SimCity for Real (Tech Trends Feature)

30 Sep, 2008 By: Kenneth Wong

Combining CAD, GIS, and gaming, CommunityViz lets planners and residents see the future in 3D.

In the published meeting minutes of zoning commissions and planning committees across the country, one software program's name keeps showing up. In May 2008, Matt Noonkester from Kimley-Horn & Associates, a land planning consultancy, went before the Technical Coordinating Committee of the Nashville Area Metropolitan Planning Organization to explain the use of a specific geographic information systems (GIS) solution for the tri-county transportation and land use study. The software selected was CommunityViz, which Noonkester predicted would "become the new socioeconomic software data platform." In July 2006, Alex Weinhagen, director of planning and zoning for Hinesburg, Vermont, told the local planning commission that he believed CommunityViz could "help [the commission] develop visual representations of possible rezoning options for the village growth project." The same software made cameo appearances in the Missoula County Open Lands Citizen's Advisory Committee meeting in March 2008 and the Eureka Township Envisioning Task Force meeting way back in August 2001.

CommunityViz is a set of extensions for ArcGIS, a family of GIS solutions from ESRI. Currently priced at $750 per seat, CommunityViz won't likely raise the eyebrows of many who hold the purse strings. With the software's dynamic maps, charts, and 3D models, planners and developers can produce GIS-based simulated landscapes that are accessible to the council and committee members who might be unfamiliar with GIS. By displaying the future scenarios in 3D, users can show the decision makers, for instance, the number of new homes and schools they would need to build in the next five years or the effect that a series of shopping malls would have on the natural environment. If desired, you can even use CommunityViz to help them determine if they can collect enough taxes to pay for the projects.

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Alex Miller, president of ESRI Canada, called CommunityViz "SimCity for real." And the comparison to the popular computer-based, city-simulation game is spot on. The next release, CommunityViz v4 — slated for this fall — is expected to feature a new 3D component called Scenario 3D, based on OGRE 3D, an open source C++ scene-rendering engine designed for computer games.

Orton Family Legacy

The origin of CommunityViz can be traced back to The Vermont Country Store in Weston, a small town nestled in a valley and buttressed by the Green Mountains. Here, in a community of roughly 600 residents, Lyman Orton and his three sons run the family store, still standing on Main Street today as it did when his parents, Vrest and Ellen Orton, opened its doors in 1946. Today, the original store is the physical flagship of a mail order catalog and online retail business. Orton and his neighbor Noel Fritzinger had long participated in community planning, so in 1995, the two established the Orton Family Foundation as a resource for small cities and towns trying to cope with the socioeconomic changes in the region. Profits from the store support the foundation.

As they began the search for tools to help them answer some of the most fundamental questions about land use, the men had the forethought to bank on technology. During the next eight years, they invested in the development of a 3D geospatial tool that would later become CommunityViz v1. Eventually, setting its sight on financial sustainability, the foundation transferred the sales, support, and further development of CommunityViz to Placeways, an independent company owned and operated by a number of people once affiliated with the foundation.

Dose of Gaming

Doug Walker, Placeways president and principal, said, "CommunityViz is right at the heart of the coming CAD–GIS integration, with [computer] gaming on top of it."

The current version, CommunityViz v3.3 (figure 1), features two complementary modules: Scenario 360 and SiteBuilder 3D, both based on ESRI's ArcGIS platform. Placeways describes Scenario 360 as an "interactive analysis tool and a decision-making framework" that lets you paint land-use types on a map and instantly see associated socioeconomic and environmental impacts, calculate the development capacity of your land, automatically rate different locations, and view multiple scenarios side by side. SiteBuilder 3D is described as a tool to create photorealistic, 3D interactive scenes from 2D map data, and it comes with an exclusive library of more than 350 models of houses, buildings, trees, and streetscapes to help you populate your 3D scenes.

Figure 1. In CommunityViz, a planner can adjust assumptions to compare differing opinions or values. The dynamic charts provide up-to-date results based on dozens or hundreds of impact indicators.
Figure 1. In CommunityViz, a planner can adjust assumptions to compare differing opinions or values. The dynamic charts provide up-to-date results based on dozens or hundreds of impact indicators.

The new Scenario 3D component, similar to SiteBuilder 3D, will allow you to build 3D scenes incorporating 3D architectural models in KMZ format, Collada interchange format (DAE), or 3DS format, making it compatible with Google SketchUp, Autodesk 3ds Max, VectorWorks, and other popular 3D design tools.

Walker pointed out that, because CommunityViz is based on ArcGIS, the imported map features retain "all their GIS data, such as who owns the property, how many stories it has, or what its street address is."

Shape of a Community

According to Walker, almost all planners want to study future build-out scenarios or research how many buildings could be built at a particular site based on its current land-use regulations. In CommunityViz, you can create build-out plans using a wizard that lets you select the desired layer (for example, parcel layer) from the GIS data, set dwelling-unit density, floor-area ratios, development constraints (such as arable lands that need to be preserved), then let the software do the calculations. The output results can be tied to a timeline, so a planner can review the build-out design in a chronological progression (figure 2).

Figure 2. The TimeScope function in CommunityViz, viewed here in Google Earth, allows users to visualize community growth over time from an early stage (top) to more-developed clusters.
Figure 2. The TimeScope function in CommunityViz, viewed here in Google Earth, allows users to visualize community growth over time from an early stage (top) to more-developed clusters.

Three Alternatives for Vernon

Lex Ivey, the founder and principal of the consulting firm TerraCognito GIS, was one of the original beta testers for CommunityViz. He now relies on the software to help his clients, such as the city of Vernon, British Columbia, Canada, understand how urban development could affect the region.

"For the city of Vernon, we built a spatial–temporal model of the development history, starting from circa 1910 to the present," he explained. "Then we extrapolated the land-use patterns to project future land use. We studied the different land-use scenarios' impact to see their encroachment on the agricultural areas, the visible hillsides and ridgelines — characteristics that define the community." The analysis also included a look at how long the residents would need to walk to the nearest basic service centers, such as public transportation, health care providers, retailers, and employers.

The Smart Growth Advisory Services, a partner of Vernon's planning department in the official community plan review, wrote, "Every step of the [community engagement] process has built on the previous work done, all of which has led up to the current CommunityViz–based, land-use model." When the city presented three scenarios for growth in Vernon, the public overwhelmingly selected Option 3.

In the three draft development plans (now archived online at under Maps), Option 3 is dubbed Neighborhood Centers for its concentration of new multiple-family development — apartments and townhouses — in and around the proposed neighborhood commercial centers. According to the annotation on the draft, it's meant to "[direct] growth into the already built-up area of the city."

According to Ivey, the archived maps showing the three options were created by Vernon's GIS staff, based on the studies in CommunityViz and advanced spatial analysis in the planning process. CommunityViz is "not a crystal ball to predict the future," he cautioned. "It's a tool for planners and stakeholders to see what the development potential is."

About the Author: Kenneth Wong