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Viewing Cities Through a Different Lens

  Published: 20 March 2018
  Theme: Smart Planning

3D modelling, virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) allow urban planners and residents to better visualise and assess the impact of future and ongoing projects on a city’s skyline, environment, and general aesthetic. Drones contribute to this process by providing high-resolution aerial photographs of buildings and spaces.


URA's 3D Urban Planner Pro.

3D models are important to architects and urban planners in the development of buildings. The ability to view buildings from a pedestrian’s perspective is invaluable.

“3D models ensure planners are able to take a pedestrian’s line of sight, catering for landmarks and greenery, which sit alongside new and existing buildings,” says Eugene Lau, Deputy Director (Urban Design Technology), at the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Singapore (URA).

The URA developed an in-house 3D modelling tool, the 3D Urban Planner Pro. “This system allows us to conduct exercises like line-of-sight studies. Planners can analyse views from a specific point within a building, like the room of a residential unit or from the roof of public building,” says Lau. 



Viewshed analysis to analyse viewable area from an onlooker perspective at Jurong Lake District, Singapore.

For the 3D modelling process — otherwise known as Building Information Modelling (BIM) — data is the most critical component. The ability to fuse data from a wide range of sources, such as building blueprints and satellite imagery, enables URA to develop their models.

URA also uses 3D models to engage with the community and demonstrate how a future planning project might look and feel. By showing residents these models, planners are able to receive instant feedback and make changes to their plans, if need be. “3D models are highly effective in conveying ideas, plans and strategies to stakeholders, as they are able to experience a fly-through or interact with the 3D models hands-on,” says Lau.

With BIM still in its infancy, there is much potential for this technology to advance. Lau views VR as a game changer: “Looking at a 3D model on a projector screen is very different from being immersed in a virtual space — especially when you’re trying to evaluate spaces like the courtyard of a building or a walkway on a street.”

Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality

Leveraging VR and AR, urban planners, architects, and civic authorities can now observe the development of cities in innovative ways: VR places the user inside a computer-generated, recreated simulation of the real world, whereas AR superimposes digitally-generated graphics on actual environments seen through the eyes of the user.

VR is increasingly being used to visualise new developments and engage citizens on proposed plans. French cities Paris and Bordeaux, for instance, use the Smart Favela app1, created by French tech firm Toolz, to allow residents to view current and future projects online, and provide feedback.

Netherland-based Tygron has created Engine2, a 3D geodesign platform that incorporates geographical information from a wide range of data sources, like photographs or building blueprints. Through Engine’s collaborative game simulation technology, planners and citizens can interact and express their design preferences for proposed virtual structures visually.

VR can also be used in urban planning research. The Future Cities Laboratory (FCL), under the Singapore-ETH Centre for Global Environmental Sustainability, has conducted two VR-based studies in Singapore to understand how some existing streets can be redesigned to encourage more cycling3

The studies fused VR software —3D models, traffic simulation and a 3D game engine — with physical hardware: a bicycle, a bike stand with a resistance unit, sensors and a tracking system, and a head-mounted display set. This set-up allowed participants to experience an alternative bike-friendly environment in some Singapore neighbourhoods. Public feedback was gathered and the data collected was used to identify new design strategies to encourage cycling.

In the field of AR, researchers at the UK’s Heriot-Watt’s Centre of Excellence in Sustainable Building Design and Linknode Ltd have developed the prototype mobile app UrbanPlanAR4. The app allows planners to obtain feedback on enhancements to existing buildings and realistically visualise changes and new structures such as different-coloured walls or building extensions.


Supporting the creation of 3D models, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) — commonly known as drones — enable city planners to view buildings and other structures in ways that were previously infeasible or impossible.

By being able to fly close to structures while equipped with powerful cameras and sensors, UAVs bring two distinct benefits to urban planners: a new, aerial perspective of buildings and other urban structures, particularly those with uneven or decorative roofs; and ultra-high-resolution visual representations of physical structures.

The use of drones to examine the built environment is, however, one step in a multiphase process. “For urban planners, drones are useful only when used in a directed way — capturing data to be processed into a form that supports decision-making,” explains Mark Yong, CEO and co-founder of Garuda Robotics.

“It is critical for the drone to capture the right information at the right points, so that the raw data can be transformed into 3D models or high-resolution maps of a building façade or roofing. More so than the raw data, it is these outputs that allow key questions to be answered, and actions to be taken, whether in the planning or remediation stage.”

Currently, drones utilise laser scanners for imaging. In the future, it may be possible to map an internal space with smartphones instead. The smartphones would scan external and internal spaces and within seconds relay an accurate representation to remote parties.


 Garuda Robotics drone examining a telecommunications tower in Singapore. (Image: Garuda Robotics)

Everyone Benefits

By looking at cities through a different, technologically driven lens, planners are able to develop a better understanding of the built environment. It also underlines the importance of daring to try new tools, and the need for cities to approach urban development from a new and unique perspective.

When piloting new tools, urban planners and technology firms should work in tandem to ensure that solutions are viable from a cost-efficiency and time-saving perspective. These new tools can help planners enhance the liveability of cities for residents by providing access to the unique viewpoints of each stakeholder.