In contrast to popular opinion, developing the local and city vision, facilitating the implementation of a design, and ensuring it aligns to the bigger vision of the precinct are the responsibility of the urban planner. They are not there to tick boxes, and make things slow and difficult.
In reality, many of our urban planners have dropped the ball on this vision-setting task. And so we have other professions stepping into the fray, and creating these precinct-wide visions. But is it a lack of suitable planning tools that stand in the way of great local planning?
The Local Area Plan – or the Planning Scheme, Neighbourhood Plan or the good old fashioned Town Plan – is currently a dense and wordy document. It usually fails to set the narrative and story for the local area, and lacks the ability to portray the vision for a particular place or precinct. It cannot visually articulate both “what it is” and “what it wants to be.” The clever “Line of Sight” planning diagram used by Australia’s Major Cities Unit to describe our nation’s planning tools are all documents – from national to regional to district to site scale. This Unit themselves are keen to see new tools that actually work for planners and planning.
Government planning agencies recognise this problem, and are investing in 3D city and precinct models – gathering broad-brush survey data of their important areas. Pictometry gets 0.5-1m accuracy and looks like Google Earth; while photogrammetry, LIDAR and laser scanning provide better accuracy but are more expensive.
But data is just data. Once you have your survey model – then what? How do you use it in the day-to-day cut-and-thrust of work in a planning agency which includes development assessment, urban design, strategic visioning, incorporating traffic, and myriad meetings between decision makers, developers, architects, disciplinary experts, engineers and community members? Most of all, how do we create workflows for planners and decision makers that enable them to create the future visions of our local areas?
Government agencies are finding it difficult to leverage 3D city models for this purpose. Currently, the survey representations of the context are pushed into GIS software. Now, GIS is great for analysis and a good storage database, but it is no visioning or conversation tool. GIS managers will tell you of the excruciating pain of simply importing a 3D architect’s model into a GIS system to scale and in position. Just forget it for a road or transport upgrade. If the GIS officers ever do get a building integrated, then running a live interactive planning meeting with key stakeholders around this information, with multiple sub-options, driving cars, push-biking, walking, and experiencing the place under these new conditions with multiple sub-options, is simply not feasible. Yet planning is all about conversation and collaboration.
Using these workflows to set a planning vision for a community, city or precinct is not feasible, and that’s why they don’t occur. It’s like battling your old phone just to find a contact and make a phone call, before the new smart phone era came along. The inefficiency was infuriating.
ESRI is the GIS juggernaut and now AutoDesk and Bentley are both pushing hard in the 3D GIS space. But again the ability to vision, converse and engage over these tools is absent. Certainly the ability to see, tell and experience the narrative of a locality is not within the power of GIS. You cannot attain a “sense of presence” in these tools, facilitate a discussion, collaborate and adjust all in the midst of impassioned conversation. This is what we need for great planning to occur.
ESRI have recently bought the City Engine. This is a powerful procedural modelling tool, but modelling is not what we need here. There are many wonderful modelling tools, and parametric or manual modelling all have their place.
What we need is a planning tool that allows us to set, test and decide the vision for the place (strategic planning). Then we need tools that allows us to test and decide incremental proposals for the place – one click to import a building.
The other problem with 3D GIS is that it’s in the hands of the technical GIS fraternity. Planning tools need to be in the hands of the planners, designers and vision-makers. Literally on their desktop. Google Maps with Streetview and Google Earth have been great – now we want the next level.
And thus we find ourselves at a difficult place in Local Planning.
The planning industry is relying on the tools of yesteryear, and is relegated to ‘tick and flick’ professionals. Gary White tells an interesting story on this topic during the 2011 PIA Conference.
3D data in GIS tools have been tried by some, but have failed them. New platforms and toolsets must liberate this data and empower the planner.
What do those planners do who want to “grasp the nettle” and set the vision for local areas? Those who want to transform from the adversarial, legalistic “80% regulatory” paradigm of today to the “80% strategic visioning” paradigm of tomorrow, have been frustrated. Many have left the planning profession or not renewed their professional affiliations.
Most of the planners I know wanted to be a visionary planner – not tick and flick. They were inspired by the desire to set the future vision and steer places towards a smarter future across multiple levels. They wanted to be a “master planner.” They learnt what makes a good street and a good precinct – they just need the tools to articulate it.
So, how do we enable these urban planners to set the vision and improve their planning? Good strategic planning should, of course, have a clearly articulated view of the future. Overlaying the possible and intended in real space – without limiting detailed design innovation – takes skill, courage and vision. Our planning platforms must enable planners to create this future vision efficiently and transparently.