3D goes to town

Three-dimensional computer modelling could revive public interest in `boring' but vital town hall decisions.

Competing pressures over land use are growing, with environmental groups winning support to resist most new development. Yet there is a strong expectation of continued economic growth - and a recent report from two Government departments concluded that the slowness of local authorities in taking planning decisions holds back commercial expansion.

But planning decisions can move away from the dry and boring council committee room and into a forum of open public debate if a system of "3D modelling" is adopted, say the system's authors. New plans would be seen not just on a map, but as virtual reality while pretending to walk down a high street, stroll across a field, or look out from the back garden.

The new system has been developed in the Netherlands, where competing planning pressures on land use are enormous, with a high-density population and one of the world's most heavily used airports, Schipol in Amsterdam, causing noise pollution across a wide area of flat countryside. The Dutch government is keen to achieve a consensus on plans for coping with the expanding air traffic.

"Speaking Netherlands", as the project is called, is currently being implemented in three areas to improve public consultation for contentious planning issues. The "Win-Wind" project enables people to see the visual impact of proposed new wind generators. Another scheme is to plan the evolution of the River Maas, around Maastrict, to reconcile industrial development with the desire to improve the river as a habitat for nesting birds. The third project is to plan development in the Arnhem area.

"We want to get groups to understand each other's needs, to have them understand the urbanisation problem, to have each understand where others are coming from, and reach good compromises," says Ben Heideveld, an IT architect with Cap Gemini, one of the system's developers. "It is only by the grace of so many people living in high rises that there are still open spaces in the Netherlands. But if we go on putting up cities arbitrarily, we will lose all our big corners of open space. And we need to look at skyline pollution, which is a big issue in the Netherlands."

"Speaking Netherlands" builds on an approach known in Britain as "planning for real", where residents affected by a proposed development - such as council tenants whose homes are to be replaced - can move scale models on a board, to produce a development which better suits their needs. It may help mothers or people with disabilities to see the distance between their new homes and shops and other facilities they use, and suggest changes in location. It could assist planners to change road layouts to make public transport more accessible.

But while these exercises can work in planning small localities, they are of limited use for larger areas, Heideveld says. "It is the scale of more than three kilometres [about two miles] which is difficult to understand without flying over in an aeroplane," he suggests. "We need to concentrate more on our large-scale planning process. To do this we need to present plans to people in 3D, moving from the map to the pedestrian perspective."

The 3D modelling works through a Silicon Graphics Octane virtual reality system, while other tools, like the Geo-Kiosk system, can run on an ordinary PC. In the future, it may also be accessible via interactive TV. The consortium that put together the system includes ESRI, a leading provider of geographical information systems (GIS); civil engineering companies; Amsterdam Free University, and planners from the city of Rotterdam, as well as software engineers Cap Gemini.

The proposal for the system came from the Dutch Metropolitan Debate Foundation, which asked a government-backed body, the LWI, to find partners to develop it, and to provide the balance of the funding. The LWI was established to promote a "knowledge infrastructure" across the the Netherlands.

Trials of the scheme took place last year at two conferences - one for interested parties and experts, and the other for members of the public. At each event, there were role-play exercises to make long-term planning decisions, and then the delegates saw how these were implemented over a 10-year period. A new set of planning decisions was then taken, and again the 10-year effects were viewed. Delegates were able, during the course of a day, to see how planning decisions might impact over a 30- year period.

Participants were enthusiastic about creating an environment which not only enabled lobbyists to see the impact of their own proposals, including the knock-on effects, but also encouraged people to take a more consensual approach. In one role-play exercise, environmentalists agreed to drop their opposition to an expansion of Schipol Airport in return for ending reclamation of an ecologically important river. Decisions were taken at the conference by simple votes, but delegates could call a wider referendum for important issues. It might eventually be possible for the Geo-Kiosk system to be consulted by the general public over the Internet for a real referendum to help decide on competing planning proposals.

Planners in Britain are enthusiastic about using the scheme here. A spokesman for the Local Government Association, which represents local authorities, said: "This might help planners to speed up the process of determining planning decisions, which we are very keen to achieve."

Ian Gilfoyle, the Royal Town Planning Institute's IT and GIS adviser, added: "We would welcome it. It will help not only the public but also [council] committee members to see what planning proposals really mean. The trouble is that very few local authorities are sufficiently far forward to have a computer system in committee meetings. We need to develop ideas like this for decision-makers.

"In the past, the technology has been in the lead, and really it is the planners and the system users who have to get in the driving seat to get what we want."

It is to be hoped that 3D modelling will also increase public interest in a process that is often seen as too boring to pay attention to, even though it has a strong impact on our lives.

Making planning sexy would indeed be a real achievement.

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