Urban Grammar AI research project

We know little about how the way we organise cities over space influences social, economic and environmental outcomes, in part because it is hard to measure.

Satellite imagery, combined with cutting-edge AI, can provide a source of data to track the evolution of the built environment at unprecedented detail.

This project develops a conceptual framework to characterise urban structure through the notions of spatial signatures and urban grammar, and will deploy it to generate open data products and insight about the evolution of cities.

GDSL University of Liverpool ATI


  • 04 September - Clustergram published in the JOSS

    The Python package Clustergram, developed in the early stage of this project, has now a software paper published in the Journal of Open Source Software (JOSS).

    In 2021, we have developed a small package for visualisation and diagnostic of cluster analysis to help us understand various clustering solutions when delineating spatial signatures. You can see the original post here. The package was furhter improved over the years and was recently published in the JOSS.

    Fleischmann, M., (2023). Clustergram: Visualization and diagnostics for cluster analysis. Journal of Open Source Software, 8(89), 5240, https://doi.org/10.21105/joss.05240

  • 20 April - Participation in JRC webinar

    On April 20th, Dani participated on a webinar organised by the Joint Research Centre and the Regional Studies association. The event was held on the occassion of the launch of a policy brief on the Future of Cities and focused on urban-rural interactions. Dani discussed the relevance of measuring the “urban” and the “rural” correctly, providing the Urban Grammar as an illustration. You can check out the slides he used in the talks page, both in HTML and PDF format.

  • 12 April - Participation in Taiwanese forum

    On April 12th, Dani participated as online speaker in an event organised by the Industrial Technology Research Institute (ITRI) in Taiwan. The event, named “Masters Gathering”, and organised for the National Science and Technology Council of Taiwan Government focused on artificial intelligence in the smart city. Dani provided an overview of the Urban Grammar to the audience. Sadly, he was not able to participate live due to illness, but managed to record a short video with the presentation. You can check out the slides he used in the talks page, both in HTML and PDF format.

  • 02 April - AAG’23 presentation

    On March 26th, Dani presented ongoing work at the AAG’23 conference. The talk was part of the Urban Analytics sessions co-organised between the Alan Turing Institute, Liverpool and Leeds, and focused on progress on using deep learning to predict spatial signatures from satellite imagery. As usual, you can find the slides in the talks page, both in HTML and PDF versions.

  • 07 December - Population, Space and Place paper

    Earlier this month, we had a paper the Urban Grammar team contributed to come out in Population, Space and Place. This was a collaboration with Francisco Rowe, Alessia Calafiore and Krasen Samardzhiev, with whom we spun off the ITINERANT project. The paper and code are both available open access/source.

    Rowe, F., Calafiore, A., Arribas‐Bel, D., Samardzhiev, K., & Fleischmann, M. (2023). “Urban exodus? Understanding human mobility in Britain during the COVID‐19 pandemic using Meta‐Facebook data”. Population, Space and Place, 29(1), e2637. https://doi.org/10.1002/psp.2637

    Published version (Open Access)

    Code repository

  • 15 November - Talk at the ONS Data Science Seminar Series

    Earlier this month, Dani presented the spatial signatures at the ONS Data Science Seminar Series, run by their Data Science campus. The talk covered most of the work undertaken to date on the project and it is a good summary of many of its achievements. You can access the series page here and watch the talk below:

  • 29 September - How to create a vector-based web map and host it on GitHub

    This is the map we have created for the Urban Grammar AI project. It is created using open source software stack and hosted on GitHub, for free.

    This post will walk you through the whole process of generation of the map, step by step, so you can create your own. It is a bit longer than usual, so a quick outline for better orientation:

    Vector tiles

    Zoom levels

    Tile format and compression

  • 28 September - Scientific Data paper

    The second output of the month, a very related one to the previous one! If in the Habitat paper we set out to describe the core concepts behind spatial signatures, in this one we showed it is possible to deploy at scale while retaining detail and consistency. We applied the notion of spatial signatures to Great Britain to create an open data product. Here are the full coordinates:

    Fleischmann, M., & Arribas-Bel, D. (2022). “Geographical characterisation of British urban form and function using the spatial signatures framework”. Scientific Data, 9(1), 1-15. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41597-022-01640-8

    Published version (Open Access)

    Code repository@Github (Web render)

    Intro thread@Twitter

  • 27 September - Habitat paper

    This month has been a big on in terms of academic outputs. The first one has been the conceptual paper putting forth many of the ideas that underpin much of the Urban Grammar project. Here are the full coordinates:

    Arribas-Bel, D., & Fleischmann, M. (2022). “Understanding (urban) spaces through form and function”. Habitat International, 128, 102641. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.habitatint.2022.102641

    Published version (Open Access)

    Code repository@Github

    Intro thread@Twitter

  • 27 July - The Spatial Signatures on ITINERANT

    Dani and Martin participated earlier this month in the stakeholder engagement workshop organised by the ITINERANT project. This was an event where the project presented final results to a series of stakeholders including the ONS Data Science Campus, the Liverpool City Region, or the UK 2070 Commission. The event was held in Liverpool but streamed online and the talks are available on YouTube now (Spatial Signatures starting at minute 23).

  • 15 July - Spatial Economic Analysis (SEA) Keynote

    Earlier this month, Dani delivered this year’s Spatial Economic Analysis keynote at the RSAI-BIS Annual Meeting in Sirling (Scotland). The talk provided an overview of the motivation and progress in the Urban Grammar project to date. The programme of the conference, including Dani’s keynote is available here. The slides Dani used are available in the usual repository (HTML and PDF).

  • 14 July - “Open by Default” talk at the RSS Merseyside

    Last month, Dani participated in the “Using open data sources” event put together by the lovely folks at the Merseyside chapter of the RSS and HiPy. There, he delivered the talk “Open by default - Developing reproducible, computational research”. You can find the slides on the usual place (or here and in PDF directly). The video is also available on YouTube:

    This was a similar, albeit refined, talk to the one he did in Chicago and it is great it is now available to watch online.

  • 01 July - World Urban Forum

    Last June, Martin and Dani attended the World Urban Forum. It was a fascinating experience in many ways. Dani wrote down his thoughts on a blog post you can read here.

  • 28 June - GeoPython

    Earlier this month, Martin represented the Urban Grammar at this year’s edition of GeoPython. During his time there, he kept himself rather busy. Here is a quick summary with references of all the bits he participated in:

    Delivered the talk “Open by Default - Developing reproducible, computational research” (slides available here)

    Co-delivered the talk “State of GeoPandas”, together with Joris Van den Bossche (slides available here)

    Co-delivered with Joris Van den Bossche the workshop “Scaling up vector analysis with Dask-Geopandas (materials available in this repo)

  • 18 June - Fifth Advisory Board

    On June 13th and 14th 2022, we held the last advisory board, but also the first one in person. For two days, Martin and Dani welcomed Alistair Edwardes (DEFRA) and Miguel Monteiry (INPE in Brazil) to discuss progress and next steps for the project. We missed Rachel Franklin (Newcastle/Turing), who managed to join remotely for one of the work sessions, and Isabel Sargent (Ordnance Survey). All in all, it was a productive visit that we hope will translate in further future collaboration and joint ventures with members of the board.

  • 10 June - Data in Brief paper

    This month saw a new paper/open data product of the Urban Gramar sphere see the light of day. As part of the spin-off ITINERANT project, and in collaboration with GDSL colleagues Krasen Samardzhiev, Alessia Calafiore, and Francisco Rowe, we published an open data product and data descriptor that presents a new classification of signatures entirely based on function. Here are the coordinates where you can find everything:

    Samardzhiev, K.; Fleischmann, M.; Arribas-Bel, D.; Calafiore, A.; Rowe, F. (2022). “Functional signatures in Great Britain: A dataset”. Data in Brief, 43. 10.1016/j.dib.2022.108335

    Published Version (Open Access)

    Code repository@Github

    Data product@Figshare

  • 09 June - ISUF Italy

    In early June, Martin attended the 6th ISUF Italy conference “Morphology and Urban Design. New strategies for a changing society”, organised by the University of Bologna in a hybrid mode (Martin was present online). We took the opportunity to talk about Detecting urban typology from multispectral satellite imagery using neural networks, where we combined the work we currently focus on in the Urban Grammar project and the one published in a recent CEUS paper. It allowed us to illustrate the application of remote sensing and neural networks on urban form in both supervised (detection of signatures from Sentinel 2) and unsupervised (the CEUS paper) use cases. With the audience composed of the ISUF community revolving heavilty around architecture, the talk started an engaging discussion on the current limits of openly available satellite imagery in the context of urban morphology.

    The talk itself was not recorded but the slides are available from the usual place on HTML (this time we couldn’t build a PDF for download satisfactorily).

  • 19 May - OS visit

    On May 17th and 18th, Martin and Dani spent a week visiting the Ordnance Survey in Southampton. The trip was planned as an institutional visit to exchange ideas, discuss the project and, more generally, interact with our advisory board member, Dr. Isabel Sargent and her team at OS Research.

    We had a fantastic time. We presented our current work on using computer vision, a bit of geographic magic, and satellite imagery to automate the recognition of our upcoming spatial signatures for Great Britain. You can check out the slides we used for that presentation in our usual talks repository in our two common formats:

    HTML for the browser

    PDF for download

    Beyond the purely scheduled, we had the oportunity to see OS from the inside and to chat to a lot of really clever people about our project, its value, and potential solutions to the challenges we’re currently facing.

  • 05 May - Chicago visit

    The first week of May, Dani visited the University of Chicago. As part of the trip, he (re-)connected with folks at the Center for Spatial Data Science and met a bunch of new friends at the Mansueto Institute for Urban Innovation. All in all, it was a fantastic week where there was even a bit of time to discuss all things urban form and function.

    On May 4th, he delivered the lecture “‘Open by Default’ - Developing reproducible, computational research” on open workflows for modern computational research at one of the GIS courses offered at Chicago and taught by Dr. Marynia Kolak. The slides of the talk are available at the Urban Grammar’s talks repository in our two common formats:

    HTML for the browser

    PDF for download

    This was a particularly tricky talk to conceive and prepare. Conceptually, it was a bit out of our “comfort zone” in that it is not really about the research we are doing at the Urban Grammar, but about the process we follow to realize it. It was also hard to structure it in a way that made sense because it pulled from many different aspects of the project, from the approach we take to writing slide decks to the computational infrastructure on which all of our computations rely. We are nevertheless happy with the outcome. It’s not ideal, and we will probably refine it in successive iterations (we’re planning on giving similar talks in the near future, stay tuned!), but this is a great start.

  • 25 April - CEUS paper

    This week saw the first peer-reviewed publication related to the Urban Grammar see the light of day. Full coordinates of the paper are available here:

    Singleton, A.; Arribas-Bel, D.; Murray, J.; Fleischmann, M. (2022). “Estimating generalized measures of local neighbourhood context from multispectral satellite images using a convolutional neural network”. Computers, Environment and Urban Systems, 95. 10.1016/j.compenvurbsys.2022.101802

    Published Version (Open Access)

    Code repository@GitHub

    Data repository@Dataverse