Urban “Systems” Planning

Plan-it sustainably 

By Scott T. Edmondson, AICP, Northern News, September 2014

A peek into the future of planning and sustainable urban development tools

What if SimCity were more than just a video game and you could imagine your city in the future, apply real-life zoning standards, and whip up 3D visualization of the resulting urban form on the fly? What if there was an app that could help planners explore solutions to long-range planning challenges? Or an app that could help planners explain and demonstrate visually complex planning concepts to the public, such as density, growth, and sustainability?

Under the auspices of the San Francisco Mayor’s Office of Civic Innovation’s Entrepreneurship-in-Residence program (EIR, http://bit.ly/1sKBJM6), the San Francisco Planning Department’s Information and Analysis Group (IAG) answered those questions — and more. This mayoral initiative paired six civic tech startups with six City departments to craft tech tools to improve municipal services. The EIR Program, Mayor Ed Lee said, was about fostering the city’s on-going tech relationships and thinking beyond the boundaries of basic government. His inspiration was President Obama’s call “to have the brightest minds to help solve our biggest challenges” (http://1.usa.gov/1sKBZdV). Together, in this new mode of civic innovation and entrepreneurship, the six department-entrepreneur teams collaboratively explored problems and design tools to respond to their departments’ current civic challenges, thereby using “technology to make government more accountable, efficient, and responsive” (http://bit.ly/1sKCe8X). For 16 weeks, the IAG collaborated with Synthicity, a Berkeley start-up, to test a new tool called UrbanCanvas, a powerful graphical front end with instant 3D visualization and urban design capability, http://bit.ly/1sKCww.

So what does all of that mean to a non-technical planner? It’s like SimCity, but real. Well, almost real. And it’s in 5D — meaning 3D models plus time plus scenarios — using mass data processing, procedurally generated 3D objects integrated with back-end analytics, rapid design rendering, and instant visualization. Synthicity’s developers designed UrbanCanvas to engage stakeholders in collaboration that leads to high-quality urban development decisions. Imagine planners, designers, architects, community residents, businesses, nonprofits, developers, investors, and political representatives no longer poring over voluminous text or two-dimensional renderings, but instead, looking at proposed developments in virtual 3D as they perform against municipal goals, the planning code, new state codes for net-zero energy, or more aggressive “living” city goals. This next-generation planning tool also shifts the analytic focus from parcel- and building-based land use and design controls to potentially improving urban systems performance — from high-quality placemaking, to access and mobility, prosperity and equity, and sustainability and resiliency.

This two-pronged mission of Synthicity — analytic power enabling visualization-based collaboration and next-generation urban “systems-performance” planning — is what excited me, the lead IAG planner for the EIR Program, when I heard that Synthicity was one of six firms out of an international field of 200 firms selected as finalists for the program. During the program, a core IAG team worked with Synthicity to identify a range of IAG’s “pain points,” and focused on two challenges:

  • Estimating the City’s “soft-site” growth potential (residential and commercial); and
  • Rapidly formulating and assessing project alternatives in terms of market feasibility and planning regulations.

For the Planning Department and Synthicity, the EIR program allowed for exploration and development of proof-of-concept tools, and concluded on July 11. The next steps will involve an extended team of planners and urban designers continuing to test Synthicity’s UrbanCanvas software. The team will also assess and incorporate the potential of Synthicity’s tool suite for its ability to further enhance the Department’s long range planning information system.

To mark the end of the program, the Mayor’s Office hosted Demo Day — a set of final presentations on July 30 — highlighting the six teams’ successful collaboration to develop innovative responses to civic challenges. Check out Planning’s Demo Day presentation on YouTube at http://youtu.be/80_YuCrAegU (1:32:12).

(Note: A version of this article previously appeared in Cameo, SF Planning Department’s Daily Plan-it, September 2014). Scott T. Edmondson, AICP, is a senior strategic sustainability planner-economist with SF Planning’s Information and Analysis Group (IAG). He works on a range of projects, such as area plan monitoring, land use performance and sustainability research, long-range land use allocation, and innovation to further develop IAG’s capacity.)

Scroll to Top