Procedurally Modeled Cities

Procedural modeling of cities is a topic that’s been on my mind for a while now. In my day job, I spend a lot of time doing market and policy research in order to inform population and employment forecasts undertaken for land use and infrastructure planning. Whenever I talk to people about my work, I get the sense they assume I spend my day adjusting knobs on a giant black box that takes in one set of numbers and spits out another. This couldn’t be farther from the truth (and I would love it if it were that easy).

What is procedural modeling of cities? It’s an algorithmic process to create a visual model of a city based on a set of rules and relationships.

How does forecasting relate to procedural modeling? Because that’s essentially what we do when we forecast; we try to model how a certain region or city will grow based on a set of rules and assumptions. Procedural modeling may give us a platform with which to visualize our forecasts beyond the standard tables and graphs. It has the potential to physically illustrate the effects of various policies (dependent on responsible analysis).

Hold the horse right here in case you have no clue what I’m talking about and need some background info. I’ll admit this paper has been sitting on my “to-read” pile for a very long time and I still haven’t really dug into it to get to the technical bits and bobs. I’m mostly fascinated with the idea itself and its potential applications (the technical bits can be explored later if I actually pursue a project).

In the general public’s eye, the products are mostly visible in video games. Take Sim City – it essentially accomplishes the same thing but puts you in control of the shape and form (based on that set of underlying rules and relationships between different variables). Use of procedural modeling in games was limited to closed systems due to technological constraints for the longest time (or how much data your computer could handle) but with the recent release of No Man’s Sky we can safely say the sky is the limit (applause).

The potential for application beyond games is huge. With the onset of virtual reality and augmented reality (more important for what I’m thinking of), using procedural modeling to give people a taste of how their cities could grow can be a real game-changer. So much of how we try to present visions of the future to at public consultation relies on the limits to each person’s own imagination (and many people come with preconceived notions that are hard to overcome). Having such an immersive tool to show people how much, or how little, a potential project could change the urban fabric would be invaluable.

Of course it’s not all fun and games and rose-coloured glasses. Any number of nefarious characters could use the same means to turn public opinion over to their darker, more self-serving side. So take my excitement with a grain of salt.

However, it could still be an interesting way to approach scenario planning and policy analysis. Instead of trying to guess how a particular policy or strategy may play out, we could try to visualize it directly through modeling. In order to do it effectively, though, will require us to really test and come to agreement about the types of relationships and their thresholds between different socioeconomic variables that affect land use and infrastructure. We would also need to do a better job of collecting the relevant information in a format that’s consistent throughout time. Right now a lot of the physical features are pulled out of satellite imagery, which may work for things like games or entertainment, but not for serious policy analysis.

Burning Man: Some Thoughts on Black Rock City

I finally went to Burning Man this year, after keeping it on my bucket list for a few years.

Everyone knows about Burning Man and everyone has an opinion on it. Before I went, I didn’t have much of a positive opinion on the event besides that it was some hedonistic party/music festival. After speaking with a long-time burner about the effort and planning that goes into Black Rock City, the setting for Burning Man, I was stung with curiosity. What makes it especially impressive is the scale of the event; I didn’t realize more than 65,000 people attended (2015).

After speaking with a few people about it, I became interested in attending. Soon after looking into it, I realized I knew quite a number of people who attended regularly. Eventually, some friends convinced me to go and I finally went this year (2016).

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Processed with Snapseed.

If you want a quick overview or a history  of the event, take a peek at Wikipedia or the Burning Man Journal.

The event itself was incredibly fun. The combination of intensely friendly people, great music (there are many options to suit everyone’s taste), amazing art as well as a variety of activities all week including workshops and lectures meant there was never a moment of boredom. The point of this post is Black Rock City (BRC), though, not the festival, so I’ll try and stick to the layout and organization of the city itself, though it does feed into the ethos of Burning Man the event.

To give you a quick notion of what BRC is, here is a map (from the Burning Man website):


The city’s plan evolved to its current state over the last two decades through a series of iterations as the festival has evolved and grown (it even has a fully functional airport). At a high level, it is the result of a number of key concepts in urban design and planning, namely the separation of sensitive uses, sight lines and access to key services. Beyond just working as a festival space, BRC does work quite well as a small city. Due to the mobile and temporary nature of the settlement, densities are generally very low but the spatial structure is laid out through a radial plan to allow maximum accessibility.

Looking at the plan above, one gets a sense of how the overall city is laid out. Major blocks represent larger theme camps or villages and the smaller blocks then accommodate smaller camps. Overall, the intensity of activity decreases as one moves further away from the centre (along Esplanade), showing a character similar to most cities (high intensity downtowns and lower intensity, mainly residential, neighbourhoods at the peripheries. Centre Camp acts as a major community hub with event services (community hub, bicycle repair, information booths, permit offices, etc). The larger blocks along Esplanade radiating out of Centre Camp consist of large musically-themed camps (called sound camps) which face their speakers and stages out into the playa and away from the residents of BRC to manage sound and noise levels in the residential areas. Smaller “plazas” are established at key intersections along 9:00, 7:30, 6:00, 4:30, and 3:00 (major streets that act as avenues). Alphabetical streets (A, B, C, D…) and avenues reflecting points on a clock (2:00, 2:30, 3:30…) create an easy to follow and logical street grid and way-finding system. Within the centre of the city is the Man, and the empty space between the man and the city is the “playa” where public art projects are placed. To the north and towards BRC limits is “deep playa” which is sparsely populated with a number of larger art projects.

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Processed with Snapseed.

Transportation is by foot and bicycle predominantly and by “mutant vehicles” or art cars. Vehicles are allowed in BRC provided they are modified as art and are held to a strict speed limit of 10 mph. I did notice quite a few people riding around on segways or other similar vehicles (hoverboards, etc), but nearly everyone either rides a bicycle or walks. Few people actually move very fast, as vehicle speed limits are strict and masses of pedestrians make it difficult to maintain a quickened pace, whether on a bicycle or another moving vehicle. While having a bicycle does make transport easier (it can take a long time to get from one end of the city to the other), the overall experience is best on foot, as walking allows for more random and unplanned interactions (which increases the amount of time to get from one place to another).

Processed with Snapseed.

Processed with Snapseed.

So, the event espouses a number of good city principles, namely the use of active modes of transportation over vehicular modes and a “leave no trace” principle throughout the event and the city, with very clear rules (and a thorough infrastructure) for garbage and recycling collection. With all the press the event has been getting and how fast it’s been growing in recent years, there has been more scrutiny towards its environmental impact. However, though the organizers do conduct an environmental impact assessment (as required by the federal Bureau of Land Management as a pre-requisite to hold the event), much of the estimated environmental damage results from burners coming to and leaving the event. Though BRC has a “leave no trace” principle that is enforced during Burning Man, the environmental impact isn’t necessarily mitigated as it is transferred elsewhere. The organizers have responded to criticism, and in the last two years have introduced a “Burner Express” bus service to help offset the impact of people driving to BRC. It’s one step, but there are many more to go.

The really big draw, however, is the public art. There is a huge emphasis on art at Black Rock City, with the entire playa dotted with sculptures and installations at are both interactive and not. The city itself is covered in various forms of play structures and approaches to public space engagement. I can’t recall the exact number, but I was advised not to expect to see all the art, that there were hundreds of pieces. It is quite a shock to have spent nearly 3 full days biking around the city and the playa just looking at art (and how many nights) only to see photos on Instagram of countless other pieces and installations that I didn’t see. One could easily spend the entire week just looking at art and skipping all the other events.

Processed with Snapseed.

Processed with Snapseed.

Overall, it was a very interesting experience and an excellent space to test and play with concepts in urban design and planning. How these experiments can be scaled to more permanent spaces in the “default” world remains to be seen. Burning Man is an event and, as a result, people there are far more eager and willing to engage their public space than in the real world. However, it still allows for a fun testing ground to try new ideas.