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Fingal County Council’s ‘3D/Virtual Reality Models of Public Realm Projects’

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In this article, Fingal County Council unpacks its innovative 3D model web-viewer and VR experience, which is revolutionising public consultation for public realm planning. Winner of the Best Communications award at Chambers Ireland 2023, this groundbreaking approach addresses challenges associated with traditional public consultation, fostering citizen engagement in shaping sustainable and inclusive spaces for local communities.

Fingal County Council recognises the importance of public consultation, placing the citizen at the centre of public realm planning and hearing the citizen’s voice in creating sustainable and inclusive spaces for all. There are many challenges associated with public consultation. It can be a resource-intensive activity, plans can be complex and difficult to communicate, and with an ever-evolving technological world, traditional methods of public consultation don’t always work. Local authorities are constantly adapting to meet these challenges and the development of 3D/VR models is an example of how Fingal County Council is championing innovative approaches to public consultation.

Fingal County Council was the first Irish local authority to develop an interactive 3D model web-viewer and VR experience to enhance public consultation for public realm projects. Originally, the project focused on creating a 3D model for VR headsets. VR is an immersive way of experiencing plans. The purpose of the initial project was to showcase the planned public realm improvements to Balbriggan Harbour and Quay Street, Balbriggan, projects funded by the URDF and part of a series of public realm improvement projects under the Our Balbriggan Rejuvenation Plan. Using VR headsets, the public can step into the model and see the buildings at scale to their own height.

When Covid-19 restrictions came in, public consultations became a difficult proposition with public consultations moving online. Like many Local Authorities, Fingal had to adapt quickly. The Council worked with 3D modelling company RealSim to add a critical online element in the form of an interactive 3D web-viewer. This allows the public to view the 3D Models using an online web-viewer and access this on a web browser from the comfort of their own home. The web-viewer resembles Google Street View, the public can virtually walk around the model and see the size and scale of the proposed development in the context of existing buildings. They can view the model at different times of the year with a seasonal option and in diverse weather patterns, experiencing what the new development would look like on a sunny day in July or a dull rainy day in January. When Covid-19 restrictions lifted the Council resumed in-person public consultations, including VR headsets to help people visualize plans.

Since developing the Balbriggan 3D model, the Council have expanded their 3D model and interactive web-viewer to include Swords, while also expanding the availability of VR headsets to Council buildings and Fingal Libraries. The rendering of the towns of Swords and Balbriggan in 3D provides the Council with an effective communication tool to illustrate public realm projects to the public. The simulation of the digital twin town allows people to relate the digital model in virtual reality, by means of a VR headset which they can control, to what they know exists in their town and to experience and explore the new building project as it sits in the digital landscape. This means of communication allows people to easily interpret plans, elevations and sections of building plans which can often be difficult to understand on 2D drawings if you are not a professional. Allowing the public to better understand the building plans allows them an opportunity to provide more valuable feedback and submit better thought-out observations on plans, ensuring an effective feedback mechanism to the Council.

The value of this initiative was evident during public consultation events in Balbriggan and Swords. Residents were able to try on the VR headset and become immersed in the proposed plans. They were able to virtually walk up to their homes and see what the new public realm would look like and how it would impact them and their home, they could see the size and scale of the new structures, landscaping and planting, and new public amenities. One resident said in amazement, “Will it really look like this?”| and another resident who had concerns about their view being impacted said, “I thought the building would be a lot bigger, it’s great to get a clear idea of the scale of it.” This project has enhanced the public’s experience in visualizing proposed changes in the public realm and how the plans will impact the existing environment. The public consultation for planning permission for the public realm project in Balbriggan received over 100 submissions, which is a significant increase on previous consultations for projects of similar scale.

The pilot initiative in Balbriggan was funded by the Department of Public Expenditure & Reform’s (DPERs) Public Service Innovation Fund with the Council funding the expansion of the project to generate a digital twin of Swords to illustrate how the building of Swords Cultural Quarter will fit into the town’s existing landscape.

By utilising VR experiences and digital twins of towns, the Council empowers the public to visualize and explore proposed developments, bridging the gap between architectural plans and public understanding. Fingal County Council’s use of digital twins for public consultation marks a pioneering step in showcasing forthcoming public realm projects like the ‘Swords Cultural Quarter’ and ‘Balbriggan Quay Street/Harbour Rejuvenation’. The online interactive digital twin/3D web viewer offers an immersive glimpse into the envisioned future of these towns helping the public to understand the vision for projects and how the project will sit in the existing landscape of the town. As designs for new projects are completed the Council can add these to the 3D model, expanding the digital twin environments of Balbriggan and Swords. Fingal County Council encourages public engagement with these pioneering initiatives. VR headsets are available at Swords, Malahide, Donabate, Blanchardstown and Balbriggan Libraries. Individuals interested in experiencing the 3D tour of the Swords and Balbriggan developments are welcome to speak with the Council’s VR Champions on-site and experience the digital twins for themselves!



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