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A 3-D Visualization Engine For Reimagining Cities

Drag and drop a bike lane here, a park there and create a more perfect urban landscape.

If you want to think about the future of a city, 3-D is better than 2-D. You can see how streets, buildings, and transportation fit together in ways maps can’t really show you. That’s why developers have long developed physical 3-D models of their plans. Better to show the world what’s coming.

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The step forward with 3-D planning software like CityEngine, a sophisticated tool from the GIS giant Esri, is the ability to conceive the urban environment on-the-fly. You want a bike lane? Press a button. You want to take out the bus rapid transit? No problem. Previously such re-modeling would take days and weeks, if it could be done at all.


The tool was originally developed for movies (it’s been used for films like Total Recall, Cars 2, and others). Now it’s widely employed in city planning departments. For example, Austin, Texas, created plans for its sustainable places project with it, including visualizations of a new urban rail system.

“It starts a conversation and visualizes change within a context,” says David Wasserman, a software engineer at Esri. “It allows you to go from existing conditions and to see what the future might look like for both transportation and the city’s land in general.”


You start with a basic view of a street, including building footprints and street dimensions. Then, using drop-down controls, you can start adding features like bike lanes and greenery. At the same time, the system will run analytics in the background to tell you the impact on traffic, the likely conditions for cyclists (“bike stress”), and various costs, like the price to paint roads with a certain material.

Essentially, CityEngine is a more sophisticated, professional version of tools like StreetMix, Blockee and Key To The Street, which we’ve covered previously.

Best of all, these tools all help make the case for sustainable development in cities. “People have said that 3-D models create a sense of realism and help projects go forward, because people are less afraid of them and they have a better idea of what’s going on,” Wasserman says.

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.

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