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ArcGIS Urban: Six Fundamental Strengths

When first working with ArcGIS Urban, the technical wizardry that drives the generation of 3D buildings with the corresponding metrics, along with many other individual components, can be so enticing that we can miss the equally important core functionality that underpins ArcGIS Urban. This core functionality, which I’ve broken into six components, is very much an example of the sum being greater than the parts. While each component provides impressive functionality, it is how they work seamlessly together in an integrated environment that is powerful.

I’m going to briefly explain why each of these functional roles is so important, and I’ll provide a much deeper dive into each of them individually in future blogs.

1. The Big Picture

Two things define the big picture for planners: geographical breadth and data depth. To make informed decisions, all relevant information should be considered, and if manageable, there can never be such a thing as too much context. Blinkered views of an area of interest, often because of limitations of technology, can result in poor decisions. ArcGIS Urban is designed to work efficiently at the full city, ensuring that all available data is part of a single, consolidated viewing experience. For example, if protecting views to the mountains is important, those mountains should be visible when doing the analysis even if those mountains are well beyond the city’s administrative boundaries.

In planning work, it can be difficult to get a clear overview of the history of a site and all the relevant policies that affect it. ArcGIS Urban’s strength as an aggregating environment ensures that core regulatory data like zoning and key metrics on households and jobs are always available. No longer is there the frantic scramble to find the staff person (probably on vacation) who knows the current data on households. It is always there is Urban. Completing the big picture is the ability to see all plans and projects (past and present) in the ArcGIS Urban overview, including other relevant data such as major projects nearby. To make sure everyone-- planners, the public and developer--have the big picture, ArcGIS Urban can aggregate all the needed information and geographical extent.

This ensures that when starting new work, a planner isn’t staring at a frightening blank page, but a fully populated big picture.

ArcGIS Urban Overview providing key data at the full city scale.

ArcGIS Urban Overview providing key data at the full city scale.

2. The Forest and the Trees

An early step in preparing a new plan is assembling and curating contextual data for the plan area. Are there 3D models for the area? Who has the demographic data? Is the zoning layer current? As all the data is compiled, and all the full extent of the forces in play, we are hit with both the sheer amount of data and how large the necessary geographic extent is to properly address the planning issues. None of the issues act in isolation.

The challenge is not only do we need to work with this large scale contextual data, but we also need very detailed information at the individual parcel level. It is at this point many traditional tools falter. The first stumbling block is performance. Being able to work at both the full city scale and concurrently review the details of a single story in a building isn’t easy. ArcGIS Urban does what individual GIS applications and architectural tools do but combined in one application and in 3D!

Quite often, as the plan’s study area is finalized, what tends to happen is the area of focus becomes isolated, and the data beyond the boundary (the “forest”), is treated as just a passive backdrop rather than intelligent data that will help make informed decisions. At that point most of the plan analysis and development will be restricted to the study area (the “trees”).

ArcGIS Urban addresses this limitation by offering the flexibility of being able to shift from the high-level overview (the big picture) down and into the details of a plan, and even down to the level of the key components of an individual building.

Full city and zoomed in detail of an individual building in the city with metrics.

Full city and zoomed in detail of an individual building in the city with metrics.

Full city and zoomed in detail of an individual building in the city with metrics.

3. Ripples in a Pond

Just like the ripple effect of tossing a stone into water will stretch in all directions, the impacts of an individual plan or projects extend well beyond its boundaries. You can’t gauge the impact of a plan unless you can easily visualize and quantify the context. Given that ArcGIS Urban performs well at the full city scale, and has powerful data aggregating capabilities, it enables working with a wide range of data. Being able to incorporate custom indicator layers and construct detailed web scenes for contextual data ensures that the impacts can be recognized. For example, while working on a plan, adjacent cultural facilities, transit nodes, and crime data can be provided via a custom indicator layer. Urban minimizes unexpected and unintended consequences by never working in a blinkered environment.

Custom Indicator layers providing rich contextual data to improve decision making.

Custom Indicator layers providing rich contextual data to improve decision making.

4. The Swiss Army Knife

A common planning task in creating a new zoning is to study capacity and built form implications. Traditionally, doing so requires working with a 3D modelling application, a spreadsheet tool, and a GIS application. While there can be some data transfer between the tools, there is no real integration. While this process works, it is not efficient, is prone to errors, and is not a sustainable method for larger areas. ArcGIS Urban offers a wholistic and fully integrated approach to this task which is far superior to the fragmented experience spread across multiple applications.

Meet all your planning needs with a single integrated tool.

Meet all your planning needs with a single integrated tool.

5. The Easy Mode

ArcGIS Urban makes the complex accessible to the general staff and public ensuring clear communication while minimizing misinterpretation. A good example of this is how difficult it can be to understand what a zoning bylaw is allowing to be built. Zoning and other aspects of planning work use technical terminology that can create a closed shop. While an architect can interpret and visualize what can be constructed, the public and other non-technical staff understandably struggles.

Urban makes answering complex questions much easier. For example, a common question from the development community is, “What can I build on the site?” This is not as easy a question as one would expect. While most cities have web maps showing zoning polygons with some basic regulatory information like the maximum floor area ratio (FAR), all the core regulatory details that the architect needs to do preliminary design work are hidden away in PDF and Word documents. All the guidelines and regulations affecting a site might not be available in a consolidated and easily accessible environment.

Equally critical is that zoning information alone might not provide the full picture to the development potential. There may be other constraints that override the zoning for specific sites. An example is a site that is affected by a view protection requirement. The zoning might note that a maximum height of 150m is allowed, but the view protection requirement lowers this to 120m. This key information is likely stored in separate files, and when an applicant requests information on the maximum height for the site, it will be up to the applicant or staff to do the calculations. ArcGIS Urban makes things much easier by answering this question with a clear and specific number on what the allowed height is.

A typical zoning regulation document, which can be obtuse and intimidating to the public.

ArcGIS Urban visualizes zoning regulations in a clear and concise manner.

The image at the top is what a typical zoning regulation document looks like, which can be obtuse and intimidating to the public. The image on the bottom of ArcGIS Urban visualizes zoning regulations in a clear and concise manner.

6. The Big Tent

A common complaint from the public is not being aware of new planning initiatives until key decisions have already been made. And when they do know about the project, the meetings occur at inconvenient times and locations. From the planner’s end, it can be difficult engaging all the groups that are critical to the process.

ArcGIS Urban’s engagement functions virtually emulates a big tent that can accommodate a range of communication activities. It is a platform where everyone can check in on an ongoing basis to keep up-to-date on plans and projects affecting their neighbourhoods through a familiar web interface. This makes being involved much easier and convenient. Members of the public who might be reluctant to speak up in a physical meeting can now offer comments and suggestions in a more comfortable manner. As well, it potentially opens the process to more voices that can be heard in an equitable manner.

ArcGIS Urban’s Big Tent framework.

ArcGIS Urban’s Big Tent framework.

I’ve outlined the six fundamental strengths of ArcGIS Urban from my perspective as a user and implementer of the solution. Hopefully, I have been successful at capturing how these functions inter-relate to each other to create a powerful planning solution that can take in the wide city view, plan to the building level, analyze within geographic and environmental context, and create a refreshing experience for the public.

I would be interested in hearing which of these strengths are most applicable to you.

This post was translated to French and can be viewed here.

About the Author

Dan Campbell is a Senior Consultant in the Professional Services group at Esri Canada. He coordinates the implementation of Esri’s urban planning and design solution, ArcGIS Urban, and related visualization workflows for municipal organizations. Dan holds fine arts and architecture degrees from the University of British Columbia. Prior to joining Esri Canada, he spent many years at the City of Vancouver in the Planning and GIS departments. Dan has presented on 3D modelling and GIS at conferences in Singapore, Dubai, Hyderabad, Istanbul, Rotterdam and New Orleans.

Profile Photo of Dan Campbell