Cities are constantly changing, as well as the ways in which we analyse them. Damiano Cerrone, co-founder of Spin Unit, a consulting and research lab, tells about a new approach to urban research, the role of data in contemporary policy making, and how urban planning is turning into interaction planning.
Why do you think urban research requires a new approach today?
“When we talk about urban elements, we often think of their tangible features. If I close my eyes and try to picture a building, I will most likely see a facade, windows, entrances, etc. Nowadays, however, every element of the city, from buildings to people, has both a physical and digital form.
“Social media and user-tailored advertising platforms have created new kinds of social relations and economic activities that don’t necessarily depend on physical space. Today, a vibrant and attractive place, being a valuable commercial asset and a key resource for urban development, is no longer exclusively determined by centrality and visibility. On the contrary, it is defined by intangible digital bonds that challenge the power of physical location.”
“This has shifted the mantra of “location, location, location” to “communication, communication, communication”, presenting a new challenge for contemporary architecture to attract users in physical space and guarantee their permanence there.”
You developed your own research methodology, can you tell us about it?
“To gain a deeper understanding of contemporary cities we use an approach called “metaMorphology”. It is based on 3 pillars: Space, Activities and Value. For instance, if we are standing in front of a store, we see the building and the public space around it (Space). We see employees and customers, walking in and out, or people who simply pass by (Activities). At the same time, this store can be present and active in the digital space. Producing tweets, Instagram pictures and Foursquare check-ins, it changes the landscape of real estate and the economy of its surroundings (Value).
“In our work, we measure the spatial and configurational properties of urban spaces, local human activity patterns and socio-cultural value. Using information from different sources, including classical statistical and social media data, we rank the popularity and attractivity of the place and map the actual activities instead of formal functions of spaces and buildings. This gives us an overview of evolving patterns and emerging trends.”
How did you use this method in your projects?
“MetaMorphology effectively becomes a proxy to measure the outputs of the interactions between people and the city. During the last couple of years, I have used this method in an extensive collaboration with Strelka KB, a Moscow-based urban planning consultancy. Applying our approach, we’ve effectively explored contemporary urban trends in 80 Russian cities and got valuable insights about places with very little statistical data available. These discoveries helped us define knowledge-based guidelines to boost the social and economic life of streets and public spaces and improve the quality of life.
“Another, more practical and direct use of my method is Turku Open Platform (TOP), developed for the City of Turku in Finland. The interface allows city planners, officials and other specialists to explore the relations between Space, Activities and Values, test the potential benefits of future urban scenarios, as well as to plan and review urban policies.”
You call yourself an “Interaction Planner”. How do you think a planning profession is changing today?
“I prefer the term ‘interaction planner’ to ‘urban planner’ because de facto our profession is no longer limited to urban space. More on, while it is possible to make a distinction between urban and rural space with demographic and morphometrical indexes, urban life is now diffused beyond the conceptual and political borders of one city.
“Today, we can’t untangle the intricate relationships between places and the digital footprint people create while interacting with them. Having focused my study on the blend of activities and temporal patterns intrinsic to physical spaces, I came to the conclusion that successful places are those capable to provide a good interaction with the users. And that is what the planning profession is all about today.”