Virtual Reality in Urban Planning

    The United Nations stated that the world population will increase to 9.3 billion by 2050, and among which, 6.3 billion people will dwell in urban areas. The rapid increase in urban population has set new challenges in front of world cities and urban planning practitioners. Some of these issues and challenges include climate change, global warming, pollution, lack of natural resources, etc. Considering these challenges the future of world cities and metropolis needs the planning process to evolve and integrate technology in order to resolve these challenges. The urban growth should be monitored to avoid adverse impacts on environment. Increasing population requires government to meet the basic needs of housing and food security. Additionally, the economic development of nation is essentially based on the availability of advanced infrastructure to cater the needs of the population. Considering these facts, the Government of India has started Smart City Mission in 2015.

    As outlined by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs India, to provide for the aspirations and needs of the citizens, urban planners ideally aim at developing the entire urban ecosystem, which is represented by the four pillars of comprehensive development - institutional, physical, social and economic infrastructure. This can be a long term goal and cities can work towards developing such comprehensive infrastructure incrementally, adding on layers of ‘smartness’. Some scholars believe that six main criteria lead to the creation of a smart city are smart economy, smart environment, smart mobility, smart people, smart living, and smart governance. The major component of smart cities has been Information and Communication Technology (ICT) and its integration in fields of economy, environment, mobility, and governance. A smart city is the integration of a digital city, the Internet of Things, and cloud computing technology. A smart city also opens the doors for new innovations in the field of planning.

    Urban Planning being a multi-disciplinary field; there is a scope for innovations to ease the planning process. The Business Dictionary states that innovation involves deliberate application of information, imagination and initiative in deriving greater or different values from resources, and includes all processes by which new ideas are generated and converted into useful products and to resolve challenges. Most innovation are sustaining innovations which helps us to get better at we’re already doing. Virtual Reality can be classified as sustaining innovation for the planning process as it will improve our existing capabilities and provide us a clear idea of what skill domains will be required to solve problems in planning process.

    Virtual reality is a term used to describe a three-dimensional, computer generated environment which can be explored and interacted-with by a person. VR technology creates a convincing, interactive world for the user. This virtual world is computer-generated (only powerful machines, with realistic 3D computer graphics, are fast enough to make believable, interactive, alternative worlds that change in real time as we move around them), believable (you really need to feel like you're in your virtual world and to keep believing that, or the illusion of virtual reality will disappear), interactive (as you move around, the VR world needs to move with you), and explorable (VR world needs to be big and detailed enough for you to explore).

    As this technology is becoming more accessible, it's time to start considering how immersive (to be both believable and interactive, VR needs to engage both your body and your mind) virtual experiences could help design visioning process and decision-making. This technology can provide much more concrete value to cities. Urban planning is a complex process that encompasses different aspects in social, economic, physical, and spatial nature. These aspects are dependent, and they interact with one another within an urban system. Therefore, the decision-making process relies equally on all these aspects. As today’s planning process is primarily based on the efficient use of available data, virtual reality (VR) offers a new way of bringing this data to life. This technology will seamlessly integrate data into everyday experiences and provide a solid base of the industry and is likely to change the model of the old urban planning techniques. This technology will help planners visualize and analyze big data to help boosting the process of decision-making.

    With the help of Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality, planners can work better and more efficiently. Understanding the impacts of any new development on the environment is one of the main challenges for planners. This technology will work as a visualization tool to evaluate and forecast the environmental and social consequences of creating a city is the key to achieving a sustainable and resilient urban design and to build cities with less impact on environment and having minimal ecological footprint. This will also resulting in efficient use of resources as the virtual simulations will guide us to solve the problems in sustainable way. One more use of VR could be in the process of redevelopment and rehabilitation of historic buildings and monuments.

    The major challenge faced in India during the city planning process is the communication gap between the planners or designers and the authorities. The lack involvement by stakeholder in the process has also been a major drawback. The traditional representation of various models, data can only be understood by planning professionals which creates lack of involvement by other stakeholders. This technology will help modeling of urban environments in 3-D, using computers with advanced visualization techniques. This will allow visualizing urban areas in different perspectives and approaches in a 3-D graphic environment which will help analyzing highly complex problems in city planning. It will also reduce the communication gap between the professionals, the authorities and the citizens. Use of VR in urban planning can change the structure of planning process to involve participatory approach and also visualizing the cognitive behavior of urban dwellers. VR could helps understanding the consequences of design schemes from multiple perspectives. The on ground change in traffic pattern or the use of existing infrastructure can be analyzed. Planners can also map and assess the social, cultural, and behavioral responses to the built environment.

    Though technology changes the way of building cities, this technology is yet to be available to be used by urban planners as it’s expensive and majorly owned by private companies. The technology will also require assistance of other software like GIS, digital drawings (computer-aided designs), multimedia data, and World Wide Web-based VR techniques to be used in planning process.  Thus the VR technology as an interactive platform enables smart and sustainable cities to identify their potentials by getting smarter and by improving their contribution to sustainability and increasing rate of urbanization. A key challenge in implementing VR in urban planning is cost. It is necessary to determine how urban designers and planners who work in small companies will benefit from VR systems in their urban design or planning practices.

“As an artificial world, the city should be so in the best sense: made by art, shaped for human purposes.”  - Kevin Lynch


By Vaishnavi JadhavVaishnavi is an aspiring a Town Planner currently studying in third year of B. Planning in College of Engineering, Pune. Belonging to such a dynamic domain, provides her the ability to gain knowledge about multiple disciplines. She is looking forward to utilize her knowledge for social well-being and building a sustainable community. She also have a great interest in entrepreneurship and business management. She like to embrace her hobbies like dancing, writing and reading. She would define herself as a devoted learner. Leadership, organizational skills and working efficiently under pressure are few of her qualities.

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