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Summer 2004
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Essex, Vermont, Discovers the Power of 3D Analysis

  click to enlarge
Town Center shops with Camels Hump mountain in the background.

Mention Vermont to those familiar with the northeastern United States, and they might think of quaint New England villages with tree-lined town greens, wooden covered bridges, or maple syrup. Indeed, this state of just over 600,000 people can be a very tranquil setting. Look carefully, however, and you will see a region that is changing. Making the right growth decisions is critical to the state and its 251 individual communities.

Vermont has long been a leader in GIS and 2D mapping. Its statewide orthophoto program was started in 1974 and has served as the base for GIS layer development since 1983. Traditionally, the 2D map has been the backbone of planning efforts across the state. Zoning, soils, parcels, elevation, and infrastructure layers are all readily available. Nowhere is this more evident than in the town of Essex, which is now the second largest population center in the state. Issues associated with the transition from a rural landscape to a more suburban environment confront the community every day. Located in the Champlain Valley, the town enjoys spectacular views of Vermont's Green Mountains as well as the Adirondack Mountains in neighboring New York State. Issues of aesthetics extend to building design, continuity with adjacent structures, and views of the surrounding landscape.

One area of particular interest is referred to as the New Town Center. Accessed by two major state highways and situated in a location with wide panoramic views of the mountains and valley, the area has already begun to see mixed residential and commercial growth. Zoned to accommodate buildings up to three stories, the ultimate impact on the landscape was unclear among both the citizens and town officials. In September 2003, the town's Selectboard appointed a committee to review zoning and land use issues pertaining to the Town Center area. The ultimate goal of the committee was to recommend future uses and building densities for this area. Essex has been a longtime user of ArcInfo, so the committee did not lack for traditional 2D maps to begin its work. What was missing was a way to view the area in 3D and evaluate the impact of proposed three- and even four-story structures.

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Essex Cinema and the mountains to the southeast.
 

Unbeknownst to the town and the newly formed committee was the fact that local Esri Business Partner Green Mountain GeoGraphics, Ltd. (GMGG), had selected the Town Center area to test the new 3D rendering capabilities of ArcGIS 9 3D Analyst. GMGG had been selected as a beta test site for ArcGIS 9, and thus the groundwork was laid for an operational test of the public acceptance of this new rendering and simulation capability.

Getting started on the 3D scene was very much like any other GIS project; data had to be collected and assimilated into ArcGIS Desktop (ArcView, ArcInfo). This included orthophotos and terrain data from the state, parcels and zoning from the town, and CAD drawings of the site from developers. With the necessary data and terrain editing complete, construction of the scene was ready to begin. ArcGIS 9 3D Analyst comes with an extensive library of 3D symbols that can be used to render a scene with typical buildings and vegetation. Creation of the Town Center required GMGG to create custom 3D symbols of buildings and vegetation on the site.

To create the existing and proposed structures, GMGG used software from Esri Business Partners @Last Software (Boulder, Colorado) and MultiGen-Paradigm (San Jose, California). GMGG found that both programs produce high-quality results that import easily into ArcGIS 9 3D Analyst.

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The Whittier Building complex, looking north.

Trees and other vegetation are an important part of almost any landscape. ArcGIS 3D Analyst comes with 3D symbols for more than 200 tree species from all over the world. This sampling of tree species is a terrific start for the ArcGIS 3D Analyst user, but to represent more species or examples of individual species at different ages or seasons, users will need to expand the library. In the case of the Town Center area, GMGG was looking for a way to simulate how the area might look in 20 or 30 years and evaluate how tree growth might affect views of the mountains. After an extensive search, GMGG found a company in France called Bionatics. Its REALnat software product grows tree symbols from mathematical seeds that are species specific. Trees can be grown to a specified age and season in just a matter of minutes. Seeds can be reused as often as necessary, and the tree symbols generated can be saved in OpenFlight format, which will quickly import into ArcGIS 9 3D Analyst. With REALnat, it quickly became obvious that extensive tree creation, which might have taken days or weeks, could now be done in just a few hours.

With the 3D environment created, GMGG approached members of the town's Economic Development office, asking for an opportunity to show the work and to gauge their reaction to this new virtual environment. Word spread, and soon the town recognized the power of what had been created with 3D Analyst, and in January 2004, GMGG made the first public presentation of its 3D work from the Town Center. In attendance were the committee members and representatives of the development community.

The presentation proved to be a resounding success. For more than one hour the committee and developers had the presenter navigating to every possible vantage point. Both existing buildings and vegetation were displayed, along with proposed buildings in both three- and four-story renditions.

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Grocery store with proposed brick buildings in the background.
 

"The presentation seemed to have a calming effect over the audience as their confidence in the 3D environment grew," reports Gary Smith, a principal at GMGG. "At an earlier meeting, artist renderings of the proposed buildings had been dismissed because they looked too much like college dormitories. These same buildings were more easily accepted once they had been viewed in the 3D virtual environment."

Before the presentation, a development partner tried to prevent the 3D environment from being shown out of fear that it would not produce favorable results. That same developer subsequently asked that two new buildings be added to the 3D database of the Town Center.

In the cover letter of the report to the Selectboard, the Town Center committee chair specifically recommended that the Selectboard members see the 3D presentation as it clearly helped the committee reach agreement and write its summary report. Within a week of receiving the report, the Selectboard requested the opportunity to view the 3D scene. From this very positive experience, the town is now looking for ways to continue 3D scene development of other growth areas.

"It might be too early to proclaim the end of the artist rendering," Smith says, "but the impact of GIS, using the virtual 3D environments of ArcGIS, will become a powerful tool. 3D simulation is here to stay."

For more information, contact Gary Smith, Green Mountain GeoGraphics, Ltd. (tel.: 802-878-6746, e-mail: gsmith@gis-help.com, Web: www.gis-help.com).

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