Designing Cities by Computer

January 24, 1994|By NEAL R. PEIRCE

NEW YORK — New York. -- Must we always let ''them'' -- architects, shopping-center moguls, parking-lot operators, local politicos, city planners -- decide what the world around us will look like?

Or could all of us, as ordinary citizens, be given a voice in the design of the streets and freeways, the buildings, neighborhood centers and parks and commercial centers that make up our daily environment?

An emerging form of technology says the days of ''them'' calling the shots could be numbered.

The technology, a few years old and now gaining fast in sophistication and accessibility, is called ''computer visual simulation'' or ''image processing.''

There's a new film about it, called ''Looking at Change Before It Occurs,'' written and produced by Meg Maguire, underwritten by the Design Arts Program of the National Endowment for the Arts, and available through Design Access in Washington (202-272-5427).

No one suggests that ordinary citizens, watching a set of computer-driven simulations showing alternative futures for their neighborhood or town, could put expert architects, engineers and town planners out of business.

But simulations could be one of the most democratizing tools of our time by letting all the players -- from experts to ordinary citizens -- see the changes new building or development forms ** could bring, and then influence the process based on their own values, beliefs and hopes for their communities.

The simplest form of simulation is a basic, two-dimensional form of graphics in which one simply ''paints,'' or superimposes, possible new structures or design changes on a photo image of a streetscape.

The ''Main Street'' program in Texas, for example, uses a computer-driven process to show the historic forms of existing buildings, or to illustrate how they'd look with different kinds of design or color treatments.

Actual physical simulation models of cities, showing the impact of potential changes, date to experiments that started in the '60s at the Berkeley campus of the University of California.

Today's variant on faceless blocks representing buildings is to create a Lilliputian version of a streetscape by taking photos of the facades and then scale them to correct for perspective distortion.

The photos are pasted on the building models, and the scene made more real by adding trees, cars and human figures.

Then, when one lowers a gantry-mounted miniature camera into the model, a sense of walking or driving through the scene -- just like Hollywood special effects -- can be created.

Now the technology is moving on to three-dimensional computer-driven simulations which show all the physical forms of a city, almost precisely true to real-world measurements.

These GIS (geographic information system) models permit one, electronically, to swoop down into almost any street environment, see what it's like today and then check out how all manner of new roadways, buildings, demolitions or open spaces would affect the scene.

The Environmental Simulation Center at the New School for Social Research in New York is building just such a system, already incorporating large portions of Manhattan and getting ready for expansion to the other boroughs.

The model is so mathematically precise, notes Center director Michael Kwartler, that it can be used for zoning, permits and other public decision-making.

Proposed zoning changes, alterations to historic districts, the impactof new buildings on the sunlight that falls on parks or streets -- all can be measured.

In a city notorious for its loud, contentious debate about new building, the New School simulation lab findings are made available to any and all comers.

Not only is the information democratized, says Mr. Kwartler. He's also finding that contentious factions are far more likely to reach compromise solutions when the computerized simulation shows them what proposed building would really be like.

In a simulation for a town center at Princeton Junction, New Jersey, Mr. Kwartler and his colleagues found the town leaders and citizens rather quickly agreed, once they'd seen an array of computer-generated alternatives, that they wanted a much more dense, three-story main street than the low-slung one they'd imagined beforehand.

But simulation doesn't produce automatic answers. ''It's a kind of Talmudic game,'' says Mr. Kwartler. ''It only works if you ask it questions.''

And the buyer has to be beware, notes Ms. Maguire, the film producer.

The information in a simulation can be misrepresented, so it's important that viewers pose tough questions and keep boring in until they feel they can trust the technicians who create the simulations.

Still, the potential to demystify planning and development is enormous.

Keeping his finger on the most imaginative experiments nationwide, Peter Hawley of the National Endowment of the Arts cites examples ranging from simulated layouts for small towns in the Sierra Nevada Mountains (prepared by the University of California at Davis) to a program to record historic building and neighborhood forms -- and thus facilitate future reconstruction -- prepared at Louisiana State University for hurricane-prone Gulf Coast area.

When a truly useful technology is born, the critical question is how fast it will be adapted.

For the sake of America's town- and cityscapes, one can only hope our public universities -- the most logical sponsors -- will quickly jump on the simulation bandwagon.

Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.

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