How virtual reality could help improve urban planning

virtual reality urban
Credit: Yuganov Konstantin/Shutterstock

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Placing virtual solar panels on the roofs of buildings by tapping on a mobile phone may not be how city planners approach their jobs but the creators of a new game-like virtual reality app believe it could help design better cities.

Paris-based tech company Toolz says their Smart Favela application can be a “game changer” for both city planners and residents, turning often chaotic and underdeveloped urban areas into cities of the future.

The award-winning application allows city planners to visualise the development of neighbourhoods, including services such as water, energy or transport, using a 3D model of an area to create a virtual avatar of a city.

Residents can review the project using their mobile phones or computers and leave feedback about the proposed investment. They can also suggest what other services they need.

“The objective is to involve citizens in the decision-making process, stop top-down urbanisation,” said David Laure, Toolz founder and chief executive.

“What we do first is a lot of communication about potential solutions so that people are aware what can be done, how it works and how much it costs,” he said by telephone from France.

According to the United Nations, the urban population has grown rapidly from 746 million in 1950 to nearly four billion today. By 2050 another 2.5 billion will have moved to cities.

With 90% of this growth predicted to unfold in Asian and African cities, the United Nations warns that managing cities and population growth has become one of the most important challenges of the 21st century.

Smart Favela can be particularly useful in planning investments in informal settlements that often grow haphazardly as more people move in, and lack basic services like water or sanitation, said Vincent de Boursetty, advisor at Toolz.

“It helps city planners make sure an investment is going to be useful and that all the solutions have been explained to the people that are most concerned by it,” de Boursetty told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“And that’s essential because for cities it’s very important that they invest in the right projects as sometimes they spend a lot of money on things which don’t make sense to people.”

When shiny cable cars sprouted in one of Rio’s favelas a few years ago, its residents were not too impressed, complaining that while the gondolas were popular with tourists, they would much rather see investments in sewage and schools.

De Boursetty said those who decide about investments in cities would prefer to pay for projects the residents really need, rather than risking disappointment and complaints.

“What I found out discussing with a number of representatives from local authorities is that they are genuinely interested in gathering proper feedback from their citizens,” he said.

(Reporting by Magdalena Mis; Editing by Katie Nguyen. Thomson Reuters Foundation is the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, corruption and climate change.)

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