Speculations on the integrated use of extended reality in urban planning

When I accepted the request to participate in the Augmented Urbans project, I had very little and mostly disappointing experiences with extended reality (XR). The only reference I had which I really liked and was moved by was Pokémon GO which my kids used frequently for a while. Even though the kids were a traffic hazard when walking in the city staring at their phones, the application still had an appeal to it. The app made it obvious that invisible or imaginary worlds could be visualised and integrated with the physical environment in a fun and inspiring way. Through common technology that most people carry on them, a different reality could be unlocked for many people. I realised this new technology had a lot of potential for my field of work. 

I have spent the last seventeen years working commercially as both architect and landscape architect focusing on making our urban environment more resilient and sustainable. We have been trying to implement the seven principles that build resilience in social-ecological systems by adopting a combination of perspectives—social, ecological and financial. I joined the Augmented Urbans team with a landscape approach—an inherent focus on human well-being through nature or ecosystem services—and I have been trying to inspire the participants in applying urban resilience thinking while creating urban proposals. But how does XR comply with the ideas of urban resilience?

New technology comes with the risk of pushing society in undesirable directions or manifesting a status quo which needs to be changed. And we know that XR derives from the entertainment and gaming industry which is largely driven by profit. The urban planning profession must be very careful in embracing XR not to risk being kidnapped by property developers who want to speed up or smoothen building processes with less consideration for human well-being. Buildings and construction account for nearly 40% of the energy-related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions globally, whilst also having a significant impact on our natural habitats, which in the long run leads to catastrophic consequences for humanity. Therefore, when using these tools in the planning and construction sectors,  these potential aspects of XR must be taken into account and not taken lightly despite some of their attractive qualities.

Using XR technologies requires a holistic approach. We need to embrace the complexity of urban planning by bringing in more perspectives and not only focus on what and where to build. XR can be a tool to increase the value of what we already have and amplify what makes us humans and the ecosystems we are part of healthier. XR has the potential of showing how our cities and settlements can become more resilient and sustainable by shifting focus on what we choose to highlight in the extended reality. The camera should be turned towards the spaces between buildings to find a balance between the built and “unbuilt”. Ever since Rachel Carsson wrote Silent Spring, a growing number of people in the planning profession has come to understand the importance of green spaces in our cities—spaces where ecosystem services are produced, and critical biological processes happen.  XR should be applied with an empathic approach, which starts by mapping real needs of urban citizens by putting health and well-being first. 

We should also use XR to broaden participation. But we need to consider the ones we are excluding, the elderly for example. Today’s XR is mostly a singular experience, to a large extent embraced by a younger audience—how can XR be developed into a multi-user experience and allow for communication within applications which is as good as meeting in real life? The main purpose of participatory planning is to provide the public with relevant information for better decision-making. This has to go beyond aesthetics or taste. Participants need access to better and more relevant information. 

For example, how can XR maintain urban diversity and redundancy? From a landscape perspective it would mean to shift focus from visualising programmatic or aesthetic variety towards augmenting biodiversity. Imagine an app where the number of species would be counted wherever you point your VR glasses? An urban proposal that reduces this number should set off an alarm. 

Can XR help manage urban connectivity? We are already on the path towards “the smart city” where technology can guide us in the most efficient way of moving in our cities for example. But what about connectivity for bees, plants, and other living creatures? Let us use XR to empathise with our fellow urban species as well. XR can also encourage learning by letting users immerse in the world of seemingly invisible urban ecosystem services. Wouldn’t it be fantastic if we could actually see how urban trees produce oxygen, regulate water flows, provide habitats? If XR could help communicate all the benefits nature provides as accurately and convincingly as the property developers render their projects for profit, we would be a lot closer to achieving urban resilience. 

Small steps are being taken in this direction. The gaming industry is producing fantastic-looking and convincing virtual natural landscapes already. But we are far from using this knowledge and skills to full capacity in urban planning. The reason is obviously lack of funding and lack of interest since it is considered a conservative approach which might be blocking development. Is it really worth investing in virtual worlds of nature when we can experience them live? Many cities are now producing “digital twins”, virtual copies of the urban environment including huge amounts of information for better governance. And it seems like a good idea in making our cities smarter and more effective. It gives us control. But if we are serious in planning for sustainability, the urban ecosystems need to be given the same attention to detail as the built environment in these models. Access to nature is the most crucial part of the human habitat.

The Augmented urbans project has offered a very open, diverse, and critical context with people from different countries and backgrounds. I have experienced a questioning approach, and no-one was interested in using the technology without a reason.  The technology has potential. Let us make sure we use it wisely and for the right purposes.