Digital Twins used in Urban Planning and Infrastructure

Matthew Robare
November 16, 2023

As cities continue amassing massive amounts of data, digital twins will become increasingly valuable in urban planning and infrastructure projects.

The construction of digital twin models is growing in importance and interest in the urban planning world.

Cities generate and collect vast amounts of data. They have records going back years for many cases. And technological advances are making the collection and storage of even more kinds of data cheaper, and more accessible, than ever before.

Digital twins — which involve constructing digital models of a city’s terrain, buildings, and infrastructure, as well as simulating parameters like jobs, deliveries, traffic, and pollution — provide urban planners with both a deep look at their city’s inner workings and an idea of how a change might play out.

Digital Twins in Traffic Planning

One of the major ways digital twins are beginning to make a difference is with traffic planning.

Combining traffic simulations with the many layers of data represented by a digital twin can enable great insight.

City sources can help fill out how many off-street parking spaces are available, how much revenue they generate for the city, the amount of parking each building has, along with its expected trips.

This can help planners see how much traffic a new building might add to nearby streets and highways, as well as play around with potential ways to mitigate it.

Crash data can also be added into the models, allowing planners to see dangerous stretches of road or intersections and experiment with different methods of improving safety, from re-timing traffic lights to traffic calming measures like road diets or roundabouts.

The models can also give planners an idea of how an intervention will affect a broader area.

Adjusting the lights may deal with crashes at one bad intersection, but it won’t be worth it if they end up causing problems elsewhere. 

Energy Reduction

According to SmartCities Dive, digital twins are being used to reduce energy use, as well.

Property owners contribute their data and the twin can run simulations to find likely areas of improvement.

Tennessee’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which used public data to analyze 129 buildings across the country, built a tool called Automatic Building Energy Modeling. It can estimate both a building’s energy usage and what changes or retrofitting need to be done, with a goal of helping as many property owners get to net-zero as possible.  

Using Digital Twins to Improve Processes

Another important use of digital twins in urban planning is streamlining the planning process itself.

The integrated nature of the models and sensors could allow planners to identify infrastructure in need to repair or replacement at every level — surface, water, sewer, gas, buried electric — and schedule work to be done together rather than piecemeal. This is important since such work can be very annoying to residents and taxpayers.

In Boston, planners are using digital models to investigate shadow impacts, while it’s also possible to use digital twins to check on zoning code compliance.

One day it may be possible to use the modeling technology for fire and building code inspections.

Disaster Mitigation

On a more practical level, some cities are using the sophisticated terrain mapping techniques to attempt to predict flood damage and perform other disaster mitigation.

This is harder than it sounds because not everything is mapped. Or it was mapped so long ago that conditions have changed.

It also depends on the kind of flood and environmental conditions.

For example, while cities like Boston and New York have obvious tunnel systems that could potentially be flooded, they also have less well-known underground spaces, like abandoned subway tunnels, underground parking garages, spaces built over air-rights, and small streams and creeks that were built over.

Boston also has extensive areas of landfill that respond flooding differently from both the natural geology and the pavement. Impervious services like asphalt are, however, one of the things that can make or greatly worsen a flood, since the water has to go somewhere.

As cities continue to collect more and more data and the scope and possibility of data collection grows, digital twins will become a must-have for any planning commission or agency, an indispensable tool for understanding the city’s workings.

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