Carnegie Mellon University

3D Visualization of Pittsburgh

3D Visualization of Buildings, the Public Realm, and Infrastructure from Simulation Data for Development

In the coming decades, American cities will increasingly rely on computational systems to improve many aspects of urban life. Distributed networks of sensors and networked computation will be fundamental technologies for achieving important civic goals, such as increasing the efficiency of using and maintaining city infrastructure, streamlining city operations and decision-making, improving public health and safety, and monitoring the environmental and social conditions of urban life.

This proposal focuses on on major but achievable step in the larger process: creating a planning and governance tool that uses Geographic Information System (GIS), Building Information Modeling (BIM) technology, and 3D simulation programs in three areas of urban planning: 

  • to analyze potential and proposed development projects
  • to establish and test zoning and urban design regulations for height, density, viewsheds, sun shading, etc. 
  • to determine capacity of road and utility infrastructure

The goal of the study is to select the most appropriate 3D program (or programs) for the City of Pittsburgh Department of City Planning, and to publish the results of the Field Testing for the consideration of other city planning departments, private consultants, developers, academics, and researchers. 

Project Update (April 2020)

  1. Of the various technologies available to provide visualizations, browser-based options provide the greatest ease of use and entry for city planners and the public. An adaptable browser for mobile technology such as phones and tablets would also be advantageous, as mobility and transferable information can be useful for the design process.
  2. Streamlined platforms that centrally manage information, which make it easy to gather, manage, and share information between stakeholders, are the most helpful frameworks for communicating internally and externally. While the study originally oriented towards technology for communication to the public, the research reveals that an integrated model with a central hub is perhaps more useful.
  3. Of participants, city planners identified 3 tasks for 3D software testing: 1) development proposal and zoning review; 2) preparing and facilitating local plans, zoning, and planning policy; and 3) public communications. In sum, planners would like to see 3D software positively impact the process of bringing ideas into the real world. Of these, the team gravitated to GIS and 3D BIM modeling.
  4. 3D visualizations, though more time-intensive to learn at first due to software and coding, provide planners with the ability to simulate the real world, better understand proposals and regulations in context, and effectively communication options with staff and the public. Three dimensional views are better understood by those who cannot read plans or who lack formal training on engaging with 2D models.
  5. Despite advancements, VR and AR for real-world application has not yet been refined. Lack of realistic depth of field, for example, remains a challenge for implementation. In order to make a useful 3D model, data interoperability between the diagrams and refined mapping will be essential elements to include.

Click here to read the Final Report 

Click here for a university-wide press release on this project


City of Pittsburgh Department of City Planning
Remaking Cities Institute
Carnegie Mellon University School of Architecture
Heinz College
Entertainment Technology Center
Carnegie Mellon University School of Computer Science
Carnegie Mellon University College of Engineering 
NYC Mayor's Office
Philadelphia University


Kristen Kurland, Professor of Architecture, Information Systems and Public Policy
Don CarterDirector, Remaking Cities Institute
Stephen Quick, Professor of Architecture


Lu Zhu, Master's Student in Urban Design