Urban metamorphology

Exploring the invisible form of the contemporary city

The urban form is a traditional object of enquiry in architecture and planning. Currently, digital connectivity challenges the power of physical space in explaining how we use and experience urban spaces. Whole new patterns of local, city-wide, regional, and international uses are emerging.

SPIN Unit provides a conceptual and analytic approach, metamorphology, to better understand the contemporary urban process and phenomena. Combining spatial configuration, known amenities, and the everyday activities people engage in, the metamorphological approach paints a novel view of the city.

“Meta” comes from the Greek prefix μετά-, meaning “after” or “beyond”. In English it indicates a concept that is an abstraction from another concept or set of types.

“Morphology” means the study of the urban form and its types – be it in geography, biology, or urbanism.

With “urban metamorphology” we refer to the invisible form of the city, the footprint of our digital traces, the collective image of the physical place that emerges from cultural artefacts.


In architecture and urban planning, a rich tradition of analysis and practice considers physical space and spatial configuration as the main set of constraints that shape flows of people and direct the evolution of urban activity patterns. Space is seen as the "machine" (Hillier, 1996) that drives change and opens up development opportunities.
We challenge this view and argue for a fresh view on urban dynamics, a view that puts the activities people engage in buildings and public urban space on par with the layout of the physical space. We claim that architects, planners, and developers can influence the evolution of cities both by fostering new activities and by intervening in the design of the physical space.

Interaction studies

We prioritise the use of data sources that are easily accessible, available, and that remain valid across countries and social strata. Harvesting data from different sources allows us to abandon traditional survey methods, and rely almost exclusively on new technologies.
By sifting through the wealth of data collected by sensors across the city and social media, we can perform partially automated digital surveys that provide new insight into social patterns, as well as into the way the city is lived and perceived.
Using these methods we can understand not only the relationship between different groups of people and the city, but also the untapped potential of specific locations. We can highlight issues, and turn what appear to be design problems into interaction problems.

Perceptible cities

Our goal is never to just build a complex, multi-dimensional data set to mine for potentially meaningful relationships. Using digital surveys enables the same penetration as ordinary interviews and surveys, with techniques that allow us to reduce the influence and biases introduced by the interview itself, a strong deviation from the traditional Kevin Lynch perspective.

In addition, using these same processes and techniques one can evaluate the impact of the project after it has been carried out. We hope to detect a perceivable impact on the urban population, including those people who don’t use or are not necessarily affected by the urban features in question.

Changing the planning practice

This approach can be used extensively across the entire planning, design, implementation, and evaluation processes. The take-away message is not about looking into existing scenarios for ways in which this new attitude to data collection and analysis can be deployed. Rather, we would like to promote a renewed awareness of new technologies and metamorphological tools, and how they can be used to tackle new problems alongside existing techniques today, next year, or in the next decade.

Selected publications & presentations

  • R. Puusepp, T. Lõoke, D. Cerrone, and K. Männigo, “Simulating Pedestrian Movement”, Humanizing Digital Reality, 547–557 (2018)
  • J.L. Baeza, D. Cerrone, and K. Männigo, “Comparing Two Methods for Urban Complexity Calculation Using the Shannon-Wiener Index”, WIT Transactions on Ecology and the Environment 226, 369-378 (2017)
  • R. Puusepp, D. Cerrone, and M. Melioranski, “Synthetic Modelling of Pedestrian Movement”, Spatial Analysis. Urban Context 2, 473–481 (34th eCAADe Conference, 2016)
  • In J. Frenzel and R. Viljasaar, “Parallel Cities”, Topos 94, 104–109 (2016)
  • D. Cerrone, “Urban meta-morphology. Revealing the invisible image of the city”, Culture Analytics Beyond Text: Image, Music, Video, Interactivity and Performance, IPAM (2016)
  • SPIN Unit, “A Sense of Place: Exploring the potentials and possible uses of Location-Based Social Network Data for urban and transportation planning in Turku City Centre”, Turku Urban Research Programme’s Research Report 1 (2015)
  • In R. Smite, L. Manovich, and R. Smits, “Data Drift. Archiving Media and Data Art in the 21st Century” (2015)
  • D. Cerrone, “Instagram reveals”, xyHt (Sep. 2015)
  • D. Giovannini, “Towards interaction-based urban design”, TEDxTallinn (2014)
  • G. Varna, and D. Cerrone, “Making the publicness of public spaces visible: from Space Syntax to the Star Model of Public Space”, EAEA-11 Conference Proceedings, Envisioning Architecture, 101–108 (2013)
  • D. Cerrone, and P. Lehtovuori, “CONTOUR. Consolidate ownership negotiation tool for urban restriction. The case of Põhjaväil” (2011)

In the media