aaron Jul 4 '13 at 20:41
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I do not think there can be a single-word substitute for the idea of "changes taking place in an area with time."

There are at least two distinct aspects to the changes: physical-geographical and demographic-cultural.

Tucker Sharon reviewed Carl Ortwin Sauer's "The Morphology of Landscape (1925)" in his blog. Extracts:

… the natural landscape as a static baseline for culture-induced change. This is where he finds geognosy – “which regards kind and position of material but not historical succession” (334) – should be the primary science that cultural geographers should concern themselves with.

Over the course of this essay Sauer develops two formulae: one describing the natural landscape and the other describing the cultural landscape. The natural landscape is described as the combination of forms designated by climate, land (surface, soil, drainage and mineral resource), sea and coast, and vegetation as they have been shaped through time by geognostic, climatic and vegetational factors. (337) The cultural landscape is the combination of population (density and mobility), housing (plan and structure), production and communication forms as they have been articulated by culture through the medium of the natural landscape. (343) Again, Sauer stresses that causality and change with time come from cultural processes, not natural ones. [emphasis mine]

Currently, geographic morphology (geomorphology) and cultural morphology as distinct disciplines study the "changes taking place in an area with time."

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The maturation of the city sounds neutral to me but implies time. (progression, furtherance, unfolding - tech: ontogeny/ontogenesis)

Just some ideas for you.

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Aside from what everyone else has said, I would say that a place was going through a transition. Granted it's more of an idiom than one single word, but there's my contribution.

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From the thesaurus, I see fancy words like

  • advancement
  • betterment
  • enrichment
  • augmentation

As well as "evolution."

I'd use "evolution" or "advancement."

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What about variation, modulation or mutation?

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