City Planners Use Virtual Reality to Show Residents How Climate Change Will Affect Their Neighborhoods

A start-up called Virtual Planet is rolling out demonstrations in coastal cities affected by sea level rise

Baltimore's Inner Harbor
Communities in Baltimore are getting a look into the future of sea level rise with virtual reality. Photo by: Edwin Remsberg / VWPics/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

As sea levels rise, the shore will creep inward. For coastal towns facing several feet of sea level rise, a change so big is hard to visualize. Now, a virtual reality start-up is trying to make it easier by creating simulations for residents to show how flooding will impact their neighborhoods.

The goal of the project, developed by start-up company Virtual Planet, "is to start a conversation and help folks visualize the impacts [of climate change] and the solutions, and also discuss the trade-offs between them,” program developer Juliano Calil tells Nathan Rott at NPR.

Virtual Planet’s project was demonstrated at a Turner Station community meeting in Baltimore as part of consideration of a project that could make the peninsula more resilient against flooding. A proposed project would use dredged sediment from Baltimore Harbor and Chesapeake Bay to build up low-lying areas.

"We need the whole community on board with this," Gloria Nelson, president of Turner Station Conservation Teams, tells Rott. "Rather than [an] agency coming to us and telling us: 'This is what we're going to do in your community.' "

Virtual Planet is one way the project is seeking buy-in from the community. Once a user dons the virtual reality (VR) goggles, they can see an office space with their neighborhood’s topography miniaturized in the middle of the room. When prompted to look down, they see drone footage giving them a bird’s eye view of the city streets. There, they can apply a sliding scale of flooding, from spring 2019’s real high tide up to an extra six feet of water.

In Turner Station, the shoreline and nearby baseball fields will be the first things overtaken by rising sea levels, reports NPR. The community is located on a peninsula southeast of Baltimore, and the baseball fields are already unusable more often than not.

The start-up first exhibited the Sea Level Rise Explorer project in their hometown of Santa Cruz, California. As Jessica York reports for the Santa Cruz Sentinel, VR headsets were set up in the Santa Cruz Public Libraries downtown branch last week. The narrated VR experience lasts about seven minutes, and is available in both English and Spanish.

“It was quite realistic, especially the aerial view,” Santa Cruz resident Tim Robbins told York after watching the VR experience. “You really feel like you’re in this blimp. Even the tides we had last year were very close to infrastructure that was right on the ocean. So, I didn’t know that last year had that much water coming in like that.”

The next iteration of Virtual Planet’s presentation will focus on a strip of expensive beachside properties in Long Beach, California. Calil also hopes the visualizations will begin to integrate the effects of proposed solutions, like one project aimed to reinforce low-lying areas of Turner Station.

Calil tells NPR that if a city is considering a sea wall, for example, “we can show the sea wall and look at the impacts to the beach. You have a sea wall, but over time, you may lose the beach."

Compared to 2-D drawings, 3-D maps, and guided tours of at-risk parks, virtual reality may be the most immersive way yet to show what flood predictions mean.

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