Understanding Current Assets and Future Needs with Digital Twins

What do a municipality in central Pennsylvania, a city ravaged by fire in Oregon, and a city struggling to improve its economic development outlook in Southern California have in common? More than you might think.

When it comes to planning, the tendency is to think that your community has a unique set of problems. No one else can really relate to them. Certainly not a community with a different socioeconomic structure.

Actually, the hurdles that communities are facing across the nation are familiar and similar. While the three communities previously mentioned have different backgrounds, stories, and even goals, all three embrace a modern, data-driven approach to planning so they can meet the evolving needs of their residents.

State College launched an immersive 3D website that lists all projects under review, approved, under construction, and completed to improve collaboration between planners and residents.

Designing for Rapid Growth

State College, Pennsylvania, has a modest population of 42,000, but the topography of the area constrains the city limits to less than five square miles. That means more dense and mixed-use development is a must to accommodate the growth the city is seeing.

“We’re seeing the biggest building boom since the 1970s, and we wanted to be in a better position to explain what’s happening,” said Ed LeClear, State College’s director of planning and community development.

To track and share information about the rapid development, LeClear and his team are using ArcGIS to visualize changes and analyze impacts on residents and the local economy. LeClear teamed with colleagues Greg Garthe, a planner and zoning officer with a background in GIS, and Brian Fahringer, a GIS analyst who brings visualization skills from a prior job at an engineering firm.

Using ArcGIS Urban, the team created a digital twin, which combines a map and a 3D model of buildings and infrastructure in State College.

Using ArcGIS Urban, the team created a digital twin, which combines a map and a 3D model of buildings and infrastructure. ArcGIS Urban is a web-based 3D application that supports scenario planning and impact assessment. The digital twin enables the team to share and compare features, such as heights, setbacks, and floor area ratio (FAR), and see how streetscapes are changing.

For city planners, the look of downtown is important, but so is the economic mix that contributes to State College’s vitality. Longtime residents of any city can be wary about significant changes in growth patterns. This means that transparency in these situations is more important than ever to create not only a dialogue, but also a partnership between residents and their planning department. To address this, State College launched an immersive 3D website that lists all projects in the borough under review, approved, under construction, and completed.

Many new council members ran on a platform of creating affordable housing. As they take office, LeClear and his team plan to lean on their GIS maps and models to help developers and the city find a balance for residents. “This digital twin tool will be helpful to orient new local officials about the issues,” LeClear said.

The Almeda Drive Fire burned a path of destruction through southern Oregon, burning more than 2,600 structures.

From Ashes to Affordable Housing

In 2020, the Almeda Drive Fire burned a path of destruction through southern Oregon. One of the cities that saw particularly harsh devastation was Talent, Oregon. The devastation was particularly harsh on many low-income first-generation immigrants who were working in the area. City officials and community leaders wanted to map a path to keep families who had called Talent home.

The Talent Urban Renewal Agency (TURA) purchased a four-acre plot of land between Route 99, the city’s major thoroughfare, and Talent Avenue, the city’s central street. The city had planned to develop this mostly vacant area into the Gateway Redevelopment Project. The project would combine residential development and local businesses to attract more traffic from the highway.

To reenvision the project to meet the housing needs of displaced residents, planners relied heavily on GIS. Nikki Hart-Brinkley, owner of land-use consultancy firm Greentop PDR, helped the city use existing lidar data to build a 3D basemap. That map provided a realistic interface for conducting scenario planning for the site. Planners could execute a proposal virtually, add structures to the GIS, and examine the results from all angles. This web-based 3D environment was built in ArcGIS Urban and allowed TURA to see how the project would mesh with existing zoning and land-use laws.

With ArcGIS as a guide, the Gateway Redevelopment Project has been designed as a four-phase development plan, beginning with 53 trailers of transitional housing.

This work also provided insight into utility needs for the development. “You have to have water, sewer, and electricity for each and every unit,” Hart-Brinkley said. “That stuff doesn’t just happen to be there.”

Because civic inclusion is a key component of this project, the city used ArcGIS Hub to create a hub site to inform the public and provide transparency about the process.

With ArcGIS as a guide, Gateway’s designers forged a four-phase development plan, beginning with 53 trailers of transitional housing. Over the next few years, permanent affordable housing will replace some of the trailers. This housing mix will evolve into a site with 90 affordable apartments.

“We knew when we purchased the property and started working with the community to create a vision here that it was a very special place,” said Darby Ayers-Flood, Talent’s mayor, during the groundbreaking ceremony. “We had no way of knowing how special this place would become.”

Instead of having warehouses occupy a 450-acre piece of land, Colton, California, is developing Hub City Centre, an area that will make Colton a more livable, more appealing, and healthier city.

Balancing Economic Development

The city of Colton, California, like many cities, lacks housing that fits the lifestyles of its changing and growing demographics. City leaders have decided to meet these needs and address economic development concerns with the creation of a downtown mixed-use marketplace called Hub City Centre. In 2014, the city had a 450-acre piece of land for the development. Instead of letting warehouses occupy the vacant space, Arthur Morgan, economic development manager for the City of Colton, wanted to use this area to transform Colton into a more livable, more appealing, and healthier city.

Like State College and Talent, Colton leveraged a digital twin created in ArcGIS to both plan and market the development of Hub City Centre. “We know what we want, we know what we’re going after, and we can use GIS to tell the story to get businesses and developers to be a part of it,” Morgan said.

When the city leaders asked the public what it wanted to see, it became clear that residents wanted to move away from traditional single-family residential lots to townhomes and other housing types. Using ArcGIS Urban, the city has built a 3D model of planned and existing development.

The 3D model made its debut at the International Council of Shopping Centers (ICSC) conference, where Morgan incorporated the immersive tool in his pitch to retailers. City leaders used the 3D model to show retailers how developers would blend into the community. Housing, restaurants, and hotels have been added to Hub City Centre over the past few years, with no signs of slowing down. Many local economies experienced significant loss during the pandemic, but Colton saw a $2 million revenue increase from sales and property tax.

Digital Twins Give Communities an Edge

These three cities are examples of a rapidly evolving trend taking place across the country. The implementation of a digital twin gives communities the tools they need to effectively understand current assets and resources, while also creating multiple scenarios for future development that meets the needs of all residents.

Using ArcGIS Urban, Colton has built a 3D model of planned and existing development.

From a planning standpoint, digital twins and the tools used to model development provide a more efficient route to more sustainable and equitable developments. From an economic development standpoint, digital twins give communities a competitive edge, whether dealing with business recruitment or business retention and expansion.

Clearly, 3D is no longer a luxury. It’s attainable and affordable—and importantly, it’s how planners, economic developers, and the public think.

About the author

Keith Cooke

Keith Cooke is the Global Industry Manager for Community Development at Esri. A graduate of Auburn University, he has been a GIS professional since 1994 and has worked for planning and community development agencies at the regional and municipal level in Alabama and North Carolina. Prior to this role, he was an account executive at Esri for 15 years working with over 100 local governments.