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The Role of AR and VR in Urban Planning

Augmented and virtual reality can help build smart cities and make urban life better for everyone.

New technologies influence and change every aspect of our lives. When we think of AR and VR, for instance, the first idea is to associate it with gaming and entertainment. Yet, these technologies are already used in many industries, some of them with a critical impact on people’s life: education, healthcare and security.

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Today we will focus on the role of augmented and virtual reality on yet another key field of activity: urban planning. It is not glamorous like filmmaking or awe inspiring like cutting-edge surgery. However, the work of urban planners is extremely important. It helps cities develop harmoniously. It attempts to maintain a continuous traffic flow, despite the increasing number of cars. And it makes sure that industrial buildings do not invade residential areas.


AR and VR – the Most Advanced Tools for Urban Planners

The decision to allow the construction of a new office building or commercial center is a serious one. Expanding a residential area with several new units needs careful analysis. Every new building added to an area impacts everything: public utilities, traffic, the environment and the comfort and wellbeing of the rest of the residents.

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Thus, urban planning is just as important as public safety and healthcare services for all of us. With the help of AR and VR, urban planners can work better and more efficiently.

Here are just a few ways in which augmented and virtual reality are beneficial for urban planning:

1. Visualizing Big Data

Let’s focus on the example of the residential area expansion. Every new house needs electricity, gas, water and sewage – the basic utilities. Supplying these utilities to single units or apartment complexes means an extra load for the existing networks.

Thus, urban planners, together with utilities providers need to work and determine whether the existing networks are capable of handling the extra load or not. However, abstract data is not easy to understand and interpret. With 3D visual representations in VR or AR, all the stakeholders have a clear view of the potential changes. Thus, they can decide whether they need to resize the utilities networks to accommodate the residential expansion.


2. Understanding the Impact of New Buildings on Traffic

Traffic is a problem in all large cities. The street network is basically the same, but the number of cars is increasing. With every new business or commercial building added to a specific area, its traffic pattern will change.

Ariel Noyman, a researcher at MIT Media Labs explains how augmented and virtual reality help urban planners understand these changes: “If we add an office building, that might be another 700 people leaving in cars and more congestion. We want people to be able to physically visualize congestion.”


3. Encouraging Citizens to Participate in Urban Development Projects

Public utility projects usually need to go through a public consultation phase before the works actually start. In the past, citizens would see some design plans and a 2D computer rendering. Recently, they were replaced by simulation videos and 3D photographs of the future buildings and developments.

Thanks to AR and VR, citizens can get a more realistic view of how these projects will fit into the environment and relate to the existing buildings. Being able to interact with 3D models and see a first-hand perspective at 1:1 scale can help people make an informed decision whether they agree with the proposed project or not.


4. Rehabilitating Historic Buildings and Monuments

Every city is proud of its origins and heritage. Historic buildings speak of architectural styles and traditions of the past. Some of them are deteriorated by usual wear and tear, the effect of modern pollution and lack of care by former owners. Rehabilitating these buildings is a delicate task. Workers must preserve the original look and, as much as possible, use similar materials to the original ones.

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Augmented reality overlays can help architects show urban planners the result of the rehabilitation works they propose. Thus, when the building permit is issued, the final result of the works is already known.


5. Turning Cities into Smart Cities

AR and VR are not useful only for urban planners to make city development decisions. New technologies can help citizens interact with local authorities, access public services, plan their commute and perform other similar tasks.

Mobile apps with augmented reality and virtual reality capacities can turn a crowded city into a smart city, where its inhabitants have a degree of control over how it works and how it grows.


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