The Collision of Tech and Master Planning

Thursday, May 14th, 2015
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I had been in the building for less than three minutes, and the word “master plan” was uttered more than four times.

And this occurred when I wasn’t even in conversation with anyone, yet.

It was going to be a long four days – planners from all over the world participating in the largest planning geek-fest on offer. Welcome to the American Planning Association Annual Conference, which last month set up digs in Seattle. Almost 5,000 planners came together in one building, for four days, to do what planners do.

Zoning, by-laws, codes and overlays. Height, bulk and density. Walkability, equity, and resilience. Plans aplenty – regional, comprehensive, precise, neighborhood and district. Community engagement, on-line, off-line, and straight down the line.

There was something for everyone, and I noticed but a few education sessions on master planning, my favourite topic. So what happened to the master plan?

I remember the days – pre-Google aerial plans plotted, butter paper by the roll, a palette of marker pens (pre-Sharpie), arguing with the traffic engineer sitting opposite me in the boardroom.

“That turning radius is absurd,” I would cry.

The ecologist would pull a surprise sighting of some rare creature: “We noted scratchings up the trees around this area here,” the quiet voice would cautiously interject.

“But that’s where the town centre is going,” the client would cry.

“That’s also the low point of the site, everything flows to that point,” the civil engineer would mumble.

All the while, the lead urban designer would pull yet another yard of butter paper off the roll with great force and lay it over the spaghetti drawings that lay beneath it.

Old school analogue master planning, now extinct in some worlds, is an art form. But I confess, I do like my tech, and the APA conference did not disappoint in this department. The conference included an entire Tech Zone showcasing the convergence of many techniques – visualization meets GIS meets deep analytics meets 3D printing meets the cloud meets your smartphone. Welcome to the new master plan.

Master Planning Gone Digital

The big announcement at the APA conference was the release of Urban Canvas, Autodesk’s new software product for master planning, among other major applications. Originally developed out of University of California Berkeley by a small start-up called Synthicity, Urban Canvas was the brainchild of Professor Paul Waddell, chair of UC Berkeley’s Department of City & Regional Planning.

Urban Canvas

Urban Canvas

It heralds the ability to help planning professionals more effectively create and communicate urban plans with easy to use design and analytical tools. It helps visualise spatial data in 3D, edit urban data in the cloud collaboratively, and study alternative scenarios. If that’s not enough, it can track pipeline developments, communicate project phasing, and rapidly generate typologies and 3D building models.

I had the opportunity to sit down with Waddell after the Conference and ask him a few questions. Here is a snapshot:

AB: Paul, congratulations on the release of Urban Canvas and the partnership with Autodesk. Can you give me an overview on why you developed Urban Canvas? What’s the problem you are trying to solve?

PW: We are not looking to solve a problem, but avoid generating them. There are multiple applications now applied across the common planning workflow that are out of sync, not integrated, and much time is spent translating data across the planning and design process. This is a key function of Urban Canvas, to help integrate the planning and design process.

AB: But old school master planning is organic and analogue, embracing the interaction across multiple disciplines around a table, in person. Are you trying to re-write this?

PW: No, but old school master planning is hard. An analogue working group can be thought provoking, but time consuming. Heavy and weighty models are often used to ‘churn’ data, with someone having to interpret, and then bring you another design option the following week. This is a heavy process. We can speed this up.

AB: So tell me about Urban Canvas, what are we to expect?

PW: Tools are proliferating much quicker than the models can cope, and Urban Canvas is trying to create an environment in which you can extend very rapidly, and create an expressive environment, and explore the consequences. It then visualises the results of the experiment. It opens up a more creative space so we can explore a high dimensional space more rapidly.

AB: Can you share a recent example highlighting Urban Canvas in action?

PW: The City of San Francisco recently did some work, a visioning process that led to an aspirational plan, incorporating land supply aspirations, housing numbers and other typical forward planning elements. We came in to do some reverse engineering, looking at a combination of zoning and existing incentives, to develop options that could meet an overall approximate scenario. With the target setting, we turned the process upside down, generating alternatives that could achieve the targets, each of which are very different. Now the focus can turn to having substantive discussions with stakeholders around options.

Waddell was clear with me that Urban Canvas and other new planning tools are not digital versus analogue, or black or white, but rather the best of both. These new planning tools allow professionals to move between the digital and analogue worlds rapidly. They combine the best of analogue with the best of digital – mutual learning, reframing, identifying conflict spaces, tradeoffs, and allowing them to be augmented by technology to explore outcomes in a fluid way.

Utilising to augmented reality technology in master planning

Utilising to augmented reality technology in master planning

Where is master planning going? One can only imagine. One thing is for sure, however: the next generation of technology-based urban planning tools are being worked up as we speak.

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