Urban Planning, AugmentCity and The World’s Cities

 Urban Planning, AugmentCity and The World’s Cities
By Kathryn Kaiser, Treasurer and Founding member of the Green Crew
Why is Urban Planning Important?

Cities produce more than 60% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, making them an essential part of the fight against climate change (UN Habitat Report). Urban planning is a way to reduce greenhouse gasses. But besides its environmental and health implications, urban planning can also entirely transform a space for the people living there.

How I got Involved
The author, Kathryn Kaiser, in one of OSC’s smaller simulation domes

Recently, because of my interest in urban planning and sustainability and my membership in Green Crew, I got the opportunity to visit AugmentCity (a branch of OSC/Offshore Simulation Centre) for my senior project. I’d been involved in the Minnesota environmental community throughout high school, volunteering with organizations like Climate Generation and MN350, where a lot of my work surrounded environmental justice.

This focus also aligns well with AugmentCity’s tech since it can be used to find and reduce environmental inequality. Along with past environmental work, I have an elementary programming background and an upcoming Earth Sciences major from Columbia University and Trinity College Dublin that perfectly aligns with the missions of AugmentCity.

After volunteering with Green Crew and sharing my experience, I was connected to the world-leading urban planning company, AugmentCity.

Why Augment City?

I did not only visit AugmentCity to satisfy my curiosity. My entire visit was colored by my intention to bring this technology back to Minneapolis/St. Paul for interested businesses and municipalities. As a state, we care about the environment. As a city, we need to care about our residents’

Inside the largest dome’s lower level, where AugmentCity presentations are given

experiences.

Since Digital Twin does a great job projecting trends based on geography, it could go a long way in exposing neighborhood-specific inequality and environmentally-related health issues throughout the Twin Cities.

AugmentCity approaches city planning through a technological lens similar to “Smart Cities.” It uses virtual reality simulations to model datasets and visualizes the effects of city planning decisions.

(interior of the upper level, mostly used for offshore simulations)

Data visualization proposes that humans are better at processing visual data than processing numbers on a spreadsheet. By visualizing substantial data sets quickly, we can better understand how a space will function, its needs, and its faults. It allows planners to be effective and efficient. The technology that AugmentCity uses is called Digital Twin. Digital Twin is currently deployed in over ten thousand cities, including Cairo, Oslo, Berlin, Las Vegas, and San Francisco. I can imagine that this technology will only become more and more common as we become more intentional with the space we use, the resources we consume, and the lives our cities support.

Who is AugmentCity?

Based in Ålesund, Norway, the company rests in a relatively small town in a relatively sparsely populated country. Visiting the company, you quickly remember why it is a world-leading innovator. A gigantic metal dome hangs above your head as you stand in the entry hall, with smaller domes lining the platforms above. These are AugmentCity’s simulation domes, which allow clients to see their projections in an immersive space. Their largest dome is the size of a small house and has a lower and upper deck.

Just a floor down from AugmentCity is the United Future Lab, a part of the UN’s innovative city program. One of the main reasons for my visit to AugmentCity was a recent bid from a collection of Minnesotan businesses to host the 2027 World’s Fair. Minnesota is one of five destinations in the running to host the Expo, which could bring up to 13 million visitors and lasts 93 days. The focus of the bid is on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal #3, “Good Health and Well-being.” Ideally, the technology of Digital Twin could become a part of Minnesota’s mission and bid to achieve better health for our state.

AugmentCity’s close relationship with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the United Future Lab includes SDG lollipops along with their Digital Twins. These lollipops allow legislators to see the breakdown of their problem areas within the city, how well they have achieved various goals of the SDGs, and where they need work. After zooming in on one section of the lollipop, it shows the biggest concerns, say, “transportation,” and includes recommendations. It makes designing a city that achieves the SDGs easier and more manageable.

How Do Digital Twins Make Cities Better?
One of OSC/AugmentCity’s smaller simulation domes, used for marine projects

AugmentCity focuses on a few principles that make Digital Twins valuable.

Speed
  • Bridges the gap between the human mind’s limits and large sets of data quickly.
Effective Communication
  • Easily accessible plans allow for effective discussion between stakeholders. Politicians, businesses, and citizens can all speak the same visual language.
Predictive technology
  • Its cloud-based platform visualizes digital elevation and BIM models and then integrates different data APIs to create immersive modeling of future scenarios. One platform and multiple datasets lead to a smarter collaboration.
Cost Effective
  • Because the technology allows users to see how current changes would affect the future, they can make mistakes in the software instead of in real life. This means that the first build or implementation can be the last implementation. When project interactions are virtual instead of physical, costs are cut dramatically.
How Does Making a Digital Twin Work?
from AugmentCity’s introduction video on YouTube

First, a Digital Twin for a city is requested by a municipality to be used in a new project. AugmentCity tailors the data included in the Digital Twin to match the project’s needs. For example, say Cairo was looking to gain some green energy for the city. Its Digital Twin would then include the best areas to place solar panels, ideal coastal locations for wind farms, and seaweed carbon capture zones.

A “virgin model” is first created to make the Digital Twin. The Virgin Model is the basic structure of the city and looks similar to a Google Maps Street View. Unlike Google Maps, the Digital Twin also contains data on transportation, energy, pollution, flooding, sea level rise, heat, sun exposure, and many other customizable specifics. The specifics can include flooding mitigation, the health of people living in highly polluted zones, the best locations to introduce solar panels or wind farms, and the best detours to use during construction.

The product is more useful than spreadsheets or a 3D map like Google Maps because of its projection capabilities. Some examples of how it is used are…

  1. Sea level rise
  2. Energy efficiency for individual buildings and blocks
  3. Tracking movement through a city
  4. Improving public transportation
  5. Measuring air quality and noise levels
  6. Designing best detours during construction
  7. Catalog population changes
  8. Increase electrical vehicle use and walking
  9. Increase green spaces
  10. Simulating large changes to a cityscape (new university, stadiums, etc.)
  11. Mitigate flooding
  12. Determining the best areas for solar, wind, and water energy
  13. Determine health patterns based on location
  14. Visualize “invisible” pollution (air pollution and water pollution)
  15. Gain feedback on new public works (parks, trams, etc.)

Essentially, the Digital Twin allows us to design cities using real-time data. It allows us to make mistakes virtually and test various models before settling on the optimal choice. It exposes geographical patterns and can be edited to highlight the health of its city. Its wealth of tracking options can help cities reach their environmental goals. Most importantly, it makes all of this planning and processing happen at a much faster rate.

In Minnesota

Why is Minnesota Important?

Minnesota is critical in the fight for environmental health, especially regarding water. Holding the Mississippi headwaters, we are at the beginning of one of the most essential watersheds in our country. What we do here impacts millions further down the stream. If we successfully manage our two large cities that border the Mississippi, we can become a blueprint for other American cities looking to do the same.

In Minnesota, we are also already feeling the impact of climate change, and we must be able to adapt to those changes. Every year is record-breaking, whether it be storms, flooding, or heat. In 2021 Minneapolis had record-high heat waves that resulted in 134 deaths (Weather.org). Not only that, but with more sporadic rainfall and higher levels of concrete/nonporous surfaces, Minnesotans have had to cope with increased regular flooding (mspmag.com). This flooding is a direct result of climate change combined with increasing urbanization. As our cities grow, more green spaces and wetlands are replaced with concrete. In 2014, flood damages cost Minnesota $32 Million (MPR) and in 2012 amounted to $108 million (MPR). This year, expenses are predicted to exceed $27 million (ValleyNews Live).

Digital Twin has the capabilities to highlight and predict the best ways to decrease heat levels in the city and improve water management. After inputting basic datasets about sun levels, surface types, and buildings in the city, the heat created can be mapped and managed.

Environmental Improvement

One of the difficulties with issues involving pollution, heat, and water is that they are difficult to predict. Unlike buildings and greenery, their physical forms are fluid and depend heavily on changing environmental conditions. Digital Twin takes that difficulty away.

By inputting data already collected by the MPCA and individual municipalities, interactive maps for flooding, heat levels, and air pollution can be merged. But the real advantage comes in Digital Twin’s capabilities to then predict.

As part of one of my volunteering projects, I looked into water quality and how flooding is managed in Minneapolis. One of the main causes of flooding was increased development without planning for high levels of rainfall. As a result, much of the water drained through streets, yards, and construction zones before ending up in our rivers. Because the water picks up more pollutants, our lakes become unhealthy, and our water treatment systems get more intensive. More pollution leads to more chemical treatment, and the cycle continues. A recent report found that Minnesota currently has 6,000 impaired bodies of water, 11,800 impaired lakes, 69,000 miles of impaired rivers/streams, and 10.6 million acres of impaired wetland. Most of these impaired water bodies are in Southern Minnesota near the Twin Cities (MN Go).

Morning Service Projects

from AugmentCity’s introduction video on YouTube

Let’s roll up our sleeves, get dirt under our nails, break a sweat, sing some songs — and make a difference for the environment. There are several Green Crew projects which need a little extra attention to pull them “over the finish line.” 

Morning Service Projects

Let’s roll up our sleeves, get dirt under our nails, break a sweat, sing some songs — and make a difference for the environment. There are several Green Crew projects which need a little extra attention to pull them “over the finish line.” 

Health Issues

City planning and public health work hand in hand to create a healthy community. The environment plays no small role in determining daily life and, so, in determining daily health.

Currently, many cities are designed around the use of cars, not the well-being of people. Public health can be boosted by focusing on people’s experience within cities instead of the experience of cars. “Studies have shown that, in addition to reducing traffic, having green spaces with trees less than 300 meters from your home is an effective way to reduce air pollution, temperatures and noise levels.” (IS Global)

Transportation is a major contributor to urban air pollution, harming city health. A 2016 study found that air pollution affects 9 out of 10 urban inhabitants (NIH), and those effects are most harmful to children, immunocompromised, and the elderly (NIEHS). Higher levels of air pollution have been linked to smaller brain sizes in developing children, risk of cancer, and Alzheimer’s. It’s critical to address the health concerns that accompany climate change.

Changes in city management can be the tool to address that. Recently, bills have been passed for green buses and transportation that seek to switch our transport to solar energy. Using a tool like Digital Twin, besides highlighting health concerns, can also make it easier for health experts and policymakers to communicate which bills will be more effective in improving health.

Racism and Equity

Minneapolis is one of the worst cities in the US for black people to live in (NCRC), but it was ranked #27 “Best Places to Live” in the US (2022-23 Rankings). The Washington Post found in 2020 that “racial inequality in Minneapolis is among the worst in the nation” (Washington Post).

As a result of racist housing practices like redlining, health impacts from pollution are also felt unequally. 91% of communities of color are exposed to air pollution above risk guidelines (MN State Health Report). This results in a disparity of health effects; asthma death rates are 4x higher for Black Minnesotans than White (MN State Health Report). Minneapolis is a profoundly different city depending on race, and the Digital Twin tool can help to expose this pattern. It can show how alterations to current city design could reduce inequality in the Twin Cities, especially regarding health and pollution exposure.

Digital Twin can join the ranks of tools being used by Minneapolis to catalog and respond to environmental racism. Currently, there are various mapping projects like the University of Minnesota’s site “Mapping Prejudice” and the Twin Cities Environmental Justice Maps. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency also has overlays on a map entitled “understanding environmental justice in Min,” along with data on inequality. But to combine and effectively visualize all this data takes hours of consistent effort. Using a model like Digital Twin, that same data can quickly be processed, visualized, and disseminated to the public.

A Digital Twin of the cities could help us create effective solutions to new environmental problems. And, since trends are shown geographically, we can use the tool to make those solutions more equitable.

Citizen Engagement

Having a Digital Twin allows policymakers to communicate better with their constituents. In a specific case at AugmentCity, focus groups were brought in from areas affected by new development. To ensure the city was serving everyone it could, these focus groups were targeted and diverse and gave input on how changes to the city could benefit them. They included immigrants who struggled to use current public transport, elderly and disabled people who needed more access to public amenities, people living within construction zones, etc.

Another bonus of the Digital Twin is that it can continually be updated once it is made. A Digital Twin is a long-term investment, not a one-off project. If it is originally produced to control flooding, then, later on, it can also be modified to find the best locations for solar panels in the city. As the city grows, the Digital Twin model grows along with it.

Technology as Connection

Not only does this tech connect policymakers to statistics, but it also connects people to lawmakers. Regular people can look at an image and understand it quickly. This tool bridges the divide between different fields, needs, and expertise of an interconnected discipline like city design.

In the face of climate change, increasing pollution, racial and health inequality, and more densely populated cities, a tool like Digital Twin could lay the groundwork for effective, sustainable, and human-oriented city design. I can’t wait to see where this technology goes and how it develops.

If you want to learn more about this technology, visit Augmentcity.no. Share the idea of a Digital Twin with your representatives and community business leaders to bring this tool to our city (and state)-wide attention.

If you are interested in working with the Green Crew on a Digital Twin project, please let us know: 

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