The Next Chicago Model

Civil & Surveying

Guest author, Jeff Link, is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and an Eddie-nominated journalist. His work has appeared in Landscape Architecture Magazine, Redshift, and American Builders Quarterly.

Smart Infrastructure Model that Maps a City

The first time he saw the Chicago Model, a detailed 320-square-foot replica of the city of Chicago on exhibition by Chicago Architecture Foundation in the atrium of the Railway Exchange Building, Tom Coleman, manager of technology at WSP, was more than a little impressed.

My visual interest in the physical model was the inspiration for why I wanted to build a new kind of digital model. I wondered if we could replicate the stunning visual display, but make it a smart model, linking data, projects, and infrastructure. — Tom Coleman, WSP


Chicago Architecture Foundation

The original model

The original Chicago Model represents 400 blocks of the city and more than 1,000 buildings. The detailed physical replica began as the idea of Chicago Architecture Foundation President and CEO Lynn Osmond, and owes a debt to the Columbian Model & Exhibit Works, Sanborn Map Company, Google Earth, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, Baxter International, DSM, and the Chicago Planning Department, among others. It took approximately 1,600 hours to 3D print.

While marveling the model’s expansive scope and highly refined detail, Coleman was mentally expanding its scale; ruminating on its implications for urban planning and to show WSP projects both tall buildings and infrastructure. If Chicago’s Loop could be modeled, why not an entire region’s infrastructure? And, further, what if such a model could operate intelligently, in the way of many 3D building models, integrating data from geographic information systems (GIS), Lidar, 3D design software, and photogrammetry to run advance simulations—not just for a single building, but an entire city?

We came to a point in our company, where we asked ourselves the question, ‘Where can we use model development to improve client relationships and also bring in new revenue?’ — Tom Coleman, WSP


That question soon found an answer—smart infrastructure.

As one of the first steps, WSP began developing a model for the River Edge Ideas Lab, a public design exhibition developed and curated by Ross Barney Architects in collaboration with the Chicago Department of Planning and Development and the Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC). The public exhibition runs in conjunction with this year’s Chicago Architecture Biennial, from Sept. 16, 2017 to Jan. 7, 2018.

Article: Mayor Emanuel Opens Chicago Architecture Biennial Exhibit That Envisions the Future of Chicago’s Riverfront


The intelligent model

The digital Chicago Model, Coleman says, had an immediate purpose: Nine architectural firms selected by the city and MPC used it as a resource to help provide their visions for restoring natural habitat and activating public spaces along Chicago’s riverfront. Their designs are displayed at Expo 72, at 72 E. Randolph St., online (, and will travel to eight locations throughout the city.

It also was conceived with broader ambitions. Spanning some 1700 square miles, WSP’s model is one of the first regional-scale 3D visualizations to combine richly textured infrastructure layers — roadways, viaducts, railways, utility right-of-ways —with intelligent data that can be used to run simulations. Data from the model can predict, for instance, the speed associated with various lane and roadway configurations.

We look at the Chicago Model as the first trial of a smart visualization model of an entire city’s infrastructure. — Tom Coleman, WSP

In some ways, the project started much sooner. In February 2016, the firm (WSP Parsons Brinckerhoff) had won a competitive $2 million contract from the Chicago Department of Aviation to draft a plan for a possible high-speed rail line from O’Hare to the city’s downtown, including routes, station locations, and viability and cost projections.

That was the genesis of why we would want to use model, to prove to ourselves that we could build largescale models from off-the-shelf GIS data. For this to be a tool, it couldn’t take two years to build. It had to be done quickly and cost effectively.  — Tom Coleman, WSP

The model also had to produce the deliverables MPC wanted: 27 detailed “before” and “after” images and 3D models of the three sites: the rear wall of the Civic Opera House, a vacant parcel near the St. Charles Air Line Bridge where Ping Tom Memorial Park borders private land, and a river edge beneath a doubled-leafed drawbridge along the Congress Parkway.

Mark Kauffman, who leads the technical side of project visualization at WSP, says Autodesk’s InfraWorks offered the firm a platform to integrate photogrammetry and survey-grade GIS information from a variety of sources. The platform pulls together modeling applications, such as Revit and Civil 3D, and generates richly textured images and fly through animations.

Model in Autodesk InfraWorks


Adding model detail

But to achieve the granular level of detail the MPC desired, Coleman says, WSP needed to capture more photogrammetry-based point cloud data. The Texas-based geospatial firm Surveying And Mapping, LLC (SAM) had experience using Lidar, a surveying method of using pulsing lasers (the word was originally a portmanteau of light and radar) to measure distances and create high-resolution digital 3D representations. They also came on the strong recommendation James Wedding, an infrastructure-solutions specialist and self-described gunslinger for Autodesk with whom Coleman had done business.

The Lidar portion of the project lasted two days. This was day one, near the St. Charles Air Line Bridge, an iron-clad bascule bridge that spans the South Branch of the Chicago River and sends shockwaves as it comes to rest.

Basically, we set up a tripod on the west bank of the Chicago River, taking detailed 360-degree scans.  — Nelson Klitzka, business development manager at SAM

The team shot the other two locations in similar fashion, Klitzka says, using a 1’ by 1’ Trimble SX10 Lidar scanner to measure approximately 26,600 points per second and send this data, saved immediately to a mobile tablet, back to WSP.

Imagine a shotgun blasting out a number of points. Those points return as wavelengths at a certain distance, and from these you get a three-dimensional image, like a Google Earth image, that is true-to-life and measurable. — Nelson Klitzka

California-based CyberCity 3D, who recently developed a 3D model of Miami, assisted with data integration and rapid prototyping, says CEO Kevin DeVito. Using proprietary stereo-based geospatial software, the firm generated the bulk of the 3D city maps, accented the architectural representations of 16 iconic buildings, and developed color-gradated heat maps that illustrate the climate impact of buildings clustered in the city’s core.


Chicago Model in Autodesk InfraWorks


Coleman says he is excited to see the public’s response to the exhibit, and says WSP is already using aspects of the model for new projects: among them, a large redevelopment proposal in Chicago and a concept for a light rail transit system and multimodal station in Charlotte, North Carolina.

We’ve answered our question of two years ago, proving to ourselves that we can build a model for building client relationships and provide a valued resource for the city of Chicago. — Tom Coleman, WSP

Redshift Article: A Second Coast for the Second City: Nine Architecture Firms Envision a Brighter Future for the Chicago River

Chicago_Model_V2 from WSP USA on Vimeo.

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