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PlanTech - coming soon to an inquiry near you

07 January 2019 Author: Colin Ball

New digital technology for planning - or PlanTech - is rising on the agenda. The RTPI recently announced initiatives to work more closely with Future Cities Catapult and the new CPD Framework identified digital planning as a key skill for planners. The Planner magazine even featured the latest apps in their December issue.

The 3D images of ‘real’ space were quite astonishing and I was able to form a clear and realistic idea of the building’s relationship with its future neighbours and the local streetscape.

Two recent inquiries in Tower Hamlets, London, have given me, a planning inspector, a glimpse of what this means for the future.

Assessing townscape impacts with virtual reality tools

The first case involved a 48-storey tower block at Canary Wharf.  Docklands is changing rapidly, with literally dozens of sites first developed in the 80s and 90s being redeveloped with much taller buildings.

Some of these are in various stages of implementation and many others have permission but have not yet been started.  Other sites are the subject of current planning applications and more are allocated for tall buildings in the Local Plan but are yet to come forward. 

Assessing the townscape impact of a proposed tower in such fluid circumstances is a challenge.  A normal site visit could not possibly give a true picture of how a new building would fit into its fast approaching new surroundings.

The developer’s solution was to create a 3D digital model of the proposal in its near-future setting to show how development in progress or with permission nearby would look like upon completion. Likely schemes for current application and allocated sites were also agreed with the Council. This allows the tool to create photo-realistic verified Computer Generated Images (CGIs) showing 360º views from 10 different viewpoints.

At each location on the site visit, to the bewilderment of passers-by, we circled round in virtual reality headsets and were able to ‘see’ the building in its all-round future surroundings in 3 dimensions.  The 3D images of ‘real’ space were quite astonishing and I was able to form a clear and realistic idea of the building’s relationship with its future neighbours and the local streetscape.

While photo prints of the 360º views were submitted as record documents, they do not convey 3-dimensional information and, on their own, would not have been anything like as convincing.

Helps understanding of impact on daylight levels

The second case concerned a tower block squeezed onto a constricted site in Aldgate.  Conventional CGIs were used to present the scheme in its surroundings but to show the practical impact on daylight and sunlight levels for neighbouring apartments, one of the key issues, both the Council and the appellants used special virtual reality (VR) software.

Plan Tech 2

Image: VU.CITY

In this case, they use VU.CITY’s interactive 3D model of London and other major cities, which provides details of every building, road, terrain, tree and public space down to an accuracy of 15 cm. It was a clear improvement in the presentation of what can otherwise be very daunting technical detail (the written evidence on this one subject ran to 9 large volumes!).

Applicants can add their proposal to the model, and then view it from any direction and level. The relationship between the proposed development and the surrounding buildings can readily be assessed. 

Anything that makes the impact of a proposal more readily understood by the public, committee members and ultimately at inquiry has to be encouraged. 

Moving, walk-through views from street level are particularly useful in assessing townscape impact.  The time of day can be altered to show the changing effects of daylight, sunlight and overshadowing.  It can show London’s protected views and can include pedestrian and traffic modelling.  At inquiry this is presented on a video screen for public display and on USB memory stick as an inquiry document.

PlanTech can offer higher quality evidence at appeals

While all this is clearly only feasible for larger schemes at present, there is no doubt that the use of VR technology in particular is becoming widespread and that we will see much more of it at inquiries. 

I understand that London Borough of Southwark is now requiring applicants to submit a 3D digital model on VU.CITY as part of their application. The world of PlanTech will surely move on too with, for example, 3D block modelling developing to a more detailed, photo-realistic CGI standard.

Anything that makes the impact of a proposal more readily understood by the public, committee members and ultimately at inquiry has to be encouraged.  I believe these technical advances will provide higher quality evidence and make some aspects of an inspector’s job easier. But there are implications – for example, just how do you cross-examine primarily visual evidence? 

Luckily, we don’t need to get involved in the technical processes of all this – otherwise, as the eminent QC in the second case commented, those of us without teenage advisers will be struggling.

Guest blogs may not represent the views of the RTPI.

Colin Ball

Colin Ball

Colin Ball is a planning inspector at The Planning Inspectorate.