Why 3D Modeling Will Play a Huge Role in Tackling Rapid Urbanization

We can now simulate the effects of earthquakes, traffic jams and population expansion. From every angle.

Image Parsons Brinckerhoff
Parsons Brinckerhoff

The above image, which looks like a modern-day Thomas Cole painting of the Seattle skyline, in fact was grabbed from a three-dimensional model of the city that has datasets embedded in it. These datasets reflect everything from the downtown’s geological terrain, to its road networks, building heights and flight paths above them. So this image imperceptibly contains much of what a city planner would need to know to begin to model the energy use of all those skyscrapers, or the wind dynamics of a summer storm passing between them, or the effects throughout town of a cataclysmic earthquake.

The first generation of 3D models of cities were used as visual tools for illustrating ideas, like how a new building might alter a skyline. “This prompted the idea that OK, we’re using it only for visual impacts, but what if we used it more for design purposes?” says Jay Mezher, who worked on the Seattle model for the engineering and construction firm Parsons Brinckerhoff. 3D simulations of cities have the potential to help engineers and planners anticipate natural disasters and population growth, and to better plan for them in a way that goes far beyond rendering cityscapes as if they were in a video game.

The Seattle model, Mezher says, is really more of an information database than a visualization, and one to which more data can constantly be added. “It’s a living document,” he says, “and it’s still evolving.” Want to layer on real-time traffic data to study road improvements? Or subsurface utility infrastructure to anticipate flooding damage?

“Some of these ideas start to feel very abstract when you’re just thinking about them in your mind, looking at various reports, 2D plans, and diagrams,” says Andrea Barry, a Parsons Brinkerhoff program manager who also worked on the project. “For everyone, even somebody trained as a professional, its starts to become a little blurry and hard to wrap your mind around.”

One constantly evolving 3D model of a city, though, could knit all of this data into one tool, while enabling interactive simulations that would be readily understandable by engineers and the public alike. This video used the model of downtown Seattle, developed with software from Autodesk, to simulate the potential impacts of a massive earthquake on the Alaskan Way Viaduct during a time when the Washington Department of Transportation was planning to fortify it (the real damage kicks in at the 1:00 mark):

That’s obviously a powerful tool for presenting plans to the public (and for making the case for why the public needs to spend money fortifying viaducts). And it’s a vast departure from how most plans are today presented to approval boards and the public.

“We have people standing up and pointing to aerial photographs that are taped onto a blackboard,” says Terry Bennett, a senior industry manager in Autodesk’s Infrastructure Group. “You have prints of plans highlighted in various colors and people pointing to these things laid out onto a table.” No wonder, he says, that it takes so long to get projects approved. “You spend most of your time trying to understand what’s on the paper, and not enough time on ‘is this the right approach to help the city become more sustainable, or to lower our footprint?’”

A decade ago, Barry says, these more sophisticated citywide models would have cost millions of dollars to construct. But automated technology has become easier to use, and datasets and applications are now more compatible with each other. Given advances in cloud computing, a thousand computers can today run a simulation that it once would have taken a big computer a week to process. As a result, 3D simulations could potentially expedite the process of rolling out new projects, whether they involve reinforcing a viaduct, or rerouting traffic flow, or retrofitting buildings to make them more energy efficient. All of these outcomes could be simulated ahead of time, avoiding the cost of constructing untested concepts and revealing the ripple effects of, say, a new building on transportation demand.

In a future world with 9 billion people, Bennett argues, we can’t afford to scale up our existing infrastructure, and there wouldn’t be time enough to do that anyway. “We know that design, and the way we approach design has got to change,” he says. And he predicts that within a decade that most cities will rely on models like this to do that.

“If you look at the generation that’s really going to use these cities we’re designing today, it’s the Millennial generation who have grown up in a 3D, virtual-environment world, who utilize social media and cloud-based applications,” Bennett says. “This type of media is custom-built for this generation to better understand how they’re going to contribute their ideas.”

Above image courtesy of Parsons Brinckerhoff.

About the Author

  • Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific StandardGOODThe Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.