Creating Community: How 3D technologies are empowering people in placemaking

It’s a bit of a running joke in the TCT office that I spent my first pay cheque here on a new laptop for the sole purpose of playing The Sims 4, a life simulation game which lets you create your own small universe down to the minutiae of curtain colours or potted plants outside your character’s front door. So I was rather happy to validate my nerd tendencies in a recent conversation with Hobs 3D, a London-based digital design studio, which is championing the use of advanced technologies to give local residents a similar sense of placemaking freedom, only in this case, in real life.

Over the next 30 years, Peabody, one of London’s oldest housing associations, is set to deliver over 1 billion GBP of improvement to the Greater London district of Thamesmead, promising 20,000 new homes along with new leisure and cultural facilities, in one of the biggest regeneration projects the UK has ever seen. As part of the plan, Peabody has commissioned Hobs 3D to support the masterplanning of the area through 3D printing, virtual reality (VR), 3D scanning and beyond, in an effort to engage with the local community and better inform development plans.

These days, the use of 3D printing for architectural models isn’t so revolutionary but the scale of this project, coupled with a host of complementary emerging technologies designed to maximise community participation, is no modest undertaking, beginning with Hobs flying a plane over the Thamesmead area to capture LIDAR data which would be used to 3D print a masterplan. This huge stereolithography model is now on display inside a local community space and also forms the basis of another layer – an interactive VR element which is being used as a way of involving stakeholders, councillors and crucially, those that live, work and play in Thamesmead, with proposals for their local community.

Kadine James, 3D Tech Lead at Hobs 3D told TCT: “It gives the community the power to become designers and to have access to tools that will be able to shape and inform their thoughts, views and opinions around what they would like to see happening in their local areas and how they can participate in conversations and help to shape and influence regeneration projects that are happening in and around London.”

The London Plan issued by the Mayor of London emphasises the importance of new technologies when analysing design options for new developments. Specifically, it states “3D virtual reality and other interactive digital models, should, where possible, be used to inform and engage Londoners in the planning process”. Kadine says Hobs has done exactly that, using pioneering ways of engaging with the community.

“These technologies will continue to be deployed and will amplify the agenda around inclusion, around place shaping, around communities being able to become the designers,” Kadine explained. “Rather than ‘we are the master planners, we are telling you what is going to happen in your area’, how about we start having conversations with people at the ground level, with people that live in this area about what they would like to see so that they can feel part of these plans? Often a lot of people feel they are being left out of those conversations.”

Putting that into action, in collaboration with Jan Kattein Architects, Hobs ran a series of labs with a diverse group on residents focused on the design of a local park as part of the ‘Claridge Way Community Co-Design Initiative – Ideas into Action’. The goal was to include residents in the design process right from the beginning, surpassing the abilities of 2D boards and tick box exercises to get a sense of the changes people actually want to see in their local neighbourhood. Using Epic Games’ Unreal Engine technology, which powers video games like Fortnite, Hobs technical artists leveraged the 3D masterplan asset to produce virtual worlds for residents to explore and create their own model of the park. Within that VR environment, residents were able to don a headset and make design changes in real-time, adding features such as lighting, artwork, or even moving entire basketball courts. They also utilised 3D scanning to take pre-made maquettes into the virtual environment and worked with 360 cameras for an introductory film. As a result, Hobs was able to take that input and put it forward to developers as part of the common plan for Claridge Way.

Kadine continued: “It’s a project which pioneers the use of innovation of technologies such as rapid prototyping, such as VR and really looks at ways that we can give the community and the people the power to become designers and influence design decisions around their community.”

The project is still very much in its early stages, and the beauty of these processes is that as the regeneration progresses, digital models can be updated to show what the space is going to look like in 5 or 10 years’ time, without a single brick being laid. The positive impact on the community, however, is being felt immediately and Kadine notes how every person who took part in the workshops, continued to come back for each session.

The demand for collaboration between placemakers and communities themselves is clear. The application of emerging technologies feels particularly pertinent for an area like Thamesmead, which just 50 years ago was promoted as a “town of the tomorrow” thanks to its experimental design and modern Brutalist architecture. Due to various economic and political pressures, it never quite achieved those lofty ambitions. Now, with the community involved in defining the next chapter amid a new era of design technologies that go way beyond the rigidity of 2D maps and drawings, the “town of the tomorrow” feels fitting once again.

Kadine concluded: “For me that speaks volumes about how these types of initiatives, these types of workshops, really do impact on ways that local authorities, social housing providers specifically, can have communications with residents, with the wider community through the use of new and emerging technologies and give the community the power to shape conversation and to influence the outcome of common plans.”

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