Planning challenging in London: 3D interactive model

Seeing the future

7 December 2016

Jason Hawthorne explains how a 3D interactive digital model of London can help overcome planning challenges

London’s skyline is changing at an astonishing rate. By 2035, it is probable that our views across the city will be very different, and that our leaders will be faced with some tough choices about the built environment.

Every week there is another news story about the housing crisis faced by our capital city; at the same time, London’s skyline is shooting upwards. A recent report by the organisation New London Architecture and consultancy GL Hearn found there were more than 400 tall buildings in the pipeline for London.

But the race to the top is not without its controversies. This year, the Skyline Campaign and a number of architects called for a 6-month moratorium on tall buildings in the capital to allow time for a city-wide debate.

3D digital model

One way to help address these complex challenges is to use a digital model. VUCITY is the first fully interactive 3D digital model of London. It currently covers 200km2, including the boroughs of Hammersmith & Fulham, Kensington & Chelsea, Tower Hamlets, Westminster and the City of London, although we are expanding it at a rate of 5–8km2 a month.

It gives anyone involved in the London built environment a tool that can transform the planning and communication process around proposed and new developments and infrastructure projects. The model has an accuracy level of 15cm, and includes up-to-date information on hundreds of thousands of buildings and more than 1 million trees. Using our city model, it is possible to overlay geographical information systems data, sightlines, London View Management Framework, transport links and sunlight paths to help planners understand developers’ proposals.

Users can view, zoom in on and rotate the model to get a macro view of London or the micro detail of 1 building. The model also enables the addition of existing, proposed and consented developments.

As a borough-wide or London-wide tool, it can integrate demographic data to help plan for infrastructure and amenity provision, including schools, homes and hospitals. It can also overlay property prices through time and planned infrastructure, such as Crossrail 1 and 2. We can see at a macro level what investment is required, where and when.

Until now, we have relied on physical models and computer-generated imagery to help envisage the future. VUCITY makes it easier to understand raw data, while by providing the option of visualising developments, it enables users to make better, more informed decisions.

VUCITY is a joint venture between digital communications agency Wagstaffs, 3D modelling agency Vertex Modelling and GIA, an independent firm of chartered surveyors, specialising in rights of light.

The latest features of VUCITY include:

  • existing, proposed and consented developments;
  • accurate street-level camera points to create verified views;
  • protected views under the London View Management Framework;
  • daylight and sunlight studies;
  • integration of data on demographics, traffic and pedestrian modelling;
  • custom live data on transport, property, news, Twitter, weather and the environment;
  • real-time transport overlays.

VUCITY can also gather data for other cities and represent them quickly.

The model will help residents to visualise what London could look like in the future, helping to secure public buy-in and informing the debate, both on individual developments and on a city-wide scale. For example, the facility identifies the tall building clusters in Canary Wharf, the City and around the Shard near London Bridge. But are there other parts of London where such a cluster would be acceptable? As London strives to build more homes to address the housing crisis, how will our transport infrastructure cope? VUCITY can help visualise raw data in responding to these key questions.

Calls for a digital model of London are already mounting. Lloyd Grossman, Chairman of the Heritage Alliance, Sir Laurie Magnus, Chairman of Historic England, and Sir Terry Farrell, architect, wrote an open letter in which they welcomed the London Assembly’s recent call for a publicly accessible 3D digital model of London’s skyline. They were joined by New London Architecture, which urged mayor Sadiq Khan to commission a digital model of the capital in a bid to plan for its future.

Growing population

A provocative report released earlier this year examined how we could house London’s growing population. Published by the mayor’s Design Advisory Group, The Good Growth Agenda says an extra 1.5m people will live in London by 2030 – the equivalent of adding the population of Birmingham to the capital’s existing population of 8.5m.

The report concludes that we will need to construct taller buildings and house people at higher densities.

The report also looks at how the city can grow while retaining the qualities that make it special. Achieving both will be a tough balancing act. Some 50,000 homes will have to be built annually for the next 20 years, while the equivalent of 8 new Canary Wharfs will be needed to provide jobs. If not, residents will leave, quitting the capital for more affordable cities such as Bristol, Birmingham or Newcastle.

New development will have to take place in the context of existing buildings. Inevitably, the character of some areas will change. Higher-density housing around town centres and in outer London’s metroland is suggested by the report as one way to boost housing supply.

While this could prove controversial, digital visualisation could offer a better understanding of the plans. Grasping what a new development will look like, how it will fit the character of an area and the impact it will have on the local transport network is crucial to securing buy-in from the public.

VUCITY not only accurately shows the current built environment but also allows users to toggle between existing, consented and proposed developments, showing the development pipeline in London and helping to establish what the future city might look like.

At its core, VUCITY helps us visualise large, complex data sets, making sense of them and so enabling us to make better informed decisions and devise solutions. By allowing London to be visualised in 3 dimensions and allowing digital data integration, VUCITY can shape future development and infrastructure planning.

VUCITY enables better debate and decision-making at all stages from tendering through planning, design and building to sales and marketing. Most critically, it will contribute to a better built environment for London’s population today and in the decades ahead.

Jason Hawthorne is MD of Wagstaffs

Further information