For years, the Boston Planning & Development Agency has kept a wooden scale model of downtown in a room on the ninth floor of City Hall. It’s a way for officials to see what proposed buildings would look like in context.
Now the BPDA is bringing that concept into the 21st century, and making it public.
The agency on Tuesday unveiled a new digital 3-D model of Boston on its website, the latest step in the BPDA’s push to be more transparent, and to spark conversations about planning for the city’s future.
It’s a model of the entire city, with 129,000 buildings from East Boston to Mattapan. The map is pannable and scannable, and detailed enough to capture backyard sheds, rooftop furniture, and lots of trees. And it comes with tools that allow anyone to layer on zoning maps, schools, MBTA stops, and even flood-prone areas.
“This allows the public to see what we’re seeing,” said BPDA director Brian Golden. “It helps us with community engagement and allows us to step up our ability to communicate with people about their city.”
The map was inspired, in part, by the debate over shadows cast on the Boston Common and Public Garden by the proposed skyscraper at Winthrop Square. City officials found themselves supporting complex changes to state law to permit the tower based only on snapshots of shadows supplied by developer Millennium Partners. This new system allows anyone to look at shadows anywhere in the city, any time of day, any day of the year.
“We didn’t have the internal ability to assess that before,” Golden said.
Golden and BPDA planning director Sara Myerson said they envision making good use of the digital model at community meetings for upcoming zoning plans in Downtown Crossing and other neighborhoods, and for planning around Climate Ready Boston, the city’s road map for dealing with rising sea levels and other effects of climate change.
As of now, the publicly available map only includes buildings that are built or under construction — not those proposed or still in permitting. But an in-house model includes planned buildings, too, and agency staff said they’ll likely be incorporated into the review of new proposals. Staff members also are developing tools to show where, for instance, you could see a proposed building from ground level, and how many floors of a building would have views of the Public Garden, or Boston Harbor.
“This is not just about a building in isolation, it’s about a building in context,” said Corey Zehngebot, a senior urban designer at the BPDA. “This can be really useful to understand a building in the fabric of the city.”
This sort of sophisticated geographic information systems technology has long existed in the domain of planners and architects, but relatively few cities make it available to the public. The BPDA said Boston will be among the first to combine 3-D mapping with two-dimensional layers — like of zoning districts and areas with 1 percent annual flood risk — and post it for all to see.
In a city where development debates can become fierce, and where the BPDA often finds itself in the crossfire between developers and the community, the agency hopes that making more information accessible will improve communication.
“The more we explain ourselves,” Golden said, “the better.”Tim Logan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @bytimlogan.