Getting to grips with SketchUp – what do planners have to gain from 3D modelling?

Hajnalka Biro, current Town and Regional Planning graduate from Dundee University, and member of the Scottish Young Planners’ Network steering group, reflects on the use of 3D digital modelling in planning and a recent CPD event in Dundee.

The last 30 years have born witness to an ever increasing use of technology in our day to day lives. Whole industries have shifted, some voluntarily, some through necessity, to digital platforms. This shift has been felt within the planning profession as well. E-planning is increasingly used as a quicker, more efficient way of submitting planning applications. At the same time, it could be argued that the benefits of technology should be capitalised on to a greater extent and go beyond using it to assist administrative tasks. There is now a potential for technology to aid the process of designing and evaluating proposals as well as engaging a wide range of actors with the planning system.

The fact that digital tools are rarely used in planning has also been highlighted by the planning review. As part of the digital transformation of the planning service, the review encouraged the exploration of the potential of three-dimensional visualisation. In related field such as architecture or urban design, 3D computer modelling is already an embedded practice. Visualisation software, once an expensive dream, is now a simple and easy way to communicate ideas and convey information to clients regarding design solutions.

The potential role of digital visualisation is increasingly being understood in the planning profession as well. Learning to create 3D computer models now forms an essential element of the undergraduate Town and Regional Planning course at the University of Dundee. Being a current graduate from the course myself, I have learnt to use SketchUp, a software package which can easily be adapted to suit the purpose of planning. SketchUp allows the building of 3D environments, from a simple structure to an elaborate townscape. The software is simple to use and models can be created and modified in the matter of minutes. It helps the user to think about their design and experiment with mass, scale, height and material. A 3D model can also go a long way in helping others understand the impact of a proposed development. Showing a realistic visualisation of different scenarios can facilitate discussion with clients, the public or professionals from different fields.

As part of the Scottish Young Planners’ Network I recently had the chance to organise a Sketchup training event to support the uptake of 3D technology in the planning profession. In the session, the software was introduced to planners without previous experience in modelling. The aim of the workshop was to gain basic skills in 3D visualisation which can easily be put into practice at the workplace. Participants familiarised themselves with SketchUp and learnt to work with basic shapes in the 3D environment. It proves the effectiveness of the software that everyone succeeded in creating a model ‘housing estate’ on a basemap by the end of the hour. It was especially interesting to see how much participants enjoyed making their model unique with different shapes, colours and materials. At the end of the session, participants were encouraged to look at their model from different angles and see for instance how a pedestrian would experience walking down the street they created.

SketchUp event

Besides being a practical tool for planning, 3D modelling is also inspirational by nature. Demonstrating what a place we know today could become in the future, can put change in the built environment in a positive light. I believe that that quality alone should make the case for using 3D technology more widely in planning.

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