Urban Morphometrics and generative design:
a collaborative experiment in Kochi, India

UNICITI is an international consultancy and think tank with the mission of “helping Asian cities become sustainable, climate resilient, economically competitive, socially inclusive and culturally vibrant by reactivating their unique cultural and natural assets”. 

In September 2019 it launched “A Third Way of Building Asian Cities”, an initiative to find better ways to support their growth and sustainable development,  more appropriate than the “Business as Usual” (BAU) model and more up-scalable and impactful than contained niche innovations. A group of international experts took up the challenge, and our team is one of them. Together with professional volunteers we worked for over one year to test how to  use UMM to combine large scale of development and design quality in the planning and design process. 

We used as a test-case the Indian city of Kochi. The purpose of the work was to understand if and how  Kochi’s urban types can be recreated and used to respond in a contextually sympathetic manner to real development scenarios. 

Figure 1. Downtown of Mumbai (IN), example of BAU way of building (left) and vernacular huts in Kutch (IN), example of niche, sustainable and local context-tailored building solutions

We first performed the UMM approach to identify all distinctive Urban Types in its metropolitan area. A lack of input data to run the UMM taxonomy (we only had building footprints but no street networks), reduced significantly the number of (individual and contextual) characters we could use to perform the urban form classification. Interestingly, validation against historic data and local knowledge showed the classification was still strong, a very important result considering that the fewer input data is required, the more applicable is the UMM approach. This is particularly important for the ‘Third way’.

Figure 2. Morphometric taxonomy of Kochi. Buildings are color-coded according to their respective UTs and level of similarity.

We then selected a number of urban types to test for (urban) form generation. We first described each using only a handful of characters necessary to guide the generation of similar forms (we used the UK National Model Urban Design Code as reference) and then we instructed the volunteers to produce masterplans of a portion of each urban types only using the model type description, and their professional observation of the type properties and its immediate context. 

Finally, we devised a whole planning process, from a national UMM analysis, to the local description of urban types and the co-production of design codes (accounting for their UMM profile and local needs) for development. This whole process ties large scale detailed evidence-based information and local knowledge, thus avoiding the generalisation of BAU and overcoming  the difficult scalability of niche initiatives.

Figure 3. Sample sites with existing fabric (top left) and three different figure-ground design demonstrations (top rightbottom leftbottom right) proposed by three different designers, in compliance with the morphometric profile of UT1.