How could 3D city modelling improve planning in London?

Wednesday 17 December 2014

How could 3D city modelling improve planning in London?
That was the question posed to a group of eminent practitioners in design, planning and 3D simulation techniques, brought together by NLA as part of the Smarter London series.

Andy Hudson Smith, director at the Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis at University College London said after leading the world in this kind of technology our position had waned, but it was now time for a free, open, 3D map of London which the mayor’s office and local councils – perhaps even the public – could use. But one of the questions was over quite who would pay for it. ‘The world is not flat and we should not be communicating it in a flat way’, he said. Technology and software has also moved on dramatically. ‘We can build Rome in a day’, he said. Models can also be enhanced with urban modelling data such as land prices, air pollution, urban flows on Oyster Card, or even social network feeds, using software aimed at the games sector. ‘I think there is a need to share and put it online in an open source manner. It should be about how we begin to join it all up.’

GMJ’s Didier Madoc-Jones said his firm first accurately aligned 3D data into real world imagery in 1994 and that they created their own surveyed 3D model of Central London in 2004 as they have to use models which have a ‘finesse’ that is extremely accurate for planning applications.

Since then the visualisation industry in London has been providing a 3D view of sites in a world-leading way as a response to the complexity of view controls laid across the capital.

He suggested the planning system is too reactive and it be helpful to provide the GLA and other planning authorities with more 3D planning data and associated 3D tools to enhance design-led planning advice wherever possible. 

Miller Hare’s John Hare questioned whether there will ever be a single model, but this was more about agreeing some simple ground rules. We are all ‘fantastically enabled’ in the UK, he said, because we trust the lingua franca of the OS data, and we can agree on terminology of detail, although the slippery concept was around accuracy. ‘It will never be a single model. It will just be a data flow.’ A commercial company, Zmapping, has lowered the cost of the data to an affordable level – Miller Hare has around 100km2 under licence and pays around £40,000 a year for that.

Rollo Home, Senior Product Manager, Detailed Content & 3D, Ordnance Survey, said that things had changed dramatically since his firm’s early brushes in this area and that any local authority can now access building height data to enable a block view. Today, OS sees its role not in producing visualization or high-end geometry extraction. ‘It’s in providing that consistent reference framework that allows people to operate in 3D’, said Home. BIM drivers and smart city applications in particular will require a level of analysis which will require this kind of level of data.

Ryder’s Peter Buchan set up the BIM Academy as an independent research and consultancy organization, largely because of a frustration about the difficulty of getting integrated modeling. The key thing is agreeing what the base data should be, he said.

So how might data from 3D modelling be used to improve the planning and coordination of key projects? For Colin Wilson of the GLA the authority started ‘active planning, rather than reactive’ in 2008 through Zmapping around Vauxhall Nine Elms, which was attractive because the affordable plug-in software could enable his team to use the modelling, and in public exhibitions. ‘We’ve taken that out to the boroughs and said: ‘You can do this as well as we can because it is not complicated. The take-up on that has been very mixed’’. The technology has improved to such an extent that a GLA colleague created an app for the Euston area, he added. ‘The brilliant thing we have in London, said John Hare, ‘is all the stuff that has been unleashed by releasing real time TfL data.’ This has pushed forward all sorts of applications: ‘If we can agree a very base level, a coordinate system, a unit system, a very simple naming system, and a list of parameters that we can all use, then we are all up and running.’

Westminster is looking at 3D modelling in a proactive approach as part of its growth agenda on key streets including Edgware Road, Oxford Street Tottenham Court Road and others, said John Walker, Operational Director – Development Planning at Westminster Council. This is a double-edged sword, as sometimes prices are raised when owners see such potential. Accuracy is also important, but the vast majority of applications Westminster receives are not for ‘Shards’, said Walker, but for an extra floor here, an extension there. ‘That’s how the vast majority of London is growing’, he said. ‘A proper 3D model has to capture all of that’. Neither should we get carried away with aerial projections or fairground rides. ‘What is crucial for us is the ground floor view’, especially in such a historic area…It is inevitable that 3D modelling is going to become part of the decision-making process. But it can only do that if it is accurate’, and requires needs a one-size fits all planning portal, especially when most applications are submitted by small practices – some of whom still submit drawings on ‘linen’. ‘It is about having a common language, so we become technology independent’, said Rollo, ‘and we’re not confined to a particular software type’.

Other cities offer examples, including Seattle, where Parsons Brinckerhoff has been working on a model since 2008, mainly to help remodel the waterfront area of the city. This was primarily an engineering tool, said Rupert Green, with embedded functionality to test various transport plans. But it has been built upon with increasing layers of functionality and has been used as a ‘shopfront’ to help sell development plots. It has also even been used to test for natural disasters, even an offshore earthquake, which led to the reconfiguring of a raised, double-stacked highway – ‘a disaster waiting to happen’ – into a tunnel. It is thus a good example of a multi-layered engineering model with interdependencies between different parameters including transport, energy, and structures. Over time that model grows, and that type of work is beginning in London with the work that TfL are doing. ‘The learning from overseas is very much understanding what level of detail you need, and understanding the applications that this model is going to be used for’, said Green. Certainly, models help when it comes to consultations and getting developments across to the public. ‘Whenever the GLA does consultations, said Wilson, ‘If there is a 3d model in it we always get a lot more responses. If it is just plans, most people think ‘what has this got to do with me?’ Just simple 3D visuals are terribly powerful as a way to engage.’ Models can also help when it comes to determining the aggregate impact on the road or power network, added Green, allowing users to understand the ‘headroom’ users might have, and avoiding overspecifying.

Finally, GL Hearn’s Shaun Andrews said that 3D modeling has a ‘huge part to play in re-energising the planning system’ but was of questionable use in the vast majority of applications, and the accuracy required changes from strategic to the domestic situation. The frustrations Andrews finds at the moment are at the choice and procurement of different types of modelling, and the expense involved in visualizing projects.

If we enable data to be dynamic and shared then we will be able to see its impact on the immediate neighbourhood as well as the broader context at city scale, said Alan Shingler of Sheppard Robson. Dr Kril Stanilov of CSIC agreed, said as we enter a ‘new era of urbanization globally’, will see cities become more complex, dense, and mixed use. ‘From that point of view I think 3D models will be indispensible in the future’.

David Taylor, Editor, New London Quarterly         

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