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3D City Models: A Powerful Tool for Visualizing and Analyzing Urban Data


What are 3D city models and why are they important?




Have you ever wondered how cities look like in three dimensions? How buildings, streets, parks, bridges, and other urban features are represented in a digital form? How these representations can be used for various purposes such as planning, designing, managing, or exploring cities? If so, then you are interested in 3D city models.


A 3D city model is a digital model of urban areas that represent terrain surfaces, sites, buildings, vegetation, infrastructure and landscape elements in three-dimensional scale as well as related objects (e.g., city furniture) belonging to urban areas. Their components are described and represented by corresponding two-dimensional and three-dimensional spatial data and geo-referenced data.




3d city model



3D city models are important because they can provide a realistic and comprehensive view of urban environments that can support various applications such as urban planning and design, disaster management and resilience, tourism and cultural heritage. They can also enable new forms of interaction and communication with cities such as virtual reality or augmented reality.


In this article, we will explore how 3D city models are created, what are their applications, and what are the challenges and opportunities of 3D city modeling.


How are 3D city models created?




Data sources and methods




To create a 3D city model, one needs to collect data that can describe the geometry and properties of the urban features. There are different types of data sources and methods that can be used for this purpose:


  • Aerial imagery: This is the most common source of data for creating 3D city models. Aerial imagery refers to images taken from airplanes or satellites that cover large areas with high resolution. Aerial imagery can be processed using techniques such as photogrammetry, which is the science of making measurements from photographs. Photogrammetry can produce 3D point clouds or meshes that represent the shape of the urban features.



  • Lidar: This is another common source of data for creating 3D city models. Lidar stands for light detection and ranging. It is a remote sensing method that uses laser pulses to measure distances to objects. Lidar can produce high-accuracy 3D point clouds that represent the surface and the height of the urban features.



  • Terrestrial imagery: This is a source of data that can complement aerial imagery and lidar. Terrestrial imagery refers to images taken from ground-level cameras or mobile devices that capture the details and textures of the urban features. Terrestrial imagery can be processed using techniques such as structure from motion, which is a method of estimating the 3D structure of a scene from a set of 2D images. Structure from motion can produce 3D point clouds or meshes that represent the shape and the appearance of the urban features.



  • Other sources: There are other sources of data that can be used to create 3D city models, such as maps, floor plans, building information models (BIM), cadastral data, sensor data, etc. These sources can provide additional information about the location, attributes, functions, and semantics of the urban features. These sources can be integrated with the 3D geometric data using techniques such as georeferencing, which is the process of assigning spatial coordinates to data, or semantic enrichment, which is the process of adding meaning and context to data.



Software and tools




To process, visualize, and analyze 3D city models, one needs to use software and tools that can handle the complexity and diversity of the data. There are different types of software and tools that can be used for this purpose:


  • Geographic information systems (GIS): These are software systems that can store, manipulate, analyze, and display geospatial data. GIS can be used to create 3D city models by importing, editing, and exporting 3D geometric data, as well as performing spatial analysis and queries on them. Some examples of GIS software that support 3D city modeling are ArcGIS, QGIS, CityEngine, etc.



  • Computer-aided design (CAD): These are software systems that can create, modify, and optimize 3D designs. CAD can be used to create 3D city models by drawing, modeling, and rendering 3D geometric data, as well as applying materials, textures, and lighting effects to them. Some examples of CAD software that support 3D city modeling are AutoCAD, SketchUp, Blender, etc.



  • Building information modeling (BIM): These are software systems that can create, manage, and exchange 3D models of buildings and infrastructure. BIM can be used to create 3D city models by integrating detailed information about the structure, function, and performance of buildings and infrastructure into 3D geometric data. Some examples of BIM software that support 3D city modeling are Revit, ArchiCAD, IFC, etc.



  • Web browsers and applications: These are software systems that can run on the internet and provide interactive and immersive experiences with 3D city models. Web browsers and applications can be used to visualize and explore 3D city models by streaming, rendering, and navigating 3D geometric data on web pages or mobile devices. Some examples of web browsers and applications that support 3D city modeling are CesiumJS, Google Earth, Mapbox GL JS, etc.



What are the applications of 3D city models?




Urban planning and design




One of the main applications of 3D city models is urban planning and design. Urban planning and design is the process of shaping the physical environment of cities to meet the needs and aspirations of people. 3D city models can support urban planning and design by providing a realistic and comprehensive view of urban environments that can enable various tasks such as:


  • Simulating scenarios: 3D city models can be used to simulate different scenarios of urban development or change, such as population growth, land use change, infrastructure expansion, etc. Simulating scenarios can help evaluate the feasibility, impacts, and alternatives of different urban plans or designs.



  • Evaluating impacts: 3D city models can be used to evaluate the impacts of urban development or change on various aspects of urban environments, such as environmental quality, social equity, economic viability, etc. Evaluating impacts can help identify the trade-offs, benefits, and costs of different urban plans or designs.



  • Optimizing solutions: 3D city models can be used to optimize the solutions of urban development or change by applying various criteria, constraints, and objectives to the 3D geometric data. Optimizing solutions can help find the best or most suitable urban plans or designs that meet the desired goals and requirements.



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  • Singapore 3D City Model: This is a project that aims to create a high-resolution and up-to-date 3D city model of Singapore that can support various urban planning and design applications, such as master planning, urban design, land use analysis, infrastructure planning, etc. The project uses aerial imagery, lidar, and BIM data to create the 3D city model.



  • Amsterdam 3D City Model: This is a project that aims to create a comprehensive and interactive 3D city model of Amsterdam that can support various urban planning and design applications, such as heritage conservation, energy efficiency, noise reduction, etc. The project uses aerial imagery, lidar, and cadastral data to create the 3D city model.



  • London 3D City Model: This is a project that aims to create a detailed and dynamic 3D city model of London that can support various urban planning and design applications, such as transport modeling, air quality monitoring, flood risk assessment, etc. The project uses aerial imagery, lidar, and sensor data to create the 3D city model.



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