3D models are the ‘go-to’ technology for cities and developers wanting to show off their projects, businesses selling 3D data and platforms are flourishing, and planning authorities are excited. However, its deeper significance to future urban wellbeing is still to be unlocked.
Who can resist the Google maps’ 3D button and the quick aerial swoop around your own neighbourhood it makes possible? No-one, that’s who. Because 3D is brilliant. It feels real. Much like, upon its arrival in the cinema, CGI immediately made stop-frame animation look clunky and unbelievably ‘not real’, so 3D modelling currently basks in a glory of heightened reality in comparison to its 2D forebears.
Designers, planners and engineers already use virtual worlds to fly around representations of their unbuilt plans. 3D BIM models are now standard practice in the engineering and architectural worlds, and we’re beginning to see these permeate into the planning system.
Recently Theo Blackwell, the London Chief Digital Officer, set out his ambition for a London 3D model ‘free at the point of use’ and Colin Ball from the Planning Inspectorate wrote about the use of 3D models in planning inquiries.
3D maps do indeed convey a number of aspects almost invisible on 2D maps, such as height and massing of buildings, enclosure of space and impact on city skylines. This realism can in turn improve communication for city planners and ease negotiation and decision-making processes affecting the built environment.
However, it’s critical to remember a number of factors that currently limit the full potential of 3D city models.
Greater depth is not the full-picture
Whilst the instinct to see the visual impact of the built environment is potentially a powerful tool for the planning system, it’s worth remembering it does have its flaws.
As highlighted by Guardian architect critic Olly Wainwright and the Tumblr site Development Aesthetics, 3D ‘renderings’ of developments can both turn off local communities and eventual owners, with less than accurate representations of the community, context and even the architectural finish of the building itself.
Equally, the accessibility of 3D models is limited; by the access allowed by real estate developers to their 3D models; the hardware, software, broadband speed and cost of licensing to access them; and by the accessibility of the raw data that makes up the 3D models, which is often not owned by or accessible to cities, who can’t then make this data open for research institutes and other startups.
Most significantly, 3D models currently tend to overly focus on a purely visual impact of a building, but imagine if they communicated broader economic, social and environmental impacts. These are the issues that planners are juggling on a day-to-day basis, the issues that members of the public will be most interested in and the ones that developers are paying for (via the Community Infrastructure Levy or section 106).
How many and what kind of jobs will the development create? How much tax will the local authority receive? How much new green space will be included? How much renewable energy will the development generate?
Standards are key
To fully unlock the potential for change and engagement 3D models represent, and ensure that they are both accessible and extendable to other uses, cities need to take an open standards driven approach that thinks beyond just the visual impact of development.
We need to think about City Information Models or Planning Information Models that allow the public, developers, planners, architects and software developers to all access the model, and see not just how it looks, but how new developments may impact on the street, neighbourhood and the city as a whole.
A key benefit of an open standards approach is the interoperability that comes from open source platforms and open data, increasingly commonplace in the built environment. This creates the potential for developers to add proposals to a central 3D repository of information on which planners can undertake their evaluation, the public can review the impact of development and software companies can build new products and services.
So, whilst 3D might for the moment just be the tip of the iceberg, it does also herald the evolution of an exciting new era for city planning. It means we can work towards a planning system of the future that is more agile, faster to produce, tweak and change. A system that, rather than thinking purely in terms of size and shape, could also start to also measure health, wellbeing, and happiness – and plan accordingly.
Future Cities Catapult is an innovation agency dedicated to improving urban living and helping businesses create and sell technologies that will shape the future of cities. Stefan Webb is the head of digitising planning and standards, and Nelio Matos is senior urbanist at Future Cities Catapult.