3D visualization software helps Detroit residents design their own cityscape

Originally published: 
September, 2019

The project—with software developed by U-M School for Environment and Sustainability landscape architecture faculty—is a collaboration between the Eastside Community Network (ECN) and a U-M Dow Master’s Fellowship team.

Landscape architects and urban planners recognize that one of the key challenges in neighborhood planning is incorporating and translating complex, diverse public wishes into an implementable design.

Mark Lindquist, an assistant professor of landscape architecture at U-M’s School for Environment and Sustainability (SEAS), found at least one pathway toward a solution. In collaboration with the Alliance for the Great Lakes, Eastside Community Network, Detroit residents and colleagues in social science and software development, Lindquist developed and launched a 3D landscape visualization software that supports the design and planning of environments that perform ecologically, socially and culturally for more sustainable outcomes. And the beauty is, you don’t have to be a landscape architect—or a professional designer—to use it. 

“We felt strongly from the beginning that the best way to develop the visualization software was with the end users,” said Lindquist, “Our community partners at AGL and ECN were crucial to the project, as were the residents they recruited to attend our workshops. The result is software that directly reflects the objectives of the intended end users.”


The Unity3D-based software, branded “land.info,” facilitates the design of multifunctional landscapes by providing feedback on factors such as carbon sequestration and storm water management in real-time as the design changes.

Lindquist explained land.info is distinguished from other 3D design software because, users can not only place natural (terrain, trees,) and man-made (road, benches, playground, green infrastructure) 3D modeled objects into a virtual site but they are also presented with estimated construction costs as well as environmental and social benefits of their design decisions; for example, the amount of carbon-dioxide absorbed by trees.


Shannon Sylte (MLA ’19), a Graham Sustainability Institute Dow Master’s Fellow, had been working with Lindquist on Land.info when she learned of the need for “resident-based” design in Detroit’s Mack Ave corridor.

“The lab’s partnership with the Eastside Community Network in Detroit catalyzed my involvement in applying and analyzing the software,” said Sylte, “So, I pitched the project to Fellows from various schools throughout the university.” 

The four Dow Master’s Fellows who joined Sylte added their expertise in engineering, business, information science, and urban & regional planning to the interdisciplinary team. The Dow team became one of two student-led teams to win awards in the Dow Distinguished Awards Competition, earning them $35,000 for their project, Community Engagement in Green Infrastructure Design.


Detroit’s Mack Avenue has historically been an important east-to-west neighborhood commercial corridor connecting the westside of the city to the eastern suburbs. Once a booming commercial center, the corridor witnessed consistent divestment—leading to a high level of vacancies in buildings and lots. The team reported that half of the parcels on the North and South sides of Mack Ave are either unoccupied or partially occupied.

As Detroit continues to recover, ECN found that despite the high vacancy rates, there was substantial demand for retail trade. Overall, Mack Ave generates a $10.8 M surplus in retail trade. Yet, according to a study, the area within one half mile to the north and south of Mack Ave generates up to $54.4 M in walkable neighborhoods areas. Numbers like these inspired ECN to advocate for the transformation of Mack Ave into a high-quality pedestrian environment—and importantly, one that was co-designed by the community’s residents.


In a three-part series of community workshops with a focus group of 18 Chandler Park residents in the Mack Ave area, the team used the Land.info software to provide a “common language” for neighbor-to-neighbor collaborative designing and decision-making. Using the land.info, residents were able to visually demonstrate how they wanted the vacant spaces in their neighborhood to be transformed.

In their report, the team noted that 3D visualization can promote user stories around objects, adding that narratives are crucial parts of participatory planning to understand what community members like, dislike, and desire for their neighborhood. Many participants explained the objects—such as a gazebo, fence, road, bike rack, or rain garden—through stories with the software as the visual reference.

Sylte explained that in order to expand its utility with site-specific feedback, the team developed an air pollution-sensing kit to populate the air-quality data in the Land.info software. The idea is that as participants propose and alter the 3D model, they receive real-time performance analysis of how their decisions impact air quality.

“The Dow Master’s Fellowship project has evolved into a robust research initiative that includes social and technical components,” said Sylte. “The social piece of the project involved training residents to use the design software to enhance design outcomes by tapping into local expertise, and empowering Detroiters to visualize and co-create open space and green infrastructure design.”

Lindquist noted that one of the designs produced by the focus group has already been implemented with funding provided by the Institute for Sustainable Communities—and three publications are slated for upcoming release.

“The fact that an actionable design outcome has been created from land.info in such a short time is a testament to the success of the team and dedication of all of our community partners,” said Lindquist, “We aim to conduct further community engagement to inform future development of the software, as well as incorporate it into teaching.”


Funded in part by the USDA NIFA McIntire-Stennis Cooperative Forestry Research Program
Mark Lindquist, Assistant Professor, School for Environment and Sustainability
Victoria Campbell-Arvai, Assistant Research Scientist, SEAS
Bruce Maxim, Professor, UM-Dearborn
Frank Deaton, Research Associate

Kidus Admassu, Master in Civil & Environmental Engineering
Ayush Awadhiya, Masters of Business Administration
Gwen Gell, Masters of Urban and Regional Planning & Master of Urban Design
Saebom (April) Kwon, Masters of Information Science
Shannon Sylte, Masters of Landscape Architecture

Mark Lindquist, Assistant Professor, School for Environment and Sustainability
Robert Goodspeed, Assistant Professor, Taubman College of Urban and Regional Planning

Land.info Demo

Shannon Sylte

Mark Lindquist: https://seas.umich.edu/impact/video/lightning_talk_mark_lindquist