London·Video

London is among the first cities to use VR and it's changing how we see the future

London is among one of the first cities in Canada to use virtual reality in its planning and it's changing the way we see the future. 

Virtual reality allows users to go for a stroll or even fly through a neighbourhood before it's built

Michelle Knieriem is a planner with the City of London. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but what if a thousand words aren't enough?

Michelle Knieriem, who works as a planner with the City of London, runs into that problem frequently. It's why she thinks virtual reality is a game changer when it comes to city planning. 

"We've never had the ability to show people truly what things could look like," she said. "It's a step into the future."

The technology allows people to see a neighbourhood with a proposed development before it's even built, potentially turning a "step into the future" into a giant leap of understanding. 

It's what city planners discovered when the headset was unveiled to the public for the first time at London's Rib Fest.  

What it looks like

How VR lets London city planners see the future 1:11

The virtual reality headset was loaded with a model of Victoria Park surrounded by highrise developments, which have been fodder for much debate in the city, to show people what it's like to take a stroll through the green space as if the towers were already built. 

About 70 people got to experience it first-hand, while hundreds of others got to follow along, watching on a nearby screen.

"It was really well-received," Knieriem said. "For some people, it helped to reaffirm the opinions they already had. Whereas other people said 'I was concerned about this, but you know what? This could actually work.'" 

Normally, it takes years of formal education to understand what city planners are really up to, especially with terms like "setbacks, adaptive reuse or open space reserve."

Taking a virtual stroll through Victoria Park with the proposed buildings already constructed can help clear up what imagination can't always accurately reflect. 

'These are all very abstract things'

While city planners still put their designs to paper, now they can bring them to life in three-dimensional virutal reality, so that people need to depend less on their imaginations. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

"These are all very abstract things," Knieriem said. "This really helps show how those policies we put in to help tall building development can work on the ground and what it actually looks like to a pedestrian." 

It's especially useful when it comes to a project like Victoria Park, considered by many to be the "crown jewel" of London's downtown and a source of strong emotions and opinions, especially in a city that isn't always known for its ability to embrace change. 

With virtual reality, city planners can illustrate how the proposed highrises would cast shadows, affect light levels and generally change the view of someone taking a stroll through the park, or driving down Richmond Street. 

"It's impossible to visualize unless you're on the ground," she said. "It helps to better inform our perspective and the recommendations we're making." 

Get a chance to see it yourself:

This virtual reality headset lets planners and regular people peer into the future, in order to see how a new development might change a neighbourhood from a first-person perspective. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

London's urban planners will use virtual reality to show the public what Victoria Park would look like after highrise development on its surrounding streets at an upcoming public meeting: 

Where: St. Peter's Basilica Cathedral, Auditorium – 533 Clarence Street

When: Wednesday, September 4, 2019 from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.

 

About the Author

Colin Butler

Video Journalist

Colin Butler is a veteran CBC reporter who's worked in Moncton, Saint John, Fredericton, Toronto, Kitchener-Waterloo, Hamilton and London, Ont. Email: colin.butler@cbc.ca

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