Since opening in September, the Hunters Point Library in Long Island City has faced community backlash for not being fully accessible to people with disabilities. In addition to the three levels of bookshelves only reachable by stairs, the ritzy $41 million library includes many sections that advocates allege disregard the needs of people with mobility disabilities. Rather than being an inclusive public space, the library’s design places a premium on the experiences of people without disabilities.
That after more than 15 years of development the new library contains such obvious accessibility flaws reflects not just a lack of outreach to people with disabilities, but the broader challenge that public works developers, architects, and planners have in negotiating hundreds of design decisions with communities before construction begins.
Even when digital renderings and design plans are made public years in advance, the difficulty of communicating a project’s real-world spatial character through 2-dimensional visuals hampers informed public feedback. Without earnest pre-construction community engagement, planners leave the door wide open for future delays, cost overruns, and lawsuits.
Yet, physically visualizing an unbuilt space is far from science fiction. Immersive technologies like augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) are already rapidly changing how urban planners enliven once-static spatial information. More than just flashy fads for catching Pokémon and sending ridiculous Snapchats to friends, these technologies have the potential to transform the urban planning and design process.
Often confused, AR and VR refer to two different mediums of computer-generated information. VR creates entirely virtual environments for people to explore, whereas AR digitally alters people’s perceptions of real world surroundings.
Though both technologies are still relatively nascent in urban planning, planners are readily using AR and VR across the world to gather community input, encourage collaboration, and streamline decision making for a wide range of municipal projects.
Previously inhibited by high costs and steep learning curves, these technologies are now becoming increasingly affordable and user-friendly.
Able to visually harmonize large datasets of blueprints, regulations, and community preferences, AR and VR provide planners with a clear view of how potential changes are connected to each other. More so, AR and VR allow all stakeholders to weigh in on how final products look and feel before their opening day, abating the risks associated with costly oversights and post-construction discontent.
In places that have experimented with AR/VR technologies, community engagement meetings that previously revolved around arcane datasets and 2D renderings now coalesce layers of data into immersive visualizations. As Ariel Noyman, a researcher with the City Science project at MIT Media Lab, contends, “there’s a huge difference between hearing [a] statistic and seeing it played out.” The Hunters Point Library case shows that though not every resident can gauge the accessibility of a building from a blueprint, most will have an opinion when they’re inside it.
This was certainly true for the redevelopment of Meadows Town Center in Castle Rock, Colorado, for which a design firm developed a fully immersive VR setup for modelling the final blueprint to community stakeholders. The firm listened to resident’s simulated experiences and made appropriate changes to the Meadows plaza design before construction would made such changes difficult.
In particular, resident use of VR revealed how shadows would move across the plaza throughout the day, which helped the firm choose moveable tables and chairs over fixed seating. Had the firm relied on static renderings for resident outreach, developers would have bolted the plaza’s tables and chairs—likely making them unusable during certain parts of the day.
By allowing everyone to step into the shoes of planners and architects, AR and VR also radically restructure power relations within urban planning and design. Inside digitally-constructed environments, local residents play around with different design elements and visualize how specific changes will impact their communities. These 3D models can help people leave informed feedback, embolden their participation across all project phases, and alleviate project-based concerns.
A few years ago, Noyman’s team at MIT Media Lab collaborated with the City of Hamburg on a project called Finding Places, which used AR/VR technologies in tandem with optically-tagged LEGO bricks to identify potential locations for refugee accommodations. In a series of community engagement meetings, participants adjusted the LEGO bricks in real-time around a map of the city, visualizing layers of different combinations. Out of the 160 locations that community members identified, the government authorized 44 and constructed ten—condensing a process that with can often take years.
Despite the awesome potential of AR/VR technologies, some experts worry about the ethical concerns posed by overly perfect digital representations. When the appeal of visualizations outweighs that of the real, the virtual can obfuscate the imperfect real world composite on which it’s based. For municipal projects of the future that will rely on AR and VR outreach, the temptation to use implausibly perfect lighting, introduce advertisements, and airbrushing sensitive material is very high.
Though the virtual world might allow us to experience unbuilt physical spaces, it might also bring with it a manicured image of reality that fundamentally alters how we perceive the places around us.
As governments embrace participatory planning processes, the push for AR/VR technologies in community outreach strategy is bound to intensify, especially as these tools become more cost-effective, more comprehensive, and easier to use. Yet, for these ultimate data visualization media to continue being useful for community stakeholders, digital devices need to specifically take into account the challenges that hamper local outreach efforts.
The computer-generated space shouldn’t subsume the community space. Rather, digital spaces should equip people with immersive, user-friendly tools they need to see through municipal projects and prevent bad development.