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Category: masterplanning

CityEngine, Unity and HTCVive : finally useful & accessible Virtual Reality?

CityEngine, Unity and HTCVive : finally useful & accessible Virtual Reality?

Walking around a 3D model of Birmingham which includes 3D buildings and symbology generated using CityEngine

I recently purchased an HTC Vive for some ‘out of hours’ Research and Development.   What strikes me is how quickly you can take 2D GIS data, turn it into 3D and walk around it in a Virtual Reality environment for testing out scenarios for urban planning or even visualising underlying data (think smart cities).  

like with maps and statistics you can lie with 3D visualisations

Like with most things it doesn’t have to be complicated, you need the right workflows and data but much of this is understanding requirements and matching your workflows to suit a particular need.   When dealing with GIS data you need to have an understanding of accuracy, projections and provenance of data as well, because like with maps and statistics you can lie/mislead with 3D visualisations.

Smooth terrains and 3D GIS buildings ready for your Unity developed game or tool!

This is quite incredible that we can go through multiple urban design scenarios in a day (modelling in CityEngine) analysing this data using Esri’s 3D Analyst extension (in ArcGISPro of course!) and then walking around the scenario in a fully immersive environment!   Yes most of the visuals need some polish but this kind of setup we could only dream of a couple of years ago.

3D GIS data integrated with CityEngine models in a game engine environment (Unity) how cool is this?!

We have the tools, we have the data it’s just a question of joining it all up.  If you need some guidance or help come talk to us at Garsdale Design because we’ve had the time to work on the workflows and datasets.

Communicating Master Plans – Miami in 3D

Communicating Master Plans – Miami in 3D


When I think of Miami I think Will Smith… (if you know why leave a comment below)..

Anyway I’ve been working at clean format to view planning/zoning data in CityEngine webscenes and I think I’ve found it…

One thing I’ve got to work out is when using transparencies how to keep the labelling consistent, notice how the landuse areas are darker with a ground surface?

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3D Building Data from CyberCity3D

CyberCity Black

ArcGIS Geodesigner or Planning Engine? What’s in a name?

ArcGIS Geodesigner or Planning Engine? What’s in a name?

UPDATED on the 16/05/2012 – I’ve updated this article as I got it completely wrong, scroll to the bottom to find out more…

I’ve been thinking about how ESRI will integrate CityEngine with ArcGIS… either they are going to embed CityEngine functions within the core product, not ArcGIS basic but maybe standard or pro versions.  Perhaps as a procedural modeller toolbox?   Alternatively they are going to produce an industry specific product.

Personally I hate products being chopped up for different industries (I’m looking at you Autodesk and Adobe), but in some cases it can make sense.  For example urban designers have different requirements to geologists, so why would they want the same tools or have to pay for them?    Of course  I would point point out that limiting features based on profession can mean we won’t be able to learn from others!

Personally I think the name CityEngine is limiting your product, this is a procedural modeller which can just as easily do trees and agriculture as houses and skyscrapers.  So what will it be ESRI?


My choice?  ArcGIS Planning Engine…. what’s yours?


Okay I got it completely wrong if anything it won’t be ArcGIS Planning Engine, it will be ArcGIS Geodesigner and here are a few reasons why:

So will it be this?

ArcGIS CityEngine Templates

ArcGIS CityEngine Templates

CityEngine Templates at ArcGIS Resource Center

Finally the ArcGIS resource center is starting to get some templates to help you through the workflows from ArcGIS to CityEngine!

You can visit the CityEngine Templates section here.



Digitizing the Informal

Digitizing the Informal

I’m doing some digitizing for a project in the office, basically I’m plotting the entire road network in a city environment.   This sounds easy doesn’t it? Just plot the thick black lines and you’re done.   Well this is a country with a hot desert environment and a poor quality road network.   To compound matters there is a high water table, and places where there is no underground sewer network.

satellite image of informal road network
Informal Road Networks - but how do you record them?

The upshot of this is there are many informal road networks, even in the ‘developed’ neighbourhoods.   It’s quite easy sometimes to make a good guess as to the line of a road based on the housing.  But the road accessing a particular development can be erratic taking account of features and circumstances I cannot see from my satellite image (soft sand for instance).   What’s more how am I to know that this is a permanent road?   Sure it looks fairly set now but come the next season it will all change.

My general approach is to first establish what kind of project I’m working on and what information is required for the job.   Here I am choosing to acknowledge the existence of these informal tracks, especially the ones that look heavily used.   I’m also ensuring that the lines I’m creating have appropriate information about the feature for instance: “informal, access, unmade”.  I’ll also add some meta data to ensure anyone in the future who finds my work knows what satellite image I digitized from and what date I plotted it and for what purpose.

So fellow GIS professionals (particularly the ones that like to digitize) how do you digitize yours?  I’d really appreciate your insight if you could leave a comment or dm me on twitter that would be great!

The Future? The Instant City.

The Future? The Instant City.

Following on from my last post about ESRI’s purchase of CityEngine, what next? Well I already presented at the ESRI UK Annual Conference 2011 about how the computer game industry is influencing our work.   These were two presentations were linked by CityEngine: “The 10 Minute City” and “Games and the City”.  My goal (if they will allow me!?) next time is to present again but something called the “Instant City”, inspired by Charles Kennelly’s presentation on Real-Time GIS.


This would show how using rules in CityEngine all stages of a master planning process can be started at once.   This sounds strange but at present we start with background studies and evolve that into a number of growth options for a city and from that the client chooses.  This happens over months if not years!   The problem with this approach is that early on the client chooses their direction of growth, but what if the situation changes?  It’s going to be costly and timely to start again.


What I envisage happening in the future is that CityEngine and ArcGIS (and I thought about this pre-acquisition!) can be harnessed together to allowing multiple versions of a city master plan to go through all at the same time.   Then the client could choose at the end of the process a complete package knowing all its implications in terms of the Building Information Modelling (BIM) type of information.

Essentially you could start with a blank sheet knowing how many people you need to plan for, as time goes by more information is delivered existing roads, terrain, obstacles etc.. and as each data layer is imported into the GIS the CityEngine rules you have created run over it again and within your defined parameters remake the proposed city/growth area.


One idea was also to take solar data and use that as the basis for orientating buildings in CityEngine, so with a clever rule whole buildings could be orientated automatically depending on their location in relation to the sun, even in a valley!


The concept is simple but it requires lots of computing power, but I think we’re approaching now a time when computing power is a product of how many machines in the cloud you can afford to have working on a problem.    The Instant City idea relies on cloud computing (or a very powerful computer) to make it a reality.


Another thought I had was that it would be good to have some kind of large visual display at the ESRI conference and some PC’s around it.   Attendees could contribute to the design process of a city by adding data (satellite imagery, obstacle maps, roads etc..).   As each layer was placed in the model, CityEngine would update the city model and ArcGIS would in turn update its analysis (pie graphs etc…) all in real-time.


It’s all ideas at the moment and I would need some help (hint?) but it would be a great experiment and show off the capabilities of this new partnership.    At the end of the conference we could have a fully functioning city created with all the analysis completed by ArcGIS and in 3D.   What if the attendees for example could download the city and run around it in a game type environment as well (Crysis anyone?)?


Apologies for the somewhat dumping of conciousness there but I thought I should get it out there in writing.  I would be interested to know what any of you though about it?  Suggestions, queries, comments?  Add a comment, send me a DM on twitter or email me!

ESRI acquires Procedural – Master Planning & Urban Design just got easier?

ESRI acquires Procedural – Master Planning & Urban Design just got easier?

Yesterday at ESRI’s annual user conference in San Diego, Jack Dangermond announced the acquisition of Procedural, the maker of an “up and coming” piece of software called CityEngine that I’ve talked about quite a lot on this blog…

My reaction to this news is enthusiastic I already use ArcGIS in our Urban Design and Master Planning projects extensively.   I’ve been also looking at using CityEngine to speed up the process of master planning as well as other related urban projects.   Better integration with ArcGIS will be great for us.   I’m also looking forward to a more mature product at the next release with support for GeoTiffs at the top of my most wanted list.

From the moment I downloaded the trial of CityEngine (thanks to blog post in DigitalUrban) I saw that this program had huge potential on many levels for my industry.   The key to its usefulness, for me, is it’s ability (or potential ability) to deal with the macro to micro scale of planning.  For example I can get it to grow a region wide street network from obstacle maps and an existing network, but within that and dependent on your rule files I can zoom into building level and have a particular piece of street furniture outside a building.    The possibilities are endless, honestly, and the complexity of your model is only as complex as your rule files.    I can quite quickly make a convincing looking city for master planning purposes provided I put the time into the rule files that govern your model.

At it’s simplest level you can specify lot sizes very easily (provided your area is bounded by a road network).   This means that for some traditional ways of working (I’m talking AutoCAD plotting), has been dramatically reduced.   For a small company like the one I work for, where everyone has multiple jobs (I’m the CAD technician as well on master planning projects!) this is essential for us to remain competitive.

The future of certain urban based modelling, especially in master planning I see as two fold:

  1. Most of the drawing of urban areas will now be governed by text based rule files and drawn automatically using CityEngine methods.   Much of the time consuming processes involved in designing a new city will be reduced to a tiny amount of the project time.
  2. Design becomes more prominent in the process as time freed doing the manual work of plotting cities is replaced by CityEngine.   I think what we will see is design codes and planning standards used as templates to create rule files that can be changed very quickly.   When it comes to, for example, detailed studies for a master plan we as master planners will have much more time to actually design.   By that I mean instead of putting time into plotting in AutoCAD lots, plots and districts we will actually be able to design key buildings and other pieces of the urban fabric.
All in all this is a great piece of software not so much for it’s usability or stability (there needs to be some work done there in places!) but for what it represents which I believe is a complete change in the way we think about urban modelling especially in relation to the master planning industry.
ESRI UK Conference – My Presentations

ESRI UK Conference – My Presentations

My first presentation on Day One was entitled the “10 Minute City” to a largish group of people who made the trek to the basement instead of hearing about exciting developments in ArcGIS 10.1.  Honestly, thank you for coming down and listening to us all, not just myself.   VIDEO TO VIEW HERE After initial issues relating to my video not playing on ESRI laptops and codecs (I’ve never figured out codecs all I can say is it worked on my PCs and their offices ones too).

Here I demonstrated a workflow that used CityEngine and ArcGIS as the pivot points in creating a very basic city model for visualisation and analytical purposes.   I hope this went down well and if people have any more questions about it (I know I skipped some of the detail) then please don’t hesitate to contact me.

My second presentation entitled “Games and the City” was to a much smaller audience, I gave a live demonstration and an insight into a workflow we’ve been looking at using specially built software with assistance of InfoLab21.

My quick quiz about what game and system this screen shot was from got no correct answers unfortunately (and I was going to give the person who guess correctly a snazzy GDL memory stick!).
Perhaps you would like to guess? (answer in the comments below, no prize though sorry!)


Both presentations should be available to upload from the ESRI site soon, I’ll also try and post it here soon.

Apologies to those of you who saw the presentation and saw it stall at one stage.   I’ll blame it on the lack of a mouse mat, the awkward position of the mouse on the podium oh and my shakey hand due to nerves!