Welcome to Virtual Chicago

WSP’s 3D model incorporates infrastructure and covers 450 square miles

May 2018


In 2009, the Chicago Architecture Foundation unveiled its Chicago Model — the largest, most detailed physical replica of the city ever made, representing 400 blocks and more than 1,000 buildings across 320ft2. Like many residents, Tom Coleman gasped in wonder. Then he decided to go one better. “I wondered if we could replicate the stunning visual display, but make it a smart model, linking data, projects and infrastructure,” explains Coleman, manager of technology integration at WSP. The WSP project visualization group in Denver had already produced large visual models of cities including Seattle, New York and San Francisco, but they were just that: visual, with no intelligence behind them. Coleman wanted to link with engineering design software, to communicate with the city’s data portal, and display not just buildings but transport and other infrastructure projects. “Most visualization models are focused on a site or a project because it’s too time-intensive to go larger. I wanted to create a bigger picture that engages people to solve problems.”

He decided to use Autodesk’s InfraWorks, a tool originally intended for individual structures, like roads or bridges, not a data-filled cityscape covering 450 square miles. “InfraWorks allows you to bring in many different kinds of information — geospatial files, CAD files, other building files, Revit and other 3D model files. It also has a database behind that can link to sources such as the city’s data portal. And it can transfer information with engineering design software like AutoCAD Civil 3D.”

From The Possible, issue 03

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It took a few years to build the model, and it is also undergoing continual upgrades as it is used on projects across the city, including the River Edge Ideas Lab to redevelop Chicago’s second waterfront. Coleman proposed that the model be used as a resource for the nine competing design teams as well as a way to showcase their proposals for three sites along the Chicago River — a total of 27 designs.

“InfraWorks enables us to create sub models, so we could select an area, package it and give it to the architects. They said it was great for giving them the context, but they wanted more detailed information, such as the water height and the delineation of the river bank.” He went back to Autodesk and the model was enhanced using LIDAR laser surveying equipment.

Coleman believes such real-time models will become fundamental to city planning. “Real-time isn’t there right now, but software providers are pushing the market in this direction. Eventually, you’ll be able to go to one application and download buildings into your own models. Designing in 2D is not natural, but we now have the tools and technology to get closer to what is.”

The River Edge Ideas Lab is curated by the Chicago Department of Planning and Development and the Metropolitan Planning Council, with funding from Comcast, the Richard H Driehaus Foundation and Related Midwest. More details: ChiRiverLab.com, vizportfolio.com

This article appeared in The Possible issue 03, as part of a longer feature on digital modelling technologies



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