Overview – Urban Planning Software & Tools
Urban Planners are often required use urban planning software which bridges the various disciplines involved in city planning. While not always the case, the softwares and tools used within the urban planning can be quite expensive. Especially when you are self employed. Fortunately, there are free urban planning software alternatives available, which does well in completing the necessary tasks. However, unfortunately some of the paid software do not have alternative free and open source software.
We have attempted to summarise the key urban planning software and tools used today, both free and paid. This list has been made in an effort to make it easy to understand the software that exists and is used today. Although, the list is currently not fully comprehensive it gives an overview. The list will moreover be updated once in a while to reflect software not listed here.
We hope this list is useful and provides some help in finding urban planning software and tools that can support your work.
Land Use Planning Tools
ESRI ArcGIS is the most widely used GIS software in the world. It allows The ArcGIS software have allowed planning agencies to carry out both traditional and previously impossible tasks more efficiently and easier. With the various functions the GIS programs offer, urban planners can create and assess different development scenarios and test the potential impacts they will have on future land use, demographics and employment options. Consequently, ArcGIS has created a spatial tool that provides more informed planning decisions.
QGIS (Free alternative to ESRI ArcGIS)
An ArcGIS software license can be quite expensive, but there is an alternative; QGIS. The QGIS software is a great user friendly open source alternative. It offers similar functions to ArcGIS, and is rather easy to learn if you already know ArcGIS. Moreover, there is an active community to ask questions, and substantial number of QGIS tutorials for all levels, from beginners to advanced level.
ESRI ArcGIS | Courtesy of ESRI
QGIS | Courtesy of QGIS
ArcGIS CityEngine is another 3D modelling software. It is used by urban planners, urban designers and architects to create a large city without the need to model each building separately. The software allows you to measure areas, distances and paths, and compare various development proposals and analyse design solutions.
ArcGIS Urban is another ESRI application focused on the urban planning and design professions. The ArcGIS Urban software provides an 3D experience allowing for better understanding of potential land use and development. Thereby decision-making is better formed by visualising and understanding how development projects will fit into the local surroundings.
SketchUp is globally the most widely used 3D modelling and design tool. Almost anything can be modelled in SketchUp and is able to save files that are rather compatible with other design softwares. It has become so popular due to its intuitive but powerful functions and range of extensions (Including the Modelur extension; see below).
Modelur (cheaper alternative to ESRI ArcGIS Cityengine)
Modelur is a simple and inexpensive SketchUp extension that is somewhat similar to CityEngine. While Modelur is lacking rendering options and extensive functionality as included in CityEngine, it provides a powerful 3D tool to quickly create conceptual urban massing. It calculates your design’s urban planning parameters in realtime, such as Floor Area Ratio (FAR), Gross Floor Area (GFA), Built-up Area (BUA), Site Coverage, recommended parking lots and green area. Therefore you can easily adjust your design to be aligned with the requirements for the site in question. Furthermore, the software tool provides well informed decisions.
Modelur offers free student licenses, but you need to provide proof of university enrollment.
Streetmix is an online open source street design tool. It provides a user-friendly and fun way to create fast proposals for street and public space improvements. The tool was created for city planners, public and private companies, pedestrian and bike advocates to make street-making accessible for everyone.
ArcGIS CityEngine | Courtesy of ArcGIS
SketchUp | Courtesy of Trimble
Modelur | Courtesy of Modelur
Streetmix | Courtesy of Streetmix
Qualitative and Quantitative Analysis Tools
The founder behind the UrbanFootprint tool, Peter Calthorpe, is an urban planner and designer that approached city planning with focus on sustainability and climate resilience. He saw a need to have a tool that gathered all data together into one database which could visualise development, analyse the existing conditions and future implications of development decisions. Urban Footprint is a tool, much similar to SimCity, that offers easy access to key planning data and analyses. They have a database consisting of own curated data, municipal open data and commercially collected data across United States. Thereby providing a product which attempts to build cities more sustainable and efficiently based on real world data.
Urban Network Analysis Toolbox for ArcGIS
The Urban Network Analysis Toolbox is an extension to ArcGIS created by MIT Professor Andres Sevtsuk. The toolbox is used to analyse 5 types of graph analysis measures on spatial networks, including: Reach; Gravity; Betweenness; Closeness; and Straightness. It also has Redundancy Tools which can calculate the Redundancy Index, Redundant Paths, and the Wayfinding Index within an area.
The toolbox is especially suited for spatial analysis of cities’ street networks due to the following 3 features:
1. Calculates geometry and topology in the analysis.
2. Takes buildings (as opposed to the Space Syntax software), nodes and edges into the calculation.
3. Buildings can be calculated based on their character such as building volume, building population or significant landmark.
The tool can be used for both dense and large-scale regional areas as well as small-scale areas. Thus it is a tool which can analyse accessibility and best locations for developments for a greater reach. The Urban Network Analysis Toolbox for ArcGIS is foremostly an urban planners analysis tool, but is used for other purposes as well.
The Morphocode Explorer, currently only available for New York (Beta), is an online urban analysis tool. It provides an intuitive and user-friendly way to analyse existing site conditions, walkability and mobility, land use, demographics, and perform spatial analysis. The tool was featured in the bestseller book ‘The Best American Infographics 2015’ for its interactive visualisation.
Morphocode Explorer uses a number of open data publicly available and optimises the data to carry out quick analysis within the webbrowser. The tool is expanding, and is planned to be available in other cities around the world.
If you are interested in learning about data visualization, creative coding and urban informatics, visit the online Morphocode Academy where you can learn more.
Google Earth has become a key urban planning tool. It has the ability to see satellite imagery across the world and look back at historical imagery using the time slider. Consequently, it provides a great tool for analysing old and new development and spatial land use changes. For a number of large cities 3D perspective viewing is possible. Moreover, Google Earth is able to accurately measure distance and can export images and perspectives for further post-editing in Photoshop (alternatively the free option GIMP) and SketchUp.
Google Street View
Google Street View provides an online representation of places around the world. Google frequently drives around the globe capturing millions of panoramic images. While Google photographs the ‘Street View’, millions of contributors like you help creating Google Maps even more powerful. This collective effort around the world has allowed us to experience almost every place on the earth, right from our sofa.
Within Street View we can also travel back in time using the Time Machine. This is a great feature that enables us to compare old street view photos with new, providing another great analysis tool.
The Street View tool has allowed planners to analyse and benchmark places across the globe. As a result, we gain a better understanding of how various urban solutions could improve local conditions.
Open Street Maps
Open Street Maps (OSM) is the wikipedia of maps, a free open source alternative to Google Maps. You can download Open Street Maps as a basemap, use map data for navigation and GIS analysis for planners. Large data extracts of continents, countries and sub-regions updated daily can be downloaded from Geofabrik GmbH.
The data can be loaded into both ESRI ArcGIS and QGIS. It is fully built by more than 6 million contributers and various data contributers across the globe. The community primarily consists of enthusiast mappers, engineers and GIS professionals around the world. OSM is used by thousands of organisations, governments, companies and individuals including: Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft, Wikipedia, Pinterest, Uber, BBC and World Bank.
Treepedia is the wikipedia of trees developed by MIT Senseable City Lab in collaboration with World Economic Forum. The online tool has collected large amounts of data and created a database showing the tree canopy cover in cities and locations around the world. With an increased supranational and governmental focus on strategies to green cities, Treepedia has created a tool that allows you to find your own city’s tree canopy, and compare it to other cities.
Treepedia’s computer vision technology utilises Google Street View to map out the ‘Green View Index’ of cities, and thus parks are excluded from the analysis. Treepedia is using Google Street View instead of satellite imagery to show the actual human perception of the surroundings. The Green View index for a particular city or address are showed on a scale of 0 – 100, showing the canopy coverage percentage of a city or specific location.
UrbanFootprint | Courtesy of UrbanFootprint
UNA Toolbox | Courtesy of MIT CityLab
Morphocode Explorer | Courtesy of Morphocode
Google Street View | Courtesy of Google
Noise and Air Quality analysis Tools
HowLoud is an online analysis tool showing the approximate noise and sounds surrounding an address. Based on the noise levels it provides an overall score of its quietness (Soundscore). The noise map gives the respective address a rating between 50 (very loud) and 100 (very quiet) based on the following surrounding noise factors: vehicle traffic, air traffic and local sources (restaurants, schools, stores).
While the map was created for buyers and renters, it is a practical tool for planners to quickly check noise levels of an area. Note that data is only available for populated areas, namely the 1,000 largest urban areas within the United States.
Did you know noise is the most common complaint to call the authorities about? In New York City alone they received more than 130,000 complaints between Jan 2019 and Jan 2020.
US Transportation Noise Map
The US Transportation Noise Map provides an updated understanding of the sound from roads within your community. The data within the map includes noise primarily from airports and interstate highways.
IQAir is an online tool that allows you to see the air quality of cities and urban locations around the world.
HowLoud Soundscore | Courtesy of HowLoud
IQAir | Courtesy of IQAir