The ability of digital technology to disrupt established sectors of the economy is beyond doubt. Just ask a London cabbie what they think of Uber, or traditional hotel operators about Airbnb. An accusation often levelled at planning is that it has been slow on the uptake and remains wedded to many of the same processes that have been used for decades. However, in recent years 3D modelling in particular has started to gain traction and may yet revolutionise the way that planning works. So how is the technology being used?
Spearheading its use in London is the Greater London Authority (GLA). It recently put out what chief digital officer Theo Blackwell describes as a "call for engagement" to find a company to build a 3D digital model of the capital. "It’s part of a broader programme of work to make the planning system more data-driven and user-friendly and to really mobilise the strengths of our tech sector," he says. The idea is that such a model would enable Londoners to engage more easily in the planning process. For the GLA, the primary driver behind the initiative is engagement.
The authority already uses digital modelling for its own purposes, but the proposed model is aimed squarely at the public at large. "At the moment, what we’ve got are 3D models from a number of market-leading providers," says Blackwell. "They provide 3D modelling for the planners but not necessarily the citizens. At the same time, there are lots of providers of new online consultation tools, but they don’t do 3D modelling. What we’re looking for is that sweet spot between the two. We think it would really help citizens with visualising proposals and make developments better."
In fact, the draft new London Plan includes a policy encouraging the use of digital modelling "as part of the plan-making process to assess growth options and forms and development". It also commits the mayor, working with the boroughs, to using "3D virtual reality digital modelling" to help identify tall building locations in London, as well as to "assess tall building proposals and aid public consultation and engagement". This technology, allowing the creation of city models, has existed for some time.
Back in 2003, Raju Pookottil, director of what became tech firm Zmapping, received a call from Swindon Borough Council asking him to create a 3D model of the council area. "I said I would take a look and worked out a method to model a city," he says. While the first job was for a local authority, the way that Pookottil’s business developed was based largely on private sector clients. "Architects started using it for planning applications, so they could understand the buildings next to them and the levels of the ground and so on," he recalls. "They could tell if their proposal was going to block somebody else’s view."
A more recent entrant to the market, Vu.City, has worked with planning authorities from early on and now says it has a functioning model covering most of the capital. Jason Hawthorne, managing director at Wagstaffs, which developed the product alongside fellow property technology company GIA, says 21 of the city’s 33 planning authorities are now paying for a licence to use the model. He adds that Vu.City has already produced a model of Manchester.
The London Borough of Southwark was an early adopter of the technology and Tom Buttrick, its planning and regeneration team leader, says that it has been put to good use. "We’ve been using it for over three years now, primarily for our strategic planning," he says. Within the council’s Old Kent Road opportunity area, Buttrick says it uses Vu.City to visualise new proposals’ shape and size, or massing, in the existing urban environment.
"We can use it to understand how that massing fits within the opportunity area. It allows us to understand capacity, the sensitivities if that massing was delivered and also an ability to truly present detailed information to our members and public as well." Buttrick adds that the council also uses the platform in its development management team. Developers bringing forward major projects are asked to submit models of their scheme at the pre-application stage, which the authority then feeds into its Vu.City model. "It enables us to understand quite quickly how that massing would sit within its context," he says. "It allows us to feedback quickly to the applicant and advise on any changes that might be needed to their scheme.
However, Johnson Situ, Southwark’s cabinet member for regeneration and planning, says the ambition is to roll out the technology to the public, in much the same way envisaged by the GLA. "At the moment, the software is primarily limited to internal use," he says. "But once a public-facing version is available, it could be very useful indeed to allow residents to really see how new housing will look and feel in their local area."
Similarly, the London Borough of Haringey’s planning team is using Vu.City to analyse large and complicated development proposals. It is also set to use the technology as a tool to present schemes to its planning committee, according to the council’s assistant director for planning Emma Williamson. "We trialled the software some time ago, using it to present a major scheme to committee in February 2018," she says. "The trial received positive feedback from committee members, and greatly assisted them in being able to visualise such a large and complex proposal. This ultimately led to a more informed and quicker decision on the planning application, which was approved. Going forward, we intend to use Vu.City to present applications to committee on a regular basis."
Three other ways in which technology is set to change planning
1. Allowing better use of planning data, once it becomes open and computer-readable. Stefan Webb, director of digitising planning at government-funded urban services company Future Cities Catapult, says there is great potential in making better use of the vast amount of data produced in the planning process. "It’s about getting the data that planning relies on into shape, redesigning some of the digital services that applicants, case officers and other people have to deal with and getting them better designed," he says. "It’s about fixing the plumbing so that the data that is useful and valuable is open and machine-readable."
2. Producing local plans and other planning documents in a digital format. Once the data is available in an accessible format, Webb believes the pace of change will accelerate. "It’s about making local plans or masterplans more digital, moving away from hundreds of pages of maps and tables and moving more towards what we call ‘planning as a platform’, which means having the evidence base that contributes to a local plan all in a single digital environment."
3. Using augmented reality to view development proposals at their sites. Ultimately, augmented reality – which allows you to view digital images superimposed on the real world – will be used to make the planning system far more transparent, Webb believes. "Instead of a planning notice, you go and look at the site and you see a 3D version of what that development will look like," he says. "But you will also be able to access key information like what the developer would be paying in the Community Infrastructure Levy, the number and type of jobs it would contain – the kind of information that many people do care about but is currently buried in planning applications."