Our story

Urban morphology has used quantitative approaches to its modern beginnings in the 1960s. Since then, increasing computing capabilities and interdisciplinary explorations have  led, during the 1980s and 1990s, to more systematic approaches to the quantitative description of urban form: yet, technological and data limitations have constrained both the scale and, particularly, the comprehensiveness of the description. Some of them, such as Space Syntax, have established themselves as recognised approaches, or “schools”, within the urban morphology discipline. A third generation of quantitative analytics is now rapidly gaining momentum, taking advantage of ubiquitous urban data, new spatial technologies and analysis methods.  

As UDSU, we have worked since 2009 to understand and design adaptable, resilient places. Over the years, we have put in place an approach that uses both quantitative and qualitative methods, that is systematic and looks at the city as a system of connected parts. We have taught this in our MSc in Urban Design, attracting over the years a certain type of students and researchers, many of whom have remained with us for years, moving from Masters into PhD and then becoming colleagues. Jacob, Alessandra, Alessandro, Alex, Gordon, Adel and Martin are some of them. UDSU’s contribution to a quantitative study of urban form has grown with them.

A first nucleus of these ideas of a new, evidence-based evolutionary science of urban form named “urban morphometrics” dates back to 2011, with “Plot-based urbanism and urban morphometrics”. In 2015, we presented at the 22nd ISUF (International Seminar of Urban Form) conference in Rome the first results of a PhD study started three years earlier by Jacob Dibble, entitled: “Urban Morphometrics: Towards a Science of Urban Evolution”. It took four more years to reframe this conference paper into a proper scientific peer-reviewed publication: “On the Origin of Spaces: Morphometric Foundations of Urban Form Evolution”, written in collaboration with evolutionary biologist Mark Pagel and statisticians Mattia Zanella and Alexios Prelorendjos. This work introduced to the wider scientific community the foundations of urban morphometrics as a new way of describing urban form. Our approach explored a quantitative, systematic and comprehensive method to the classification of urban form. In this work, we also established a link with the notion of evolutionary change in urban form, which has become  a constituent part of our work ever since.

Alex John MaxwellAlessandro VenerandiAlessandra Feliciotti, Gordon Barbour and Adel Remali have developed further both ideas of UMM and evolutionary change through their work by testing quantitative measures of urban form at different scales, in different contexts and with different objectives in mind. 

The combined work we produced with this group, all part of the UDSU at Strathclyde, attracted sponsorship  from the Ax:son Johnson Foundation, which allowed us to start in 2017  the Urban Form Resilience project, and support  Alessandra Feliciotti’s and Martin Fleischmann’s doctoral positions at UDSU. Alessandra’s work aimed at defining and measuring in a consistent, replicable and precise way urban form resilience, through a set of indicators that could be applied at neighbourhood scale. This work, important per se, also contributed to UDSU’s urban design work, and in particular masterplanning, reinforcing our conviction that resilience is a fundamental property of ‘good’ cities, that should be a goal of urban design, and can be therefore pursued through design. 

Martin started his doctoral studies in 2017. By then, the mission was clear: to develop  a completely unsupervised method capable of achieving  high detail of information at extremely large scale (or “XL-scale”) of coverage. The method should also be comprehensive (not biased in the upfront selection of metrics) and scalable (rigorous, automatised and labour-parsimonious, i.e. applicable to extra-large scales of analysis – entire urban regions, entire national territories, entire continents, potentially the entire globe). Martin achieved all the above, completing in 2019 the first complete prototype of a fully unsupervised method for the numerical taxonomy of urban form. Less than two years later, we have a set of papers published that introduce the new research framework to a growing scientific community of urban morphometricians.

It has taken a long, long time, from our urban design students at the Polytechnic of Milan back in the early 2000s, with whom we assembled the first nucleus of what we now call “Local Urban Code”, to the method developed in years at University of Strathclyde with the passionate work of many, urban morphometrics is now a growing reality in continuous development.