In the past, the occasional intrepid architect would take on the laborious task of crafting a physical model of an entire city. In recent years, though, there’s been a proliferation of software that does the job instead, letting architects and urban planners visualise and test design scenarios long before construction starts. Some city models are even taking their cue from the realism and interactivity of video games.

To realistically model an entire urban area requires a huge amount of data to be drawn from various software programmes, so a recent trend has been the development of software that can incorporate diverse forms of data in one virtual environment. A new offering from Autodesk, LandXplorer, is one example. "Its purpose is to reference the data-generation and analytical capabilities of a whole suite of tools and bring that information into a common environment where it can be manipulated and viewed and compared," says Jim Farley, Autodesk’s senior product manager for digital cities technology.

Since purchasing the software’s developer, 3D Geo, last year, Autodesk has been working on improving LandXplorer’s compatibility with other Autodesk products. The software can also incorporate a huge range of other types of files, making it a good way of combining data that’s typically scattered throughout various city departments. Orthoimagery, digital terrain models, elevation models and 3D shape files can all be combined together in a LandXplorer Studio Professional model, along with information such as noise, reflectance, heat loss in buildings, climate and greenhouse gas emissions. Once all the data has been gathered, it’s possible to use LandXplorer to create a fairly realistic 3D model of a city of a quarter of a million people in less than a day, Farley says. A related product, LandXplorer Server, can be used to render the model and publish it to a server, so city officials and other stakeholders can see it online. Autodesk’s Digital Cities initiative – a pilot programme involving Vancouver, Salzburg, and Incheon – will help identify the software’s weaknesses and areas for further development.

Virtual city modelling

One major advantage of virtual city modelling is that it can help architects avoid mistakes and oversights by thoroughly planning and analysing their designs in advance, Farley remarks. "Cities are in the business of competing with one another, the ability to be able to capture the essence of a city with the underlying context of a particular event, so they can showcase their venues, publicising their city and what its strongest features are," he adds.

"To realistically model an entire urban area requires a huge amount of data to be drawn from various software programmes."

Arup’s Realtime is a bit like a computer game – it’s a service based on proprietary software for creating 3D environments that can encompass the scale of a building or an urban area, incorporating a range of information such as wind speed, the daylight factor, acoustics, shading, and pedestrian and vehicular movement. As the name implies, its virtual spaces can be navigated in real time, thanks to the use of computer-game graphics technology. So far it has been used in a range of projects, including Beijing’s National Aquatics Centre (aka the Watercube) and the redevelopment of London’s King’s Cross Station.

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For clients and stakeholders, Realtime’s interactive navigation means that they can virtually explore an architectural space to evaluate it without constraints, unlike in a canned animation. "This is more of an ‘open house’ type environment where you put forward more of a democratic view of the design," observes Alvise Simondetti, virtual design network leader of Arup’s foresight and innovation division.

The video game SimCity has inspired projects such as Growing Cities, created by SOM’s BlackBox Studio, which is devoted to R&D in advanced computational design tools. Growing Cities is a framework for simulating the growth of a city as a complex adaptive system. The studio used a generative algorithm to create the simulation, in which buildings rise and fall in response to a combination of factors that bring them ‘happiness’ within the larger ecosystem of the city. The project is still in beta, but eventually the studio aims to consult with real-estate developers, urban planners and social scientists to refine the underlying rules that guide its behaviour, to make it a realistic simulation and prediction tool for urban design, says studio head Keith Besserud.

Aedas Computational Design Group: digital masterplanning

The Aedas Computational Design Research Group has developed a suite of proprietary applications called Digital Masterplanning. Conceived as a digital toolbox for masterplanning sustainable, pedestrian-friendly city spaces, it consists of around a dozen analytical and generative applications for various steps of the urban planning and design process, such as compiling GIS data, determining accessibility of various locations to pedestrians, finding desire lines, calculating catchment areas, evaluating visibility and wayfinding, and allocating land use.

"Virtual city modelling can help architects avoid mistakes by thoroughly analysing their designs."

As the group designed the applications, they held intensive discussions with urban planners and designers, government policy makers and GIS experts, to try to break down the masterplanning process and to deconstruct the underlying assumptions that planners hold, in order to reproduce them digitally. Since its development, Digital Masterplanning has proven helpful in reviewing and refining various Aedas master plans – including ones for a Crossrail station in London and a city centre in Minsk, Belarus – to improve aspects such as pedestrian access and wayfinding. The suite of bespoke applications has been used purely in-house so far, but it has started attracting interest, and the company is considering bringing it to market, says Christian Derix, head of computational design research at Aedas.

Despite its advantages, Derix warns against thinking of Digital Masterplanning (or any digital tool) as a potential substitute for human ingenuity. Instead, the designer should be thought of as the editor-composer between the applications, responding to their findings and recommendations but not being controlled by them. "We left it, on purpose, quite open, so it’s lots of small applications rather than one big one," he says. "Computers – you should leave them at what they’re good at, and you should also use your brain sometimes."