The urban design of a place can reveal its complex social, economical, cultural, political and environmental characteristics; its appropriate development is crucial to maintain place identity and continuity for inhabitants. How to deal with the tradition and past of a place is therefore important for designers and decision-makers, especially in historical contexts pressured by fast-paced transformation under the impact of global change. This paper will introduce a method based on theories on western building typology and urban morphology as a design approach to maintain and rebuild place identity, cultural and social sustainability in historic areas undergoing rapid transformation. Such theories have been developed and tested in the European context for more than two hundred years to analyse the morphological character of a place over time. This paper is a study of their potential relevance and applicability within the Chinese context – it consists of a documentary phase (1), which uses typomorphological theories to trace the formation and transformation of urban form over time (a process to date not fully explained), and of a design phase (2) based on historically and culturally significant urban elements (seven) identified in phase 1 at hierarchical scales. These are general plan; significant silhouettes at the city scale; streets and street networks; urban blocks at the district scale; urban public spaces at the block scale; public buildings and houses at the building scale. The evolution and cultural significance of each element is examined across several periods and is based upon concepts of type, typological process and morphological region. The rationale of this study is that tradition should be perceived as a dynamic process carrying cultural continuity, and that urban form is a strong vehicle to deliver such continuity because it is shaped over time by social, economical, political and demographic changes. The paper will present in detail the conceptual framework and methodology for fast transitional places in the Chinese context, with a focus on historical urban areas under strong pressure of modernisation. In Phase 1, a case study of the oldest region of Nanjing, which has more than 2500-year history of urban construction and strong historical presence, will be briefly documented in terms of its physical and spatial characteristics. The outcome of Phase 1 on the case study place informs the design phase in order to carry on those long-lasting characteristics in further development of the region and maintain its cultural identity. The paper will discuss the impact of design suggestions generated in Phase 2 on design control, management and decision-making, coding, bylaws and public participation. Moreover, the paper will discuss the versatility of the method at various scales on the basis of its elements-based structures. This might in turn open the possibility to apply the principles of the method not only to historical areas, but also entire cities in different contexts.