Development of methods and practices of virtual reality as a tool for participatory urban planning: a case study of Vilnius City as an example for improving environmental, social and energy sustainability
© Stauskis; licensee Springer. 2014
Received: 11 September 2013
Accepted: 19 March 2014
Published: 17 April 2014
Multiple channels of sustainable urban development could be managed in the process of an inter-disciplinary cooperation and creative involvement of all stakeholders. The paper aims to verify how the specific methods of virtual reality simulation could be used as an effective tool for setting an efficient participation platform between the stakeholders to improve environmental, social and energy sustainability of urban development in modern cities. The paper is based on the case study of Vilnius City.
The article shows how innovative tools could facilitate better cooperation based on more balanced approaches in participatory urban planning by chronological review of traditional public involvement practices and structured analysis of emerging public participation techniques. As each discipline involved in sustainable urban development covers specific socio-economic, environmental, economic and creative competence fields, it is essential to develop a comprehensive tool for public participation that is well accessible, reliable and efficient.
The provided analysis of research theories and practical applications of public involvement through virtual simulation in the case of Vilnius City shows that virtual reality and spatial modelling integrated on gaming platforms under the conditions of widespread information and communications technology (ICT) applications could be developed and used as an innovative, involving and efficient tool for facilitating wider and more effective public involvement in the planning and design of urban environment and so increase social and environmental sustainability of urban development process. The application of this method for planning public spaces leads to more efficient use of environmental resources also reducing the need for primary energy and using it more rationally.
The analysis of using virtual urban simulation (VUS) method for representing, analysing, referring and improving urban design projects reveals that virtual applications can make public participation more accessible for citizens of the community and improve reliability of its results thus having direct impact on the planning process and its outcomes in terms of more sustainable impact on environmental and economic development of urban community.
KeywordsUrban planning Landscape Virtual reality Public participation Stakeholder involvement
Tell me, I forget,
Show me, I remember,
Involve me, I understand,
Step back, I will act.
Old Chinese proverb
Emerging public participation
The success of a particular case in Manchester turned into a precedent for the whole country that led to wider discussions on the issues of urban redevelopment between the residents and the councils. The case of hearing local residents and then setting the refurbishment strategies was finally formalised and included into the UK’s housing law. Still, efficient methods of communication between the clerks, the public and the business were to be developed. In Europe, many countries have gone through a similar process like in the UK in approximately the same decade. As a matter of fact, modern public participation methods were not used in East European countries until the last decade of the twentieth century for evident socio-political reasons. Finally, regulations on public involvement found their stake in national construction law mostly following the examples of other West European countries. In general perspective, public participation facilitates decisions on more rational planning and design thus saving material and social resources including urban land, materials, labour and energy.
The paper is designed as a set of analysed practices and case studies with public participation in planning. Techniques and potentials of spatial modelling and virtual representation are reviewed and analysed. The research starts by presenting the development of techniques in virtual representation and turning them into a planning tool. Virtual simulation in gaming environment is analysed by presenting several case studies including the one developed by the author of this paper. By comparing different tools and methods used for public participation, their strengths and weaknesses are identified. By comparative analysis, passive, active and interactive public participation methods are structured in the aspect of their interactivity. As a conclusion, the recommendations are drawn on how to apply and replicate innovative information and communications technology (ICT)-based public participation tools for better results in urban development.
Research of virtual reality applications in urbanism
Since the first papers were published on research in virtual reality and space simulation in 1989, the immense list of publications is available, illustrating the scope of research activities ongoing in different knowledge centres around the globe . As noted by Simpson in 2001, the published research primarily focused on general issues of environment simulation later calling for application of virtual reality in planning and design as well as analysing current examples and the role of urban simulation . Along that road, the aspects of urban simulation in geographic information system (GIS) environment were analysed, reflecting state of the art in virtual urban modelling. Applications of simulation for hazard research are one more area for research. Wider development of research on virtual reality applications in urbanism collide with technical limitations of both hardware and software, as well as lack of established research methodology. The most advanced research centres focus on the complex research of three-dimensional city scale simulation in a GIS environment also combining it with dynamic building of integrated modelling systems. Several main topical categories of references in virtual reality simulation could be identified. Urban and environmental simulation is a broad area covering references in urban and environmental simulation, visualisation and virtual reality, focusing on contributions to urban planning. Virtual reality and GIS application is another field for researchers whose centre of their glance is on virtual reality and urban simulation as it is developed in GIS environment. Urban and regional modelling by building, evaluating and testing urban and regional development models is the next broad category of references. Urban simulation and gaming section explores simulation and technical aspects of gaming. Technical aspects of urban and environmental simulation are common category of research being presented independently or incorporated into one of the above-mentioned categories.
Virtual reality models are different from reality, so it is an impression of a person involved in experiencing virtual reality. There are important aspects of human perception of the presence in virtual models that empower human senses as memory, bodily movement and kinesthesis . The sets of parameters such as awareness, memory, sensory notion, feeling of realism, attention and interaction are offered to identify the notion of mixed presence of the user in virtual models.
Stakeholder involvement as planning method
Special regulation adopted in the UK for developing a statement of community involvement (SCI) in urban planning allows the local government to set a goal in endorsing this regulation, to fulfil its vision in order to engage the people and organisations of Sheffield in planning for sustainable development . The experienced benefits of exercising this practice in Sheffield, the third largest metropolitan district in the UK, promote planning as a proactive tool for delivery of sustainable development, reflection of needs of local community, quality improvement and efficiency of planning as well as promotion of social cohesion by giving communities a tangible steak in decision making. The involvement covering public, private, community and voluntary sectors of local urban settlements has to be transparent, promoting real participation and involvement, accessible and inclusive, also accountable. The principles of SCI stated hereby include culture of engagement, early and continuous involvement, reaching out and fit for purpose, clarity and formal representation based on a certain code of practice. Several participation tools are identified to be applied by SCI: media, letters, public meetings, websites, distributed documents, exhibitions and questionnaires. Continuing the involvement, using its results and giving feedback on implementation are most important aspects for local communities.
The stages of SCI are evolving in the process of its undertaking as more cooperation experience is accumulated by the stakeholders. Starting with informing local residents about the planning process that is going to happen, it moves to the next phase: consultation of local residents and survey of their opinions, and further on, it leads to active involvement of communities in becoming a stakeholder and partner of the planning process . The necessity to consider the needs and expectations of all citizens’ groups is meant as ‘equality’ , an aspect which is important for the residents of all groups to believe that the participation process is legitimate and timely organised where the results are used for the public interest .
As underlined by the International Association of Public Participation in their project aimed at the improvement of cross-cultural exploration of public governance and decision making, innovative use of communication technology can improve the quality of public participation with indigenous communities who have much better perception of simulated images compared to two-dimensional maps and drafts .
However, several decades of applying traditional tools to involve the public into the planning turned out to be restricted in terms of access and time, transparency of the process as well as needed resources. Different types of meetings, committees and working groups spend much time as participants have little practice in understanding planning strategies, the process itself and its outcomes. Additional time is needed to access all groups of citizens, especially the teenagers and the youth. The meetings involving the members of local communities are usually dominated by few most active members who reveal their own opinion more than that of the whole community. It happens that these ‘activists’ have some motivated interest in the outcome of planning in terms of market competition, and so transparency becomes an issue difficult to control. Multiple meetings, repeated access attempts and the need to control the process involve professional staff, premises and services; therefore, the process usually becomes long and expensive compared to its results.
Basic phases of public participation as regulated by the Planning Law of Lithuania
Type of plan/time span for procedures
Information for citizens about planning procedures
Letters to owners, residents, companies
Letters to owners of neighbouring and planned plots
Getting acquainted with plan
20 working days
Public exhibition time
15 working days
10 working days
10 working days in advance
10 working days in advance
Complains accepted from public
The practice of implementing participatory planning methods in Lithuania has demonstrated quite similar limitations as in the other countries, transparency and efficiency being the main ones. There were cases when organised groups of community representatives have severely criticised selected development projects but later supported similar ideas presented by another developer. Citizen’s groups often act against everything and anything without a constructive dialogue, and for this reason, the architects in Lithuania are very modest developing more interactive dialogue and tend to have just formal procedures usually limited to a purely bureaucratic paperwork of announcements, protocols and reports. In this case, the real voice of residents remains unheard.
Accountability of planning organisers and transparency of planning process are the main social gains that are generated in the process of public participation as noted by the EU Directive on Public Participation . Involvement of groups of residents and other NGOs is especially encouraged as it brings also environmental education for people. Wider use of electronic media is appreciated by the Directive as one of the means for appropriate information and involvement.
Structure of public participation methods in urban planning and design
Field study, Interviews
Case study analysis, survey
Open space technology, gaming and multiplayer
Committees, meetings, test audit
E-government, virtual urban simulation
Analysis of the analysed cases shows that the attempts to maintain a contact with local residents and involve them in planning were carried out in primitive ways by using just formally required methods with no follow-up and real impact on the planned development projects. There were several cases during the last years when certain urban development programmes and decisions of city bureaucrats that were not supported by a part of Vilnius citizens ended with social protest of local communities. On the other hand, just the real cases when citizen’s rights to make impact on city development are violated cause active informal actions during which the civil society builds up and real participation experience is developed. Also, this encourages local authorities who act as planning organiser to seek for more efficient participation tools to transparently involve all citizens’ groups into a dialogue with planners and thus increase planning quality and make positive impact on the city development.
Innovative public involvement systems also cover energy and climate issues that are the major challenges in modern communities especially in creating urban complexes of nearly zero-energy buildings (Figure 3a). In the above-mentioned case, with quite limited interactivity, the citizens demonstrated their interest in the newly built up facility, it could be expected that even greater interest would emerge when the future development would be presented in the form of virtual immersive models with interactive user’s interface. This approach is illustrated below.
Virtual reality is more and more often used as a planning tool. Visualisation of planning and design material gives an important planning support in landscape architecture design. Virtual reality models allow the citizens to understand spatial and temporal processes of design; they encourage communication and comprehend planning proposals. Testing the virtual reality (VR) models in three-dimensional (3D) spatial design showed that 2D models and aerial photos are also needed to support orientation on-site, and the best results are achieved by combining these tools together. The virtual models offered to the public are preferred to be realistic but not too photo-realistic as fancy details and other visual effects distract attention instead of focusing on essential features of a site. Visualisation sparks public interest in planning proposals, while a balance of live VR shows and Internet visits should be maintained. The development of the planning proposal in time is of a great interest both to the public and professionals which is already a 4D task for future development that enables to show and see 3D spatial planning that changes in a particular time frame (Figure 3b) .
Possible applications of virtual urban simulation include projects with public involvement into presenting, analysing and evaluating urban development models. Interactive tools provide residents with possibility to get a close look at the projects to understand the concept and feedback their opinions. The virtual urban simulation (VUS) system in association with GIS involves more data about the area and the residents such as land plot data, availability of government redevelopment grants and resident’s characteristics including willingness to participate in area redevelopment process. By linking VUS and GIS, it is easy and comfortable for the user to access all types of required information by highlighting it or identifying in other ways. On the other hand, it is doubtful that availability of the mentioned data layers and accessing it in real time will automatically generate information about the suitability of particular land parcels for redevelopment .
Effective visual representation of designed models gets especial importance in landscape architecture. It was experienced by the researchers of interactive landscape planning project in Koenigsluter am Ulm (Germany) that the integration of innovative media tools with participation methods in planning process allows achieving better citizen’s understanding and higher participation rates . The platform comprised open-source components turned to be efficient for individual implementation depending on the specifics of the project and real needs of the community.
Some space simulation systems enable the user to modify the urban development model: change houses, trees and other elements from the designed library. The option of change of the area in time is especially a useful feature for local community residents, e.g., experiencing the change of landscape in time how trees grow up and streetscape changes over time. Linking these applications to real estate information as land plot costs makes them especially useful. Some systems build their efficiency on features as generating development of the area by selecting houses through a typical prototype library as practiced in Los Angeles, CA, USA.
SimCity video game series which started in 1989 is recognised as one of the first virtual urbanism gaming applications that besides its gaming aspects bears a didactic role that is being used in several urban training practices around the world. Since spatial modelling tools were developed, they adhere to similar features of gaming products, e.g. graphical features, user interfaces, multi-level interaction and others. Some agent-based modelling features are presented as conceptual gaming tools . Video games are more and more important as spatial modelling tools and simulation engines able to analyse socio-spatial and hierarchical systems of modern urban environment both in real and designed cases. Still, video games and simulation models implement rules based on different and even opposite methods: complex models explicitly expose possible choices and their interrelations, while in video games, the user has to discover the rules of the play himself. On the other hand, video games are appealing and pleasant because of their graphic features and interactive scenarios that are more involving and attractive for the user.
Virtual simulation and gaming in urban context
Being a way of learning about the world in general and learning new knowledge in particular, gaming has several great advantages of applying virtual simulation tools for public interaction and, in particular, for participation reasons. Firstly, it is an immediate report of behavioural and emotional status of a participating subject to the system. That allows recording extremely reliable information about the user’s opinion without distortion of results for the reasons of delay in time, location, emotional status, different context and other casual circumstances. Second, it is attractiveness and involving a sense of gaming that erases the barriers of age, gender, social experience and others. Thirdly, ICT application provides equal and easy access to the information regardless of time and location.
ICT-based gaming tools used to specifically involve youth in the urban planning process activate the specific segment of citizens that are often ignorant of urban policies as long as they stay aside of the youngster’s life. The application of Minecraft Block by Block as an ICT tool for young people can show planners how they would like to see their city’s public spaces, residential and recreation areas look like in the future . The partnership of the UN-Habitat, Swedish Building Services and the gaming company aims to give the youth greater appreciation of how sustainable urban development could be integrated into their cities.
Virtual urban simulator for public participation
The basic problem of designing Missionaries Park is its better social inclusiveness and response to the needs of local communities and all citizens. Municipal authorities that are responsible for the project are not sure if the draft programme for the park design is fully coherent with these needs and wishes to verify it with the citizens. The draft project of the park regeneration has been prepared and presented to professional community where it was evaluated in the aspect of professional quality. Still, social inclusiveness is the goal pursued by the local authority also for the reason to make construction and maintenance of the park easier by involving local business and public interest. The Missionaries site is located on the edge of Vilnius Old Town, at the site of the historic suburb. In fact, it is a central part of town within the historic residential area on one side and an abandoned industry facility on the other. The area is a part of the former Missionaries convent established on-site in the sixteenth century (Figure 5). Proper regeneration of the park with integrated services from the surrounding buildings is expected to bring one more recreational facility within the historic part of Vilnius City.
There were several basic features set as an initial aim of developing the new system for public participation in planning and design. Primarily, it is the immediate character of response that would allow eliminating uncertainties with participant’s real opinion regardless of external influences. Secondly, it is possible to maintain access to the focus group of residents who, in our understanding, are interested in planning outcomes and impacts on their community. Thirdly, it is easily accessible for any user with a PC, laptop, tablet or even a mobile phone device used by the young and the elder, at home, office, public space or elsewhere. What is needed more is permanent access to the planning data on different stages of a project. From preliminary design to development plan, implementation, monitoring and feedback are main stages on which the efficiency of the system has to be designed, tested and evaluated.
Survey indicators for analysing virtual gaming information
a. Can the designed Missionaries Park function as the central recreation space of the city?
• Park is frequently used by all urban residents
• Park is the popular meeting and communication place
• Park with services from surrounding buildings is the family leisure place
• Spatial arrangement and plant design facilitate public communication in park
b. Can Missionaries Park become the part of life for local communities?
• Local residents daily visit the park
• Residents have their loved places and spaces in park
• Local residents organise their events in the Park
• Local residents take part in planning, construction and maintenance of the park
c. Is Missionaries Park capable to attract mass cultural and recreation events?
• Poetry, music and other festivals take place in the park
• Park spaces and plants attract wedding and other event photography
• Flower and other exhibitions and competitions take place in the Park
• Park spaces host cultural events of the neighbouring convent
d. Can Missionaries Park become the safe and secure place for recreation?
• All spaces in the park are attended by different groups of users
• Spatial arrangement of the park makes it free from areas for potential attack and vandalism
e. Other questions for the survey
• Park entrances and fencing
• Pedestrian transit tracks across and in the park
• User-safe water features
• Features and services of surrounding buildings are frequently used
• Most popular viewpoints and visual connections to and from the park
Participation phase is based on direct involvement of pre-selected residents and other stakeholders in the virtual gaming process by performing pre-designed tasks according to the game scenario. During the starting phase of the project, two scenarios were created: one built around the family recreation activities in the park and the other with recreation of group of friends in the park (Figure 8). In both cases, the users were given certain tools for analysis of the place and performance of the given scenario. In both cases, they could easily move around the park area within enclosed perimeter and select a preferred place for their family or friend’s meeting by locating preselected recreation equipment and street furniture at preferred spots of the park area. The scope of tools was designed in a way which could provide the park designers with information about the most and the least attractive places of the park, track the movement of players across the park area to see the busiest tracks, and identify the most necessary public furniture for the park.
The analysis phase of VUS includes the data processing and analysis, interpretation of acquired results and their delivery to the project development team for their integration into the final design. The project database will be requested to give a response on data indicators directly related to the tasks of the client that were integrated into the gaming scenarios. The results are expected to put light on the importance, attractiveness and functionality of the planned public space. Finally, the results will be delivered to the planning team for discussions and decisions about the possible actions. In the case of excellent or very good results, the decision might be that the plan could be passed with no or minor additions and amendments. In the case of good or satisfactory results, the plan should be modified by the features pointed out as missing or weak in simulation and testing process. In the case of fair, poor or unsatisfactory evaluation results, the plan has to be seriously reconsidered starting with its aim and objectives, also all planning proposals including socio-economic and environmental planning consequences.
The presented project is still ongoing in its community involvement phase (Figure 7), and the analysis of results will follow in the next phases of research.
Results and discussion
The periods of development in public participation illustrate close relations between the historical development of urbanism and growth of civil society. Rapid urbanisation processes brought more people to cities where urban communities with specific lifestyle were developed, and the way how their residential areas were planned and designed gradually became part of social capital with informal rules and traditions of communication, space maintenance, safety and security. In order to keep and grow this value, the built environment of urban communities should be treated very sensitively during the redevelopment or refurbishment phases thus avoiding radical transformations and demolitions. Public participation is the link that provides planning organisers with the information from real living communities allowing to verify and eventually improve the design based on feedback information.
Methods of reality representation for stakeholder involvement and public participation
Drawing, drafting, painting
CAD linear drawing
Virtual reality simulation
Building hard models, photography
Three-dimensional modelling, model rendering
Gaming, virtual role play, virtual cities
By analysing the methods of public participation, one can notice that each of them has strong sides and weak points; on the other hand, each of them activates a specific area in the community and checks the plan at a special angle. This takes us to an important finding that different tools of public participation should be used in complex by combining methods that are appropriate to the taken case and could give the best available results. To avoid duplication, the most fit-for-purpose methods have to be selected minding cultural, ethical, technical, social, and the other features both in the community and in the project.
In the situation when ICTs are more and more becoming a daily use feature, it is natural to involve them as one of the important tools to be used in public participation. Analysis of recent participation practices demonstrate that ICT-based tools can attract the groups of population that often fall out from the group of participants and give them a modern easily accessible tool using technologies and devices that are already at their disposal. At the very beginning, it should be clear about the strong features and the limitations of this tool as VUS or similar. Virtual reality is not a substitute to the real face-to-face interaction of citizens; it is a supportive tool with several very strong and efficient features as listed in this paper (efficiency, transparency, accessibility and resource consumption) that was missing among traditional instruments of public participation. ICT tools allow creating a multi-layer stakeholder platform that is an essential feature of planning job. Allowing the public into this circle makes the group more complete, and by ICT tools - more powerful in the decisions and the results.
It is essential to have proper software and technical support for the development of this kind of ICT-supported systems. The main dilemma in this phase is finding the best compromise between the systems that are most effective for space modelling on the one side and gaming process on the other. In the VUS case, Unity 3D was chosen as an efficient and comfortable gaming environment that opens wide opportunities in model building and optimisation. Usual drafting, modelling and rendering techniques could be used for the initial phases of the process, later converting the files to a programme supporting virtual gaming. It is essential to keep in order the GIS background and environment so as to get direct references to land sites and buildings in real urban locations.
By responding to the goals of transparency, immediacy, direct access, permanence and follow-up, VUS extends the methods of public participation and introduces a modern, efficient and reliable tool. Essentially, VUS is a new word in the development of interactive and interdisciplinary cooperation platform for public participation that is essential for efficient and effective urban planning and design as foreseen by Agenda 21 and the Aarhus convention in 1998 .
The presented VUS methodology is developed as an innovative tool to help Vilnius City Municipality, on small scale, to examine in an interactive way to what extent the project of Missionaries Park meets the interests of local and all the city’s community. The latter will be given an opportunity to get acquainted with the project and report its opinions about all features of the project. Moreover, the method allows checking the planned facility on public attractiveness, functionality, safety and security and, if needed, making the necessary improvements. Lastly, the system enables local authority to establish a contact with potential event organisers and other small businesses in order to shape the park as a space fit for different types of public events that will also be an important feature for economic viability of the place. All together, it leads to more rational use of social and material resources as human labour, urban land, natural and construction materials, and energy.
As permanence and monitoring are important features of planning and design, VUS opens perfect possibilities to monitor the process of planning, construction and maintenance as it could be repeatedly used to indicate the preferred modifications while the facility is in use. There are many other possibilities how the VUS tool could deviate once taken into regular practice by local authorities, communities, businesses and moderated by researchers. Numerous lines of research are open to further development and investigation of specific features of melting public participation with virtual imaging and gaming. As the on-going VUS project already revealed, gaming feature is extremely attractive and involving an environment that could facilitate wider involvement of residents into public participation activities compared to traditional techniques. Interdisciplinary teams of researchers and practitioners are needed to creatively apply the knowledge from the fields of planning and architecture, urban sociology and anthropology, environmental science, ICT and related themes in order to increase the quality of plans and make the implementations more sustainable for the citizens and the environment in the process of construction, use and maintenance.
VUS as an interaction platform can drastically change the design, evaluation, teamwork and participation in planning and design and bring more sustainability instead of hierarchy to the process. VUS application has a high technology edge when the urban space is planned and designed. High visual quality of VUS models is essential to bring realistic familiarity with the realistic landscape image to seriously motivate and involve the user. Finally, the broader questions arise: whether new planning and interaction tools give too much control to the public over their decisions about the future of spaces and buildings usually planned and designed by urban planners and architects. The answers lie in the balanced socio-economic understanding of the roles and missions of architects and the public.
Looking forward, public participation could and should become a trendy exercise to be used actively; joining in ICT technologies is the way to its wider application. Popular and widely used tool would extend the number of users and make it more popular among the groups of young population rarely engaged in ordinary hearings, meetings and committees. In the long run, ICT-based public participation would transfer as a specific application to social media and offer plenty of easily accessible information and effective tools under moderate resource.
Gintaras Stauskis is a Doctor of the Humanities in Architecture and a professor at Vilnius Gediminas Technical University (Lithuania). He is conducting academic training and research activities at the Department of Urban Design, Traku str. 1, Vilnius LT-01332, Lithuania. He is involved in the European Union research programmes on Green Building and sustainable urbanism. He is the Head of Lithuania Green Building Council LTGBC and a member of the editorial board of the Journal of Civil Engineering and Architecture (USA), Landscape Architecture and Art (Latvia) and Arhitektura un Pilsetplanošana (Latvia). His current research fields include landscape architecture and planning, ‘green’ urban architecture and mobility, accessibility of environment, recreation and urban health. His research results have been presented in numerous national and international publications and conferences.
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