Heat wave map Prague

Beating the heat: Create cooler cities thanks to 3D Digital Twins

How technology can help respond to challenges that are not so futuristic any more.

Land-surface temperature in Prague (image: European Space Agency)

July 2023 was the hottest month on record ever since 1880 (NASA). Wouldn’t it make sense to counteract the relentless advance of climate change with the use of smart technologies and proactively address these challenges in the future?

As temperatures in the last couple of years continue to rise, cities around the world are facing the challenge of keeping their citizens cool and safe amidst the heat. In the fight against climate change and its harmful effects, innovative approaches are essential: Digital twins and 3D technology offer a unique solution by allowing city planners to better understand their cities, create virtual simulations of urban environments and test different strategies for reducing heat.

Understanding Digital Twins and 3D data

In the context of cities, Digital Twins refer to a complete digital replica of an urban area, capturing its infrastructure, buildings, utilities, and various data points. It acts as a dynamic mirror of the city, allowing for data-driven decision-making and predictive analysis. They can also help planners to design more sustainable buildings and infrastructure by modeling their performance under different conditions.

Urban heat islands analysis and green spaces

With the aid of 3D data, urban planners and architects can design buildings and infrastructure that are more energy-efficient, reducing Urban heat islands (UHI) effects. UHI are areas within cities that experience significantly higher temperatures than their surrounding rural areas. 3D data can identify areas that are at risk of overheating, allowing for targeted interventions to reduce the effects of extreme heat and locating opportunities to incorporate more nature into cities.

3D church Unterägeri

3D model of green areas in Unterägeri, Switzerland

Furthermore, green infrastructure can be planned and developed in a more comprehensive way: Green roofs and walls can be implemented where they can bring the most benefit and the planning of parks and green spaces can be thoroughly explored, which can decrease temperatures and improve air quality.

While the integration of green spaces like trees and parks undoubtedly plays a crucial role in combating heatwaves, it’s essential to recognize that their impact isn’t always uniformly positive. A study conducted at the École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) underscores the intricate relationship between trees and urban air quality. The research points out that while trees offer shade and cooling benefits, their effectiveness can be hindered by factors such as improper species selection, poor maintenance, and even misaligned positioning.

Optimal building placement and design

Besides green spaces, construction also plays a fundamental part in mitigating heat within urban areas. With the help of digital twins, it is possible to simulate the impact of building placement and design on local microclimates. By considering factors like orientation, shading, and material choices, the heat exposure of buildings can be minimized, leading to lower energy consumption for cooling and increased comfort for residents.

3D models and renewable energy optimization

Digital twins help pinpoint rooftops and open spaces in cities where solar panel deployment and other renewable energy sources would be most efficient. It is evident that the integration of renewable energy reduces the dependency on fossil fuels, which therefore will lead to cleaner energy consumption and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

A glimpse into urban heat mitigation: Zurich’s approach

Zurich has recently embraced a proactive strategy to counteract the impacts of rising temperatures. The «Specialist Planning Heat Reduction», devised by the city’s authorities, employs a multi-faceted approach that incorporates ecological design of green spaces, establishing water in urban spaces, optimizing building structure for favorable microclimate, and innovative urban infrastructure among other things. This comprehensive plan not only aims to reduce heat island effects but also to enhance the overall livability and resilience of the city. For such large-scale projects, considering how complex such an undertaking is and how many factors must be taken into account, the use of 3D data can be of enormous importance to develop concrete courses of action for the city and communicate efficiently with the local residents.

Toward a future with minimal climate damage

The implementation of 3D technology for future urban planning is not only advisable but also urgently needed if we are to reduce the effects of climate change. Combating heatwaves and building more sustainable cities is a pressing global challenge that cannot be entirely solved but can be diminished by using 3D data and digital twins. This approach not only saves time and money but also ensures that the outcome is more sustainable, resilient, and well thought through. As cities continue to grow and confront climate change, along with other emerging challenges, the application of 3D data will become essential to holistically grasp cities’ physical constraints and opportunities for creating habitable urban environments.

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