Web application helps urban planners design cities

January 24, 2019, Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne
Web application helps urban planners design cities
Each horizontal line represents a variant, clearly indicating the variant’s score on different criteria such as total cost, built density and use of renewable energy. Credit: Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne

Urban planners must take a myriad of different objectives into account when designing development programs. These can include optimizing a neighborhood's built density, preserving old monuments and buildings, using renewable energy, cutting CO2 emissions and minimizing costs – to name a few. These objectives are often contradictory and hard to quantify, and sometimes not fully understood.

But Sébastien Cajot and Nils Schüler – two researchers in EPFL's School of Engineering Industrial Process and Energy Systems Engineering (IPESE) Group headed by Professor François Maréchal – have developed a novel approach to urban planning, called SAGESSE, and an associated to help urban planners out.

Available as a web application, their program lets planners enter the criteria important to them and get a rapid overview of the different variants possible. Cajot and Schüler worked with the Canton of Geneva to develop their software, testing it out on the Cherpines and Palettes neighborhoods. The researchers' findings appear in Frontiers ICT.

An inverted approach

"For us, the current approach to urban planning gets things backwards. Planners typically outline four or five possible variants for a given neighborhood and then model them to quantify the impact of each," says Cajot, who just completed his thesis on this topic. However, urban planning requires coordinating the interests of many different stakeholders – such as property developers, city residents, energy planning officials and local representatives – who often have conflicting goals.

"For any one goal, there could be millions of possible variants to achieve it," says Cajot. For instance, the aim of cutting CO2 emissions can be reached by renovating a city's building facades, installing district heating or replacing old boilers. But the methods currently available for assessing the impact of each option are limited – making it hard for urban planners to take well-informed decisions.

"Urban planners should start not by asking whether they should build a high-rise building, for example, but by establishing the main goals they want to achieve, such as optimizing a city's density, improving its quality of life or managing development costs. Our software enables them to start from this basis and come up with the best variants," says Cajot. The program generates simple diagrams depicting the variants as horizontal lines plotted against vertical axes, where each axis is an urban development objective. The diagram could reveal, for example, that a variant meeting specific cost and built-density targets does not comply with renewable-energy-use regulations or blocks the view from other buildings. In this way, can adjust their targets and objectives and eventually find a variant acceptable to everyone.

Pilot tests in Geneva

The researchers initially tested their software on the development of the new Cherpines neighborhood, near Geneva. Then they tested it out on the existing Geneva neighborhood of Palettes, to see how it could help improve already built-up areas. They worked with local officials to determine what the urban-development priorities were. "They wanted to focus on increasing urban density, cutting CO2 emissions and protecting the local heritage," says Cajot. The researchers also factored legal requirements into their software, and designed it to be compatible with existing zoning documents, like master plans. Their software uses algorithms to weigh these various elements and calculate an array of urban planning options.

In the medium-term, the researchers plan to launch a startup to market their and approach. And the IPESE Group is looking into applying the technology in other fields, such as helping to implement Switzerland's energy strategy, planning out use and determining optimal biomass conversion processes.

Explore further: Enabling energy efficiency in urban planning

More information: Sébastien Cajot et al. Interactive Optimization With Parallel Coordinates: Exploring Multidimensional Spaces for Decision Support, Frontiers in ICT (2019). DOI: 10.3389/fict.2018.00032

Nils Schüler et al. The Optimum Is Not the Goal: Capturing the Decision Space for the Planning of New Neighborhoods, Frontiers in Built Environment (2018). DOI: 10.3389/fbuil.2017.00076

Related Stories

Designing urban energy systems based on the urban climate

April 24, 2018

As cities grow at an ever-faster pace, concerns about global warming rise and fossil fuels become increasingly scarce, cities will have to adopt more sustainable energy solutions. EPFL researchers have developed a model that ...

Security planning for urban areas simplified

December 1, 2016

For the first time, security aspects regarding urban planning have already been taken into account during the design phase. Software identifies and analyzes specific risks, quantifies damages and proposes solutions. VITRUV ...

Recommended for you

Archaeologists discover Incan tomb in Peru

February 16, 2019

Peruvian archaeologists discovered an Incan tomb in the north of the country where an elite member of the pre-Columbian empire was buried, one of the investigators announced Friday.

Where is the universe hiding its missing mass?

February 15, 2019

Astronomers have spent decades looking for something that sounds like it would be hard to miss: about a third of the "normal" matter in the Universe. New results from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory may have helped them ...

What rising seas mean for local economies

February 15, 2019

Impacts from climate change are not always easy to see. But for many local businesses in coastal communities across the United States, the evidence is right outside their doors—or in their parking lots.

The friendly extortioner takes it all

February 15, 2019

Cooperating with other people makes many things easier. However, competition is also a characteristic aspect of our society. In their struggle for contracts and positions, people have to be more successful than their competitors ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.