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Month: July 2011

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.