Sketching Up Your Town in 3D
By Andrea L. Dono | Online Only | March 11, 2010
You've been there before. You've met with a property owner several times and he just doesn't understand why a large, backlit sign isn't compatible with the historic district. Or you're gearing up for a contentious public meeting and those technical planning maps with new parking scenarios are too cumbersome to be of much help. Wouldn't it be great to have a three-dimensional view of your Main Street district to show people what you are talking about?
Chris Wilson, the former director of Main Street McMinnville in Tennessee, did just that – using Google SketchUp and Google Earth to help property owners make appropriate changes to their historic buildings.
Google SketchUp is a free, robust drawing tool that lets you easily layer digital photographs of your buildings over 3D shapes with just a few clicks of your mouse. Google Earth is another free tool that uses actual geographic coordinates so you can drop your 3D buildings in the same spots they would appear on a map.
"Once a 3D model is created, you can look at it from every conceivable angle, whether from the street level, from an upper-story window across the street, or from inside the building looking out," says Wilson. "Unlike aerial maps and satellite imagery that provide a view straight down, the 3D downtown can be viewed from all angles, including a 'fly over' or a look at ground level."
Main Street McMinnville launched a volunteer project to create a 3D rendering of its downtown. Working with about 40 volunteers, Wilson hosted three working sessions. The first featured a hands-on, daylong training and modeling session with Google's elite modelers. The McMinnville Electric System donated a meeting space so the team could plug in their laptops, connect wirelessly to the Internet, and follow along with the trainer. Two other sessions, held in the chamber of commerce's community room, brought together about 12 people to continue the modeling.
To get started, Wilson obtained aerial photographs from his county's 911 center and volunteers took photographs of as many faces of the downtown's buildings as possible. Other volunteers downloaded the free Google SketchUp software to start creating the 3D models. They used the tools to draw an outline of each building and then popped it into a 3D shape. Next, modelers used photographs of the building faces to create photo-texturing. In six months, downtown McMinnville was completely modeled and available in Google Earth for anyone to view.
Using a 3D Downtown Model for Revitalization
When a business owner decided to relocate downtown, she presented a plan for new infill construction with a set back to make room for parking in the front. Wilson was able to spring into action and show the business owner how a building that complemented its surroundings would be more appropriate for a downtown setting and still meet the needs of her business.
Contacting Kimberly Nyberg, the coordinator of the Tennessee Main Street Program, Wilson showed her the site in question on Google Earth and a 3D model of the business owner's proposed plan. Over the phone, Kim suggested some better alternatives, which Wilson turned into a 3D rendering to show the business owner.
Without costly drawings that often take a long time to create, Wilson was able to take images of downtown buildings that could benefit from façade improvements and compare them to 3D renderings of the same structures, but with modifications. If a new sign or awnings could improve the look of the business, a rendering could be created and shown to the business owners so they could see for themselves what a difference appropriate changes could make. Wilson could even simulate how shadows from the sun would look on the storefront.
The beauty of using Google Earth for historic preservation purposes is that you can give context to a site. Design review boards or preservation commissions are usually given 2D plans and renderings of a single building. Google Earth can display the surrounding environment, and thus show how changes will affect neighboring buildings and the district as a whole.
Create a 3D Downtown of Your Own
The possibilities for using this technology are endless, and the best part is that the software is free and there are numerous resources for learning the programs and training (such as the online Go-to-School) your own volunteers. Interested? Get started learning how to do this today. Want to participate in Main Streets in 3D – a program of the National Trust Main Street Center, Google, and Igloo Studios? Five communities will be selected to receive training from Google SketchUp experts and to show the revitalization and preservation world the seemingly limitless ways this technology can be used.
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