How Can AI and Data-Driven Tools Help Architects Design Compact, Healthy Cities?

The United Nations estimates that the world population will reach 10.4 billion by 2100. Already by 2050, 2 out of 3 people will call cities home, coming in search of the opportunities, services and amenities on offer. That puts even more pressure on urban areas given all these people will need access to water, food, public space, good infrastructure and, above all, housing. In fact, estimates suggest more than two billion homes will need to be built by the end of the 21st century to accommodate this population explosion. As cities grow, so does urban sprawl, which brings its own set of environmental and social challenges. In the face of climate change, sustainable urban development must ensure that future housing solutions –new and renovated– are built to support healthy communities, prioritizing both human and environmental well-being. In turn, cities will need to be built denser and faster, but not without meeting a long list of stringent criteria. Only this way can we avoid the negative, often overlooked, effects of uncontrolled hyper densification that give urban development a bad name.

The future of urban development is compact

Densification takes different forms; as every city or site is unique, it requires a tailored approach. At the same time, we need to maximize the scarce land that’s available in our existing cities to minimize urban sprawl. Skyscrapers are often associated with densification but other less intrusive solutions better suit complex urban contexts. Think compact, mixed-use neighborhoods with a more human scale that combine higher and lower densities and scales depending on the streetscape and urban quality. The 15-minute city and transit-oriented developments are such examples that take advantage of a compact urban structure and allow residents to conveniently walk or cycle to amenities, public transport hubs or to their work. At the same time, infill projects, brownfield and adaptive reuse projects are now being prioritized to maximize available urban space and transform neglected neighborhoods.

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Courtesy of Paris En Common

In considering living qualities, architects must deal with a wide range of factors to ensure the safety, comfort and health of building occupants and other city dwellers. Among them, creating functional and flexible floor plans, incorporating communal and green spaces, ensuring proper ventilation and natural light, and good microclimate for outdoor public spaces. As these factors are all interconnected, they should not be viewed in isolation, which is often the case.

The complexity of building in compact cities brings with it diverse urban conditions, regulations and stakeholders. Tackling these challenges becomes a tall order for architects, urban designers, municipalities and developers. But with new technologies, densifying our cities doesn’t have to be a problem; designers now have access to new tools that can help them build the healthy and comfortable urban neighborhoods they envisioned.

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Cheonggyecheon area, Seoul. Image © Sandi Benedicta on Unsplash

Supercharging the design process with AI and data

Pushing the limits of innovation, artificial intelligence (AI) and data-driven digital tools have profoundly impacted the way architects shape and reimagine the built environment. AI enables them to take advantage of what computers do best, which is access and process endless amounts of data and suggest a multitude of solutions to help solve the most complex of problems. The technology is able to streamline the design process, minimize errors, optimize time, and reduce the amount of guesswork and effort in any project.

These new data-driven tools aid architects and urban planners by providing them with insights and recommendations based on data analysis, supercharging their intuition and decision-making process. For example, machine learning algorithms can be used to trace and predict pedestrian traffic or predict the amount of energy a building will require for its operations. With concepts like generative design, it is possible to combine parametric design and AI to process data that is input by the architect, generating multiple high-performance design alternatives. Architects can fine-tune their preferred design options to ensure that they maximize space while meeting the community’s needs, and at the same time, reduce their environmental impact.

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Site study. Image Courtesy of Spacemaker

Early insights to improve living qualities in compact cities

With all of this in mind, Autodesk’s powerful cloud-based software for site planning, Spacemaker, helps architects and urban designers navigate the challenges of designing compact cities at the early stage. The tool calculates optimum densities for a plot of land. Project options can be easily tested for feasibility. Advanced analyses help architects to make informed early-stage decisions to optimize their designs for natural light, views, acoustics, and many other decisive factors. At the same time, it makes it easier for them to have a more holistic picture of how these factors impact each other. For example, if a facade is raised to become a noise barrier, how will this impact the views of the neighboring block? Will it create overshadowing in the courtyard? Will there be any negative wind effects?

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Wind analysis. Image Courtesy of Spacemaker

Every Spacemaker analysis has a goal of improving how people live in denser cities. The microclimate analysis, for example, helps architects optimize the thermal comfort of outdoor space to invite maximum use all year round. More, better and greener communal areas become more even important in compact cities where people live close to one another. Residents need good public spaces to meet, exercise, or just hang out with their community and it encourages a sense of belonging–all of which promote the physical and mental well-being of residents. The microclimate analysis is also a valuable new tool in tackling the urban heat island effect. As more and more cities struggle with the impact of heat waves, architects and urban planners are now tasked with finding mitigation strategies to keep our cities cool.

Because Spacemaker is a cloud-based platform, every actor involved in the planning and design process can access the same 3D model anytime, from anywhere. This helps increase transparency and trust, but also helps developers, architects, contractors and municipalities work collaboratively to create more coherence between the existing city and a new urban area – which is a complex task.  

Mei architects and planners faced exactly this challenge in one of their urban projects in the Netherlands that added a large new volume into a complex inner-city site. Needed to address the residents’ concerns about, for example overshadowing, the team used easy-to-understand visualizations to not just communicate but to achieve buy-in and enthusiasm for their design solutions.

To make changes on this site, we needed to work with surgical precision. Using Spacemaker’s analyses we were able to exactly show the building’s impact. It also helped us to explore the possibilities of the site within the constraints –we showed how it could work within the boundaries. – Rob Grim, Head of Urban planning at Mei

Using Spacemaker on another project, the team was able to improve the positioning of new structures on the site and test their impact to ensure good conditions for the public spaces all year round. As Grim explains, “Using Spacemaker, we could investigate how to keep the benefits of a higher density to create a lot of housing, a big mix of programs on ground level and a lively neighborhood, and, at the same time, have a good grasp on the living conditions.”

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Valley Towers / MVRDV. Image © Ossip van Duivenbode

In the evolving field of architecture and urban design, data-based AI tools like Spacemaker enable design professionals to more easily navigate complex challenges of the present and future –from the impacts of climate change to the rapid growth and densification of our cities. Urbanization could, therefore, be regarded as an opportunity, one where healthy, compact cities could be the shortcut to increased quality of life for the people living in them.

Visit Spacemaker’s website to learn more about the vast potential of AI-powered tools in architectural and urban design.

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Cite: Valeria Montjoy. "How Can AI and Data-Driven Tools Help Architects Design Compact, Healthy Cities?" 23 Feb 2023. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884
Microclimate analysis. Image Courtesy of Spacemaker


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