Better urban planning with Virtual Reality

Confusion reigns in the municipal council hall in Ski:

"Now just wait a minute, isn't there a building there already? And shouldn't there be a park here? Or is it further down the map? Is this Idrettsveien?"

Politicians, various professionals and municipal administrators are gathered at a seminar to discuss the new design and function plan for Ski's city centre. The goal is for the town to get a modern, functional and aesthetically pleasing character.  Over the coming months the decision-makers will be looking at how the town is to look, how it shall be experienced and how it is to be used. 

Straight answer wanted? Whistle for it!

This is not a task to be taken lightly. There is a plethora of problems, involvement has been heightened and the ideas just fly across the table. Benches here, cycle lanes there and rain gardens everywhere.

There's only one problem: Whilst reality is in 3D, the discussion runs in 2D. The tool used to create the town plan of the future is not as modern as the thought process. Here you'll find 2-dimensional paper maps with colour-coding and lengthy textual descriptions with their own colour codes, abbreviations and jargon such as "overriding architectural character", "dimensioning", and "functional management of the town spaces in various urban categories".

This results is no-one being able to feel fully sure that the others are even on the same planet. Or at least on the same street. Are we really talking about the same thing here? The noise level is high and not everyone can follow the discussion.

The municipality of Ski is not alone in this, if we are to believe Ramzi Hassan, Associate Professor, Computer Visualizations in Urban Planning and Landscape Architecture, at the Faculty of Landscape and Society at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences (NMBU). He believes that the various stakeholders involved in planning, formulating, commenting and deciding on urban development projects do not share the same prerequisites for understanding the same. In short, they are simply not speaking the same language.

"There is probably a real danger that the various parties talk over the top of each other in such processes. Particularly if you want non-professionals such as politicians and the general public to understand the total concept," says Hassan.

He is currently researching how municipalities can utilise Virtual Reality (VR) in a manner that creates a more open, transparent and fair urban planning for everyone.

"You can discover new landscapes and you can go to inaccessible landscapes. The future is here, we are actually in the future," says Ramzi Hassan, Associate Professor in Computer Visualizations in Urban Planning and Landscape Architecture at NMBU.

"You can discover new landscapes and you can go to inaccessible landscapes. The future is here, we are actually in the future," says Ramzi Hassan, Associate Professor in Computer Visualizations in Urban Planning and Landscape Architecture at NMBU.

Håkon Sparre

Technology that opens up a new world

And just in case you didn't know what this is: Virtual Reality is an artificial reality, created with the aid of computer technology or 360-degree video, which gives the user an illusion of being in a certain place, and being able to explore it. In order to make the illusion complete, you have to wear a pair of VR-goggles that cover your entire field of vision.

It can give a fairly good realism, for example at a football match, or sitting high up in a crane or by exploring an urban area which really is a computer simulation of the suggested urban planning or a digital reconstruction of a (pre-)historic urban area. 

The VR technology has up to now been mostly associated with entertainment and amusement. Whilst entertainment and amusements are fun, Hassan wants the world to develop and utilise this technology in such a manner as to benefit all of humanity.

His mission is to find out how we can use this tool to make knowledge about our past, our present and the future more accessible to everyone, regardless of who you are, or what previous knowledge you may have.  

An example of this is Hassan's work to save the cultural heritage in war-torn areas such as Palestine.

In such areas cultural monuments are disappearing so fast they are not only struggling to preserve them, but to document them for posterity at all. Together with the World Bank he has built up virtual versions of some of the impressive buildings and historical cities that have been neglected and lost.

Here he used methods that we may recognise from computer gaming, so that the feeling of moving around inside the "buildings" becomes more familiar and lifelike. History is preserved, and made easier to understand for us living today.

This way of recreating historical buildings and sites also allows the whole world to experience them, without having to risk entering into war-torn areas.

"Now we can experience the world in a whole new way; we can visit cities and buildings and events that are inaccessible to us in the real world. Recently we recreated a site in Jericho, 'Hisham Palace'. The palace has been gone for more than 1 000 years, but thanks to archaeological excavations in the area, identifying the ruins as a palatial complex built during the Umayyad period in the first half of the eighth century A.D., we were able to recreate the palace anew, in Virtual Reality. Now we can wander around the halls of the palace again. We are the first to do so for 1 000 years," explains Hassan.

In order to achieve this, Hassan organised a team of historians, architects, planners, archaeologists and 3D-modellers to reconstruct the palace digitally. The reconstruction and modelling process went through a set of stages: data collection, site analysis, creation of a 3D digital library of project components, 3D modelling of the site and model assembly, before the team could present a digital reconstruction of the historical palace.

Everyone can speak the same language

But let us leap 1 000 years into the future again. To the present. Because now, Hassan is researching into how VR can make urban planning more easily accessible to everyone.   

He envisages that the city planning of the future is going to be facilitated using VR as a solid instrument in the process, especially when politicians and the general public are to be involved and participate in the processes.

Presentations using VR can be made to make jargon and colour codes somewhat more comprehensible. It can demonstrate how a planned outdoor area will evolve over time, from newly-planted borders to fully-grown plants; it can visualise how a building of six or nine floors will affect the surroundings in different ways, one can make better choices between different types of building materials, balcony design and so on. The possibilities are endless.

"Today we're not necessarily talking the same language. Major construction projects are frequently described using difficult terms, so that politicians and the general public don't always understand sufficiently the consequences of what has been said. VR can be used to share information in a better way, so that everyone has the same preconditions to see and understand it," Hassan explains.

Now, it is not the case that this technology is not being used already. But as far as construction projects are concerned it is mostly used for marketing purposes, as part of the commercial sales process. Developers can then use VR to emphasise the positive aspects of the project, whilst the less desirable ones remain hidden within the jargon on the paper.

"At the moment, VR is mostly used to show us the glossy image of a finished house with fully-matured green areas and smiling, happy people who live there.  VR should also be used as a tool to visualise the total picture. If we are to make urban planning more accessible to everyone, we definitely need technology such as VR," concludes Hassan.

See Ramzi Hassan talk on virtual reality as a tool for urban planning and preserving cultural heritage, and snapshots from the digital reconstruction of Hisham Palace here:

Published 14. May 2017 - 20:23 - Updated 14. February 2018 - 9:30