The complexity of urban challenges can rarely be addressed by asking simple questions. The debate circles around a set of highly complex questions: How to design more resilient cities? Can the use of XR technologies bring added value to planning and design? Could emerging technologies help to improve public participation in planning, and if so, would that make a more livable city?
I have been doing hands-on work for a long time – active urbanism, design workshops, prototyping together with people from varying backgrounds. The idea of joint exploration of what potential might lie in the nexus of XR technologies; social-ecological resilience, citizen participation and urban planning have resonated with me since my first poster presentation to people as a young architect.
To me, cities are defined by three primary layers of urban livelihood: the mental space, the social space, and the physical space. As we look into increasing citizens’ participation, we must tap into all of these layers. The ability to combine these three elements together is my take on extended reality.
Each planning process should start with a ‘why’, why is the participation needed? This allows us to ask the second question: ‘how’. Only then, can we ask ‘what’. Design never starts with a brick or a plank, and XR should never start with hardware, software, or any other trendy abbreviation for that matter.
Redesigning the planning culture
Instead of focusing on the technology primarily, redesigning the planning culture is something I would urge people to discuss. People are already aware of two mediums of citizen participation which have slightly different users. The first is offline, face to face meetings and gatherings. The alternative is online or digital realms which are having a different set of users different in their expectations.
I believe in both working together – and this was the main reason the Augmented Urbans project started.
Augmented Urbans pilot cases
To point out some of the ways where XR can serve both offline and online participation, here are three levels of possible applications of XR technology for citizen engagement in Augmented Urbans pilot sites:
1. Virtual teleport
The ability to immerse spatially to any location in the city and look around while planning or discussing a plan. Every planner can grab a 360 camera, head to the site of discussion and capture the 360 photo or video. Then, it can be accessed from your phone or VR device and shared with fellow colleagues.
Here you can teleport yourself to all 5 pilot sites of Augmented Urbans for example.
Any discussion will have an immediate immersive effect and act as an icebreaker as participants can teleport to areas you are talking about. This gives planning a user perspective instead of pointing towards a plan.
2. Experience Simulation
The ability to immerse yourself to experience some else’s user journey of utilising urban space. How would it be to use the space. E.g. with fewer opportunities? At a different time of year? Or get a feel of using a space that is not yet physically there?
Helsinki is one of those cities that have a detailed open source mesh model. There are many applications, including using it for interactive walkthroughs, experience on HTC vive and accessible to citizens at their temporary planning office. People could mark their ideas with virtual stickers, add hotspots and comments. Meanwhile, planners were able to capture feedback from observations and further discussions.
Here is a condensed summary of Helsinki experience.
Tallinn has put an emphasis on biodiversity and pollinator population along the 2.5 km green corridor, following a former railway and high voltage transmission cable lines. Guess the name? Yes – Insect Highway. The reactions to this often vary, but the most dominant: fear of insects.
Team Tallinn addressed these fears through an educational/awareness raising campaign explaining all the benefits from bees and butterflies in the city with powerful experiences at the action site.
They presented their new vision for the area, including enhanced ecosystem services through location-based AR. New frescos will be painted on walls throughout the site, in addition to brightening up the physical environment, they act as markers for the AR content.
The needed new AR functionality will be added to the city of Tallinn’s already existing AvaLinn app, which was already used for co-creating and participating in urban planning. Once the app and the frescoes are ready, citizens can learn about their surroundings and benefits of enhanced urban resilience by engaging in the AR content with their AvaLinn app.
Not for a technology but for process
The real value for any organisation that uses XR doesn’t lie in the novelty factor, it lies in the efficiencies that are created – the biggest value lies in the process.
When implementing XR, it is important to note that it is not the application of XR that matters, it is understanding which stage of the urban planning process the participation and engagement activities are carried out.
What level of participation is hit with face to face meetings, public presentations and workshops in order to define how detailed participation is expected. And then from there on flexibility to combine methods and tools lies in the hands of the planning team.
No technology will work as a patch for old systems. The way of thinking about urban planning in the new age, with new tools and fresh mindsets, is what we should aim for.