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Digital Cities — test-driving a more user-friendly municipal design tool

Cities are complex and ever changing, and it can be difficult to effectively capture how each change will affect the city system as a whole. Autodesk’s new Digital Cities initiative may change all that. Geoff Zeiss of Autodesk and Dan Campbell of the City of Vancouver talked to Energy Management editor Rob Colman recently about how this might work.


April 17, 2009
By Robert Colman

As Zeiss, Director of Technology at Autodesk explains it, the idea for the company’s Digital Cities initiative grew from a presentation by Carl Bass at Autodesk University about three years ago. The current CEO of the company was then talking about how to integrate the very different technologies that the company possessed.

“We have manufacturing applications that engineers use to design mechanical tools, we have an architecture, engineering and construction division focused on building systems, we have a utility branch that works on telecom and public works design, and then we have people working on gaming engines for video games,” notes Zeiss. “The problem had been that, throughout the industry, in the past there hadn’t been an effort made to make these systems interoperable.”

By creating interoperability between these systems, Autodesk is creating a much more holistic system that can help cities by creating 3D urban models that not only look good but offer the depth of information required to make real decisions.

“If there’s one discipline that’s seeing incredible growth area right now it’s sustainable design,” says Zeiss. “And you can talk about sustainable design at a building level or a city level – being able to bring people together from different disciplines and creating a seamless digital environment for them to design in wouldn’t have been possible in the past, when architects, civil engineers, and utility designers had to work within non-interoperable technology silos.”

On the most basic level, the Digital Cities initiative is all about creating something that everyone understands.

“When you’re trying to convey to a mayor or city council or the citizen in the street what the implications of a new development are going to be, it’s very hard to do so with a bunch of paper drawings,” says Zeiss. “Consider the Alaskan Way Viaduct in Seattle, which has to be rebuilt. You can explain the impact of the elevated or underground alternatives using traditional blueprints as much as you want, but it’s not going to be as effective as a ‘live’ demonstration using a dynamic 3D simulation of what that change is going to look like.”

In a gaming environment, of course, you can create a model of the city, with cars moving in the streets, trains coming and going, all in a photo-realistic environment. A two-minute video simulation conveys the two alternatives for the Alaskan Way much more effectively to a non-technical audience than hundreds of blueprints.

Most large cities aren’t new to 3D urban modeling. In fact, Vancouver has had its own 3D model for more than 10 years.

“Ours started out as something quite basic, and over time we’ve added more content and functionality to it,” says Dan Campbell, Manager of Graphics for the City of Vancouver. “We were getting to the point where it was turning into a pretty good model, but we realized we had a lot of issues around it. For instance, there were only about three staff members that had the skills and training in the software to work with the model. To be a truly successful tool, one of the objectives was to get it into the hands of as many people as possible – staff, the public, the community at large.”

It was then that Autodesk first contacted the city to be part of their Digital Cities pilot project.

“The thought of being able to influence how that software would develop was a great motivator for us to join,” says Campbell.

Autodesk was drawn to Vancouver because of its popular VanMap website, which offers the public a substantial amount of information about the city — locations of municipal buildings, roadwork and closures, trails, and much, much more. Creating a more sophisticated 3D modeling system for the city is a natural extension of what the city has been attempting with the existing VanMap website — offering the public richer information.

One of the reasons the city first developed a 3D model was to better understand “view protection” issues. Vancouver has municipal bylaws that say that if you are standing on Canby Street Bridge, for instance, you have to be able to see Grouse Mountain. These view protection bylaws are very well defined but very hard to calculate using 2D drawings.

Rules like this are requiring architects and engineers around the world to do more complex modeling on buildings than they ever did before. Zeiss points to Sir Norman Foster’s Gherkin in London as a good example of this.

“There are ‘right to light’ bylaws in London, which means if you build a building that puts someone else in shadow, the city planning folks get involved,” he explains. “The result is, you’re seeing a lot of very interesting buildings being designed to minimize the shadow the building will throw.”

So the days of architects designing buildings in isolation is gone, according to Zeiss. “What I suspect you’ll see is that if you design a building, you will have to supply a Building Information Modeling (BIM) model to the city so that they can model what the impact of the building will be as far as solar radiation, wind analysis, natural lighting in nearby buildings, etc.”

It’s this complex data that Campbell is hoping to be able to generate through the Digital Cities initiative. “Complex airspace issues are something I’m interested in. For instance, how do we define on a site that up to 20 metres certain regulations apply and beyond 20 metres others apply? The same kind of challenge is raised with mixed-use buildings. How do we visually represent the complexity of a building’s function – the mix of commercial, residential and community space? Just from basic tests, we know that being able to do analysis of the environments is much richer in 3D than it is in 2D.”

What Autodesk is bringing to the table is all the tools that will allow any municipality to populate a 3D model with photorealistic streetscapes, transportation corridor models, utility corridor models, and the modeling of the interiors of buildings.

“Creating a smarter model means integrating architectural and engineering designs for buildings and other structures, which are increasingly captured as BIM models, transportation, utility and telecommunications network information, and traditional geospatial maps, and making it so that this urban model is accessible to many more people,” explains Zeiss. “Who can actually see these models and do something with them? We want urban 3D models to be accessible to smaller municipalities that don’t have the skills or budget that larger cities have to develop and maintain these models.”

Campbell is enthusiastic — the more information the city can provide during the development process, the better.

But perhaps the most important benefit the initiative will bring to Vancouver in the short term is a better tool for informing the public.

“One of the things that has long been known to us is that while it’s pretty straightforward for staff or professionals to understand 2D drawings, the general public can have a very difficult time of it,” he explains. Starting with a 3D rendering, everyone is starting from a common, shared concept of a development.”

As cities try to create more sustainable environments in coming years, this integrated model should make the process easier to manage – particularly in modeling new and existing buildings for LEED certification within those cityscapes.

Watch for updates on the Green Business website as this pilot project continues.

The Digital Cities initiative is also being pursued in Incheon, Korea and Salzburg in Austria.