Urban design can’t come from the top down

Designing an urban environment involves confronting complex physical and social issues such as cultural contexts, economic situations, regulatory systems and personal and community preference.

The design process should take these issues into account, but most of the design methods currently used by urban design professionals are ‘top down’ approaches where the designer, rather than users, dictates the process and outcomes. These top down approaches also don’t leave space to communicate with users or develop multiple design ideas to suit a variety of needs.

Conventional British and American urban planning and design practices have been criticised for their relationship between the physical designs of urban areas and the social needs and attitudes of citizens. Public participation in urban planning is crucial to improving the relationship between design and social needs.

One of the obstacles preventing a better relationship between designers and citizens is the lack of tools available to visualise the urban space throughout the planning stages. Our study, completed as part of the National Science Challenge Building Better Homes, Towns and Cities team, aimed to use virtual reality tools to solve this problem. Our theory was that using these tools could help involve users in the design process, helping them understand how urban design works and giving them the chance to help design their own urban area.

To test our theory, we worked with residents in the Wellington suburb of Karori. Wellington City Council had already run several public meetings in Karori to understand the community’s interests and priorities and identify locations for further development, producing a map of locations that could be suitable.

Building on this data, we ran our own virtual reality design engagement events at Karori Community Centre. Attendees at our events worked in groups of two or three to use virtual reality tools to redesign a currently empty space next to the Community Centre. One participant used the tools to redesign the environment, using a headset to view Karori in virtual reality and add new design elements to the site. The other participants monitored their designs on a 60” TV screen and made suggestions for different additions the virtual designer could make.

We discovered that designing in this way really suited community members. They were able to easily work together to create different designs, and we saw them naturally collaborate on designs, including important but perhaps less exciting design elements like driveways and fences. They treated the virtual environment as if it was real and were able to bring their real-life experiences easily into the design process to create designs that would suit their lives in the suburb.

We collected a huge range of designs from this process, from parks to playgrounds to restaurants, and we believe we could collect even more ideas by engaging with more members of the community.

Virtual reality design tools can offer a platform to visualise and analyse urban scenarios for urban designers and planners alongside stakeholders. Engaging stakeholders using a virtual reality design platform can reduce the gap between reality and conceptual design processes, leading to a more favourable design outcome for the end user and community.

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