Tag Archive for 'Planning'

Playing games

Last week has been pretty intense. My department finalized a, for a regional planning agency, rather unusual project and ran a couple of community meetings during the week. What happened in those meetings wasn’t the typical PowerPoint presentation followed by a Q&A. People, mostly of younger age, played a 3D video game and participated that way to Boston’s Chinatown Masterplan process.

Emerson students created the excellent video below, that captures the very core of the project in about 3 minutes:

I only got during the final phase of the project involved, helped testing the game, setting up the website and organizing our community meetings, but it was an absolutely exciting experience to take part in. Especially the first community meeting, hosted for Chinatown residents, stood out with an highly energized atmosphere.

The game helped in the meeting as ice breaker, facilitated engaging discussions about the neighborhood and provided a fun environment for the audience to work with. We all were somehow surprised when we actually saw game mechanics kicking in. At the point where scores and winners are announced, people started cheering, got all excited, compared scores and discussed strategies why one couldn’t complete all tasks or what would have been a better way to play.

The good part: it all had serious, real world backgrounds – well, real world compressed into 30 minute tasks. However, the game deals with existing challenges of Chinatown residents. The game allows players to walk in somebody else’s shoes through Chinatown and complete tasks as another person, equipped with different skills and opportunities. It’s an educational game, used to gather feedback on and engage in an urban planning processes.

But it’s still fun to play, and fun is the one aspect I wouldn’t underestimate here. It helps to broaden the audience of the community meeting, attracts especially younger people and provides an experience you wouldn’t expect.

Although the game can be played online, it is designed for meetings, to be played by people located in the same room. The game serves as facilitator for participation and gets people talking to each other, very actively as we found out during the meeting. The game is not designed as standalone solution.

The online game version should extend the dialog started during the meeting and provide opportunities for others to chime in at any point (we’re working on it, almost there).

Further readings:

A long way ahead

Michael Moore suggested 9 action points to President Obama regarding the bankruptcy of GM. Bottom line of his article: convert GM’s car factories to mass transportation factories and promote energy efficient technology. Basically I would agree, though, I think it’s only one side of the medal and that there are a few more things one might consider:

Working on symptoms never cures the disease. Transportation needs are caused by urban planning. I’ve seen Jacksonville, Florida and I can’t possibly imagine how an urban structure like that one can be run by mass transportation. Providing public transportation services for such spread out areas – I’m talking about population densities as low as 970.9/sq mi in Jacksonville compared to 12,172.3/sq mi in Boston with decent public transportation for instance (source: Wikipedia, see map below) – is a tough task, and not very cost efficient or green. Urban sprawl at such dimensions leaves in most cases no other options than to rely on cars.

Population density in US cities 2000

Other ways of individual transportation – bicycles, walking – require shorter distances to daily services (groceries, schools, doctors, etc.). Again, a large residential area and a huge mall somewhere along the highway make it impossible to introduce anything but car transportation.

Apart from being the most unpopular word in that country, increasing taxes on energy prices, like proposed in point 9, will hurt poor people first if the policy is not balanced out well. Wealthy people don’t care as much about gas prices, they can afford better cars and probably live somewhere close to city centers where they don’t even need them so much. Poor people on the other hand are the ones who have to take a 2 hour daily commute in an old inefficient car to get to work or bring kids to school. Taxes are an interesting lever in transportation and energy policy, but not the holy grail.

Rethinking urban structures, transportation and energy policies is a time consuming issue. It took almost a century to create the status quo, it’s not gonna change in a single presidential term of 4 years. I believe this country must be prepared for a long way ahead.

A 3D-model for Salzburg

Autodesk and the Centre for Geoinformatics (Z_GIS) at Salzburg University announced today a cooperation on a Digital Cities research project. According to the press release, Salzburg will be the first city worldwide fully covered with such a 3D-model:

Imagine a combined digital ecosystem that can capture, analyze, and visualize projects on a city and regional scale—an open platform that supports secure and robust integration of CAD; building information modeling (BIM); and geospatial, simulation, and visualization data.

I don’t know the details of Autodesk’s Digital Cities, but as I read the short descriptions it’s aimed to become the Swiss army knife of city planning. Unlike so many other 3D-models, which look impressing at a first glance, Digital Cities doesn’t only scratch on a city’s surface but integrates all underlying information and data a city is built on. That’s truly an ambitious project. [via OTS]

Cars in the city

I can probably list more than a hundred studies, reports or articles dealing with the negative impact of cars on modern city structures. But none of them illustrates the benefit of car-free cities so well as the image below does:

Amount of space occupied by cars in Münster
City of Münster showing the amount of space occupied if the same group of people would go by car, bus or bike.

Which street would you prefer for living: the one packed with cars or the one where kids could play on?

I never owned a car and don’t plan to do so. My mobility is based on bike, public transport and car sharing and I can’t complain about a low standard of living. [via Helge]

Geodata Poker

TomTom did the obvious step and raised their offer up to 30 EUR per TeleAtlas share, making TeleAtlas worth a decent 2.9 billion EUR.

Why do I get the feeling that, no matter who wins the poker game, the loser will run into big “devices without data” troubles?

The point I’m more concerned about is how will the outcome of this poker game affect other TeleAtlas clients. It’s quite obvious that the future TeleAtlas owner will try to get the investment back. And what would be easier than to have a look at existing costumers? Since TeleAtlas and NAVTEQ (now part of the Nokia empire) were in monopoly excellent data vendor positions, many clients depend on their services.

Just like a considerable part of public administration (transport planning, etc.) relies on TeleAtlas (or NAVTEQ) data. So I guess, thanks to privatization and outsourcing, the TeleAtlas bill is partially going to be paid with tax money too. [via heise]

Who needs planners?

Apparently not the people of New Orleans.

After the failed master plan people there decided to take action and plan their city theirselves. 15 planning teams will design neighborhood by neighborhood. Even if the teams are supported by urban planners and architects, the final decision about how their neighborhood is going to be developed and built is up to them, the people.

Some might call it “democracy in action”, I call it dangerous. Maybe future of this planning process will teach me better, but I doubt that a city at the dimension of New Orleans can be developed without any long-term strategy and concept. Urban development is too complex for planning decisions made on an ad-hoc basis.

(via The New York Times)

Routing for cyclists

CyclistThe city of Vienna offers a well-built bicycle infrastructure. In September 2005 the 1000th bicycle-track-kilometer was finished. If weather is fine it’s the fastest way to move within the inner districts (1.-9.) of Vienna. I think its share in the viennese modal-split must be around 4-5% now. According to the Transportation Master Plan it should increase up to 8% by 2020. On certain streets you’ll be able to count about 5.000-8.000 cyclists on a rainless day.

Since spring should be arriving within the next few weeks I thought that I’ll have a look if there are some new useful bicycle tracks available. Browsing through the city’s website I came across this service: Routing for cyclists.

As in any other routing service you enter a start/end location and the system calculates the best (shortest/fastest/cheapest) route for you. Like car routing systems consider parameters such as speed limits, fuel consumption, traffic volume, etc. this bicycle routing includes one-ways (in many one-ways cyclists are allowed to drive in both directions), slopes, bicycle tracks and low-traffic-volume roads in its calculation. Sounds pretty exciting for everyone who likes to go by bike in Vienna.

Just to do a short test I entered my home and work address and let the system calculate the best route. The result was surprising because I wouldn’t even had thought of choosing that way to my office. But the route makes sense, maybe it’s better than I’m thinking. When weather allows it I’ll give it a try.

I’m aware that only car navigation and routing is interesting for doing businesses in that market. The business of city governments is basically, among others, to attract residents. One of the “products” a city has to offer is quality of life. In terms of improving quality of urban life and urban transportation systems, increasing non-motorised modal split shares, services like the mentioned bicycle routing can be a valuable contribution.

Of course building more and better bicycle-oriented navigation and routing systems would be nice task for GIS experts too.

Social Explorer simplicity

Gutenberg diagramRecently I came across the mapping tool called Social Explorer (via Cartography). It’s based on Flash technology and offers exploration of U.S. census data.

Since more than a year now we are working on a similar application for Austria. It’ll let users explore Austrian and European census data along with other information relevant to spatial development. Within the last year I could observe the focus of development shifting from technology driven discussions (e.g. offering advanced GIS functionality) to cartographic *correct* geodata and finally emphasising on user-needs. After the event people often have the wonderful gift of hindsight, so now I know that we should have put more weight on initial user-requirements discussions. Technology is a fascinating thing and we all were caught by visions of tools we would like to integrate.

A noticeable aspect of the Social Explorer is its simplicity. The first screen of our application contains more or less the same elements. We start with pre-defined maps, the user can switch between various topics and load different maps, we have of course zooming & panning, something similiar to that slide-show tool and the possibility to create reports containing tables and diagrams. But somehow the Social Explorer interface appears more clearly and easier. At a glance you know what you can do and what this tool has to offer, in our application it’s still more trial and error. A colleague hit the nail on the head by mentioning “It’s the American approach, keep it simple. We got the European approach, to make it more complicated than it actually is.”.

During the next months we’ll concentrate more on interface design, clean it up while keeping the same functionality to achieve a higher deegree of usability. In the end, usabality (beside marketing) is crucial for a popular application.

If you’re interested in interface design and mapping/cartographic applications you should definitely have a look at the Atlas of Switzerland, an amazing cartographic product.

Every time thinking about usability, interface design, etc. I recall an interview about Apple’s one button mouse, which they used to produce until last year. Asked why they still put only one button on their mice while other PC-mice offer I don’t know how many buttons and wheels the Apple employee answered: “Considering that Apple users have only one button available, Apple developers are forced to keep the interface of their applications simple in order that users can operate them with only one button.”. A way to guarantee Apple’s hallmark, the ergonomically designed user interface.

Deep red Google Earth

Google Spatial Planning EarthStefan from Ogle Earth links to a very interesting online article in the San Francisco Chronicle about how Google Earth is changing the way environmentalists work.

I think it’s not only limited to environemtalists, in my opinion Google Earth is changing a lot more work environments though. As employee of a company which deals mainly with spatial planning issues I can see how Google Earth gets more and more used and accepted by my colleagues. The main advantage is the extremely fast and free availability of basic geodata (especially aerial and satellite imagery) which was a few years ago difficult to get and mostly not affordable within our project budgets.

Google Earth helps us to easily validate locations. We can compare given land use plans against actual land use and validate certain input data. It’s not our main task to validate or create data so we don’t have base material for that purposes readily available. But from time to time we need to check certain locations on a larger scale and until now it was only possible if you have good knowledge of that places or you try to get more accurate material from certain sources which usually takes a long time in Austria. The combination of Google Earth and professional GIS tools even more simplifies this process. I can integrate and rudimentary display my own data in Google Earth.

On the other side, because Google Earth is a freely available application, I can publish my data as KML and offer it to our clients. Even if they are not familiar with GIS tools there is a good chance that they know how to use Google Earth. For our workflow the use of Google Earth is a huge step forward.

My favorite point on what Google Earth is changing is that suddenly former data access constraints do not work anylonger:

“Instead, it’s starting to look like a killer app that could change the power balance between grassroots environmentalists and their adversaries.”

Yes, Google Earth means something like communism to geoinformation. Everyone has (visual) access to every place, worldwide. Nothing remains hidden. As long as Google and certain governments limit their urge to censor maps.