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Tom Schueneman headshot

Future of San Francisco's Market Street Comes Into View

Public engagement is key to building sustainable and livable cities. Too often the trend of the past half century has been to design urban infrastructure around the automobile, leaving people and mass transit as a poorly conceived afterthought.

People residing and working in these car-choked urban environments are typically powerless to contribute a meaningful voice in the design process because they can't visualize the consequences of the two-dimensional technical representations of a proposed design. It's like "hearing" Beethoven's fifth symphony by looking at the score. Unless you're a trained musician it's little more than lines and squiggles, not the majestic music that results in the execution of the symbolic representation.

San Francisco-based startup Owlized has teamed with Autodesk to help "bring the symphony alive" for public stakeholders and non-technical policymakers when considering infrastructure and urban design proposals.

The benefits of 3D visualization is well established in the building sector. With Building Information Modeling (BIM), buildings are now commonly designed with the ability to fully realize an architect's vision, from light and shadow to air flow and ventilation, early in the  design process, long before a single brick is laid. The advantages of BIM are an increasingly accepted and expected element of building design both for retrofit and new construction.

If the urban and infrastructure design process has lagged behind building construction in terms of 3D visualization, it is now catching up with the help of innovative concepts that can bring these civil engineering projects to life. Let's explore a case in point.

The OWL - a blast from the past, a look into the future

Owlized and Autodesk recently debuted a new device called the "OWL" for San Francisco's Better Market Street project. The OWL looks like a traditional coin-operated retro viewfinder that we've all seen and used at scenic lookouts. In this case the scenic view was a look at a new and improved Market Street created from 3D visualizations built using Autodesk's Infraworks civil design modeling software and embedded on an iPad Mini inside the OWL. In the initial prototype there are two button-type controls that allow users to switch between locations and design options for easy comparison between designs and for views panoramic views within each model. Using the compass and gyroscope within the iPad, the visualizations also respond to the angle and position of the Owl, much like a traditional viewfinder does when gazing across San Francisco Bay to Alcatraz, and then over to the Golden Gate Bridge.

Better Market Street was the perfect opportunity to debut the OWL. A joint project involving several San Francisco agencies, Better Market Street's goal is to rejuvenate one of the City's main thoroughfares, sections of which have succumbed to blight and deterioration, clogged with traffic and gridlock. Through innovative urban planning, Better Market Street seeks to reestablish the street as a premier cultural, civic and economic hub for San Francisco, while at the same time easing traffic congestion and making it easier for pedestrians and cyclist to safely enjoy the area.

At two public workshops last week, the OWL helped residents and policymakers visualize the three proposed plans for Better Market Street in an immersive, 3D environment, taking the lines and squiggles of the designer's "score" and transforming it, through the OWL, into a "visual symphony" that gave the public an opportunity to experience these designs for themselves. An essential component for more effective public engagement and policy development (perhaps a bit of fun as well).

3D printing, innovative prototyping

At first, actually using an old viewfinder as the shell of the prototype OWL was considered, says Tristan Randall, Autodesk's industry manager for construction."But what we found," says Randall, "is a compelling story in the ability to actually use advanced technology - our own technology - for the prototyping. So we utilized 3D printing technology and we used our brand new cloud-based design tool called Fusion 360 to develop the industrial design. We can go directly from that platform to the printer. We can take the models send them to the printer and make them real, just like that."
"Now that we've done this we've set an example for how to use prototyping as a way to test out functionality before you actually go into production. So Owlized will ideally try to use OWLs for a variety of different projects... ultimately they'll be scaling these up and when they do that it's very likely they'll be done using metal. What's great about our tool is not only can we support 3D printing... but it also supports true mechanical engineering... we can take that prototype and use it directly in production."

Flexible OWL

The Owl concept is not limited to civic design models built with Infraworks and displayed on an iPad explains Randall:
"Any future idea or concept you have can be housed in the OWL. You can imagine bringing in live camera feeds, bringing in a stereo feed. There is a variety of different ways you can use the platform, for not just urban projects like this - although this is a good example because it's very high profile... ultimately you could utilize the platform to demonstrate any virtual experience."

Better city planning through citizen engagement

With all its potential flexibility, the OWL's potential for urban design and infrastructure visualization is vital for better city planning through civic engagement.
"For nearly 150 years, cities and developers alike have struggled to excite the public on proposed construction projects,"  says Owlized founder Aaron Selverston. "OWL creates a new standard for civic engagement on urban design and reinforces San Francisco’s role as an epicenter for civic innovation.”
For San Francisco's iconic Market Street, the OWL has already helped citizens and city planners see the future, and thus shape a vital urban environment for the maximum benefit and utility of all who use it. As Randall puts it:

“The result is more meaningful input and more informed decision-making for this project, but it also has the potential to change community engagement for infrastructure projects around the world.”
Thomas Schueneman headshotThomas Schueneman

Tom is the founder, editor, and publisher of GlobalWarmingisReal.com and the TDS Environmental Media Network. He has been a contributor for Triple Pundit since 2007. Tom has also written for Slate, Earth911, the Pepsico Foundation, Cleantechnia, Planetsave, and many other sustainability-focused publications. He is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists

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