Virtual Reality Urban Planning

*This article was published in contribution to the new frontier of Intelligent Reality (IR). Click here to learn more about the 2022 IEEE 2nd International Conference on Intelligent Reality (ICIR).

On first glance, Urban Planning and Virtual Reality might seem like an odd pairing. Urban planning often brings to mind a picture of a faceless and nameless bureaucrat hidden away in a basement somewhere. But in truth, modern cities are incredibly complex systems and planning them effectively is incredibly challenging. Urban Planning increasingly requires not only a diverse range of skills, but the ability to ingest, process and interpret an enormous amount of ever changing data. Obviously, effective urban design has to consider current and future city planning. But urban design also must consider traffic, transit needs, affordable housing, the impacts of climate change, the effects of new construction on the rest of the city, and many many other factors. If you are lucky enough to live in a Smart City, you may have even more data available to you to aid in urban planning and urban design. But for the urban planner in a regular, non smart city, it may be much harder to gather the information they really need.

One universal strength of virtual reality is its ability to display, and enable interactions with, complex data. Humans have evolved to be highly visual creatures, and virtual reality technology can really take advantage of that. The same is largely true for augmented reality and mixed reality too. Imagine your urban environment represented by a 3D model. Animated live data feeds can be overlaid on that 3D model to show live and historical traffic, transit, weather and energy data. City planners can explore the impact of different changes in virtual reality without impacting the real world at all. And they can explore those changes faster and more effectively in virtual reality than any other medium.

Urban Planning as a VR experience puts the urban planner at the center of the process. It empowers them to more fully explore their options for urban design, streamlining planning and making any city smarter, even if it isn’t technically a smart city. Using Virtual reality in planning also makes urban design far more shareable. A virtual reality experience can be presented to a wide range of stakeholders, enabling a broader range of more informed feedback.

Role of virtual reality in urban planning

What are the principles and goals of urban planning? The goals are deceptively simple: provide a better, more efficient experience for everyone within a particular urban area. Of course, the reality is that this requires the synthesis of a complex set of needs and data inputs. In general, city planners try to adopt some simple principles to help them reach this goal. Urban planning and urban design has to engage with the community they are serving, and collect both quantitative and qualitative data. For example, a new freeway might be the most effective in terms of cost and construction time if it goes through the heart of a city, but that could also have a disastrous impact on certain neighborhoods and the lives of city inhabitants. Urban planning has to consider the overlap between different systems. Cities are a complex set of systems, each with different needs and criteria for success. These can include traffic, transit systems, utilities, housing, commercial space and support for businesses, climate change and climate impact, and many others. Smart cities strive to make collecting this type of data easier. In a smart city, such data might be collected and aggregated automatically, but in any city, the data should be used to inform the urban design process. Urban planning also has to contend with people’s opinions, politics, local and federal regulations, safety concerns and many other factors.

Fortunately, tools like Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality are exceptionally good at displaying information. In the case of urban planning, Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality both have roles to play. Virtual reality enables an urban planner to explore many different urban design scenarios and explore their impact. For example, what is the proposed impact of a new skyscraper? VR technology can be used to create a virtual environment and explore the building’s impact in terms of sunlight, shadow, reflected sunlight, wind and traffic flow. There are countless anecdotes from major cities around the world concerning examples of buildings that either made neighborhoods too dark due to shadow, or too bright due to reflected light. Major construction can also create wind-tunnels between buildings that present a hazard, or create pockets of “dead” air where pollution skyrockets. And of course, every city has its traffic problems. All of these factors can be modeled and explored in a virtual reality simulation.

Augmented reality can also be used in the field, to visualize planned changes overlaid on the actual environment they will take place in. This allows an urban planner to actually “see” the impact of a proposed urban design.

In a best case scenario, all of this data is combined with a 3D model to create a full digital twin of the entire urban area. As digital twins become more sophisticated, there may also be opportunities to enhance the urban planning process to better support sustainable development goals. A virtual reality application that displays a comprehensive digital twin driven by smart city data could be incredibly effective for urban planning.

In addition to helping with the process of urban planning, virtual reality and augmented reality can be useful tools for public participation too. Being able to actually show the impact of a project or proposed plan makes it far easier for the general public to appreciate the likely outcomes and be more engaged in the process. Encouraging participatory planning and stakeholder participation can help address concerns and streamline any urban planning project.

Uses of Virtual Reality in Urban Planning

Urban planning covers a wide range of topics, and city planners have to consider many factors in their urban planning scenarios. Examples include population growth, zoning, the geography of the area, utility supply capabilities (power, water, and waste), and a broad range of services from food supply to healthcare, education and social services. Other concerns can include traffic, transit options, green space and carbon footprint. It’s a long list of factors, and it makes any type of urban planning a complex undertaking.

But when city planners can create a virtual city using virtual reality technology, they can gain a whole new set of benefits. In a virtual world, anything is possible. Urban planning in virtual reality allows countless scenarios to be explored in detail. Impacts that could be missed when reviewing 2D drawings or spreadsheets can literally “come to life” in virtual reality. What’s more, planning can become more collaborative and inclusive. Interpreting a complex flow chart, design plan or spreadsheet requires training. Wearing a VR headset and seeing the results is something almost anyone can do. Any new building or new development can be evaluated in many different ways, ensuring that its impact can be thoroughly understood by all stakeholders. In a smart city, this process can be taken even further through the creation of a digital twin of the entire city. Smart cities can bring many other advantages too, from improved public safety to more efficiency infrastructure and better quality of life.

How virtual reality will change the way we plan a sustainable, smart city

As more of the world’s population migrates to cities, urban planners are increasingly concerned with sustainability and combating the effects of climate change. The UN’s sustainable development goals specifically call out the need for sustainable cities and communities, but they also reference many other goals that should inform the urban design of any sustainable city. These include good health and wellbeing, quality education, clean water and sanitation, affordable and clean energy, decent work and economic growth, industry innovation and infrastructure, responsible consumption, climate action, life below water, life on land, and peace justice and strong institutions. Groups like the World Economic Forum also support these goals.

In reality, the idea of a smart city is not new and many urban projects include a smart city initiative or similar component. However, urban planning for a truly sustainable city requires more than just smart technology. It must also acknowledge a broad range of implications, including the social and economic changes a sustainable city will create. As a report from McKinsey notes, “After a decade of trial and error, municipal leaders are realizing that smart-city strategies start with people, not technology.”

As already discussed, virtual reality and augmented reality can play a key role in urban planning. Virtual reality can create an immersive experience that helps to bridge the gap between raw data and understanding actual impact. Virtual reality also allows for efficient scenario testing. As artificial intelligence becomes more integrated with virtual reality and augmented reality, it is likely that the tools for urban planning will become better informed by real world data, and ever easier to use, resulting in urban planning that is both more efficient and more effective than ever before.

Challenges in adopting virtual reality in urban planning

Adopting virtual reality and augmented reality in urban planning is not without its challenges. While digital transformation is a popular topic in the enterprise world, the most recent iteration of virtual reality technology has been much more focused on consumer applications. Most of the readily available VR content does not easily translate to urban planning. This is primarily a reflection of the overall immaturity of the virtual reality market. The same is true for augmented reality, mixed reality and all forms of extended reality.

The market finally has a range of good VR devices, many of which are very affordable. A VR device that delivers immersive virtual reality is well within the budget of most people and organizations, and this is reflected in the growing adoption of VR.

However, the reality is that virtual reality tools and applications still have a long way to go. The authoring tools used to create VR content still require a very specific skill set, and creating virtual reality applications is challenging. Unfortunately, the situation is worse for AR technology and AR applications. While a true AR experience is impressive, it typically comes at a very high cost, requiring dedicated AR glasses that cost thousands of dollars. That is starting to change, but it’s still very early days in the life of augmented reality.

There are, of course, obstacles within urban planning itself. Like any domain that requires expertise, there are existing methodologies and tools that practitioners are comfortable with. Switching to virtual reality or augmented reality requires foresight, a willingness to experiment, and a level of technical understanding that many urban planners will find challenging. However, the rewards of fully using virtual and augmented reality could usher in a new era of urban development, positively impacting the urban landscape for all future urban planning and development


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