Halifax is changing. From projects such as the Argyle Street revitalization, to the Cogswell District project, to a new 30 km bike lane network, the city is in the midst of a grand transformation. An important element of these projects is helping residents and businesses understand these changes. While presentations and posters have been the norm for informing citizens on the impacts of these changes, the emergence of new technologies has given rise to opportunities to help people better understand what these urban renewal projects will be like once completed.
At DalTRAC, we understand that technology can be an asset for the process of urban planning. With the rise of virtual reality (VR) technology, and with the help of research grants, DalTRAC purchased two “Oculus Rift” VR systems. While wearing a VR headset, the user can experience and interpret the world around them in 360 degrees, a truly immersive experience.
An important undertaking that is currently in the planning stages is the “Spring Garden Road Enhancements Project”. By widening sidewalks, installing more benches, and planting more trees and garden areas, this transformation of the street intends to enhance the pedestrian experience by focusing on people, rather than cars. It has the opportunity to vastly change how people experience the heavily used street.
This project, located minutes away from DalTRAC’s lab, was selected as the first candidate to get VR treatment. While plans printed on posters and paper rollouts are typically used in urban planning, it made sense for such a transformative project to be expressed in VR, so that people could gain a better understanding of what the final version of the project could resemble. By using maps, pictures of the street, and technical plans for the revitalization, a section of Spring Garden Road between South Park Street and Queen Street was re-created digitally for the purpose of DalTRAC research.
Three different models were produced: one representing the current state of Spring Garden, another envisioning the “pocket park” design, and the last representing the “paver promenade” vision. These VR models provide an immersive experience for users, which express a realistic vision of what the space could look and feel like upon completion.
Designed by DalTRAC’s summer intern Devin, the Spring Garden Road VR model took over three months of work to complete. Using advanced programs such as SketchUp and Lumion, he was able to add realistic features such as plants, which move in the wind, and pedestrians who occupy the environment. The detailed design of the VR model attempts to emulate the proposed streetscape designs as closely as possible, to ensure that those experiencing it feel as though they are walking down the street a few years into the future. Dalhousie Faculty of Planning and Engineering students were then invited to experience the models and provide feedback on the proposed enhancements and how their perceptions of the project changed after experiencing it in VR.
Though DalTRAC is not involved in the Spring Garden Road Enhancement project in an official capacity, and did not design the revitalized street, this VR model acts as a proof-of-concept and a validation of VR technology for future projects that the lab may undertake.