Digital Greening
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Digital Greening

Neil Manthorpe, Associate Director – Design, Atkins

Access to parks and green spaces has been one of the defining factors of an individual’s experience and wellbeing during the lockdown. The value placed on green places has never been higher. And I believe our renewed desire to ‘get out’, to explore, to exercise and to be immersed in nature is here to stay.  Everyone deserves to be positively affected by good design of public places, parks and green spaces.

So, how can we realise our need for more green spacewith the ever-increasing pressure on our public places. One way is to better utilise the digital tools we are already engaging with in design, construction and infrastructure planning.We are in a unique position to innovatively use BIM and digital tools to increase access to and improve the quality of our green spaces.

BIM and 3D visuals

BIM by its nature encourages us to design, work and collaborate in 3D. BIM readily allows us to create models that are more accessible to a range of stakeholders, including the general public and end users for many of the environments we create. BIM utilises data within the design process from ecological surveys to topographical information to provide an accurate interpretation of the space. This data can be creatively used to develop inspiring landscapes for our local communities to enjoy.

It is difficult to bring 2D plans to life, but by using 3D visualisations and augmented reality we can inform and engage a wider audience at public consultations. This gives people a more realistic understanding of how an urban environment will be implemented and the opportunity to provide more meaningful feedback on how that space could be improved. During lockdowns, this has become even more important as digital models and ways of engagement have been essential to allow projects to move forward without face to face consultations. BIM has created a more efficient way to communicate designs but more importantly to bring to life the design process, to promote more open and engaging conversations.

Integrated tools

To realise the full power of BIM and 3D, we need to look at the integration of the visualisation and modelling tools we use across disciplines. Too often, an engineer will use one platform on a single project, an architect another and a landscaper yet another. And while a Revit model may be effective for a single building, it doesn’t account for the space around the building to the extent it could. There are powerful tools like NScape that allow you to pull together technical models that are also accessible to stakeholder and community groups. Our aim should be to move towards a common data platform between disciplines that is accessible to all who are working on, or impacted by, a project.

Following a cohesive BIM strategy can help deliver an integrated and multi discipline design that considers all factors particularly the experience of the end user.

Data-based decision making

We can also be much better at using data to inform location, type and function of green space, as well as management and maintenance. The London Planning Datahub that Atkins has created with the GLA is a great example of this – it allows for close to real-time planning information to be made accessible to all 36 Greater London planning authorities. This type of system could help us model a more equal provision of infrastructure across a city. For example, identifying locations where pocket parks are most needed and viable and then replicating their design to deliver them faster to disadvantaged communities. 

Our urban environments are built up of different layers of information from pedestrian movement analysis, climate readings to historical records. There is a narrative running through this, segments of information and data that can be utilised to optimise the design process, construction, maintenance and the user experience of our urban environments and green places.

Street Greening

BIM provides solutions on how to integrate new features into existing assets. Take a typical city centre street: the pavements cover the complex mix of utilities from electric supplies, water to fibre optic broadband and gas supplies. Integrate this with the need for different traffic modes, drainage, street furniture, street trees and the different user demands of people and there is a truly complex system. Through digital twins, we can provide a virtual representation of our cities to establish how to interface with each of these assets.

This model would provide the optimum locations for street greening, where there is space for new trees and where they have opportunity to thrive. This can be correlated with data on the societal demands for additional space and inform positive change across our towns and cities.

VU City have started to map this with 3D models for planning and design. Taken further, the functions of our roads, crossings, movement and our green infrastructure can be integrated and city-wide strategies developed.

An economic case

Underlying all of this is a strong business case for green space. The Natural Capital study for the GLA showed that for every £1 spent on parks there are £27 of benefits, on everything from property prices to water management and drainage, biodiversity and wildlife, improvements to air quality and benefits to our health and wellbeing.

The future of digital greening sits beyond the traditional benefits of driving efficiency and deliverability – it provides an opportunity to deliver greener and more sustainable landscapes in the heart of our cities.The strong economics behind green space, not to mention the added social value, mean our investment is more than justified, as is our incentive to bring in new technology.

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