Good graphics improve planning processes

Planners talk about creating a sense of place. Local governments want development that is consistent with the community character. Developers want successful projects and shorter timelines. Our master plans and zoning ordinances call for high quality development, context-sensitive design, compatible building types and land uses and unifying streetscape elements.But what does that look like?Graphics programs and 3D modeling software can help decision makers make informed decisions, build support for ideas and plans and increase the likelihood that developers will bring suitable proposals to the table.ApplicationVisualization is a valuable tool during the planning process, in master plans, subarea plans, economic development plans, and design guidelines.  It’s also become an unparalleled instrument in the development of zoning regulations, specifically overlay districts and form based codes. Depending on the application, you can use a different combination of software programs to develop the most appropriate product.Software ProgramsBefore we get into the process, let’s look at the software generally used to create graphics and 3-D visualizations.tableProcessDevelopers do a great job of illustrating their proposals. Communities should capitalize on the same set of graphic design tools – going beyond plan and section views -- to develop a picture of how they want their community to look. Establishing the design process is an important first step. Community-driven plans and regulations provide an opportunity to control the design the physical environment without developer pressure. This process allows communities to step back and ask: What do we really want to see in our community? What kind of physical development enhances our community character? The design process is complicated and requires a steady feedback loop between designers and decision makers.pedestrian crossing troyStep 1: Set the PurposeWhy are we doing this? What do we want to see as the final product? This is where we build the scope (and the budget) for the project.General considerations include existing conditions, community character (urban verse rural), public opinion regarding changes to the built environment, level of detail desired in the product, and whether or not the project will focus on visualizing a large site or several smaller sites.Specifics items to consider during the first phase of visualization development include:

  • Context: What’s going on in the community? Is the community in the midst of a master plan, transportation study, or zoning implementation?
  • Purpose: What are we hoping the visualization will provide? Are we trying to educate the community, support the adoption process for form-based regulations or provide guidance to developers?
  • Focus: What is the primary focus? Should the visualization focus on site configuration, building placement and orientation, building design and architectural features, streetscape design, access management, natural features protection, multi-modal transportation, and/or pedestrian amenities?

Infill development, Southfield SmartZoneStep 2: Build the FoundationThere are three important components to consider during the development phase to build a foundation: program, aesthetic, and rules.A program or site diagram shows the spatial relationship between different programmatic elements. For instance, a diagram may show land uses (existing and desired), parcel sizes, natural features, buffers between land uses, and circulation network. Diagrams may be abstracted versions of a “typical condition” or may reflect the real conditions of a particular site.Photos and images help to define the aesthetic that embodies the community’s character (existing or desired character). Now is the time to go back to your “focus” from step 1.  Photos should provide insight on desired architectural features, pedestrian amenities, landscaping, etc.Finally, think about design rules or more precisely, the zoning. Are you going to adhere to existing zoning regulations or is the intent of this visualization to ultimately introduce new regulations such as reduced setbacks, density bonuses, or mixed-use? And ultimately, how does this document/product relate to zoning and actual enforcement?Site organization and landscape, Springfield TownshipStep 3: Design and RefineThe final step is pulling it all together - the program, the aesthetic, and the rules. At this point, the visualization is in the form of a concept model. This 3D model needs to be edited and refined into a final product that is most appropriate for the desired application.Final ProductHere are three examples of a final product: a perspective drawing or cross-section with labels and dimension, an animated fly-through, and a photorealistic rendering. The perspective or cross-section may be most applicable for form based codes or zoning overlay, design guidelines, or subarea plans. The fly-through is a great tool for education or persuasion. The photorealistic renderings can be particularly informative when used as part of a design guidelines document or subarea plan.

Perspective drawing with labels, S. Michigan Avenue Form Based District, City of Howell

Photorealistic renderings, ReImagine Washtenaw Design Guidelines, Pittsfield and Ypsilanti Townships

To view an animated, 3D visualization fly-through, follow this link