Putting the Scenic City on the (virtual) map

Chattanooga’s downtown may have undergone a major revitalization in recent years, but on the Google Earth virtual globe, it’s still a barren flatland.

Chattanooga 3D, a volunteer-based collaborative effort of area businesses, architects and computer modelers, is determined to change that. They’ve been working since the project’s launch as part of the STAND 48Hour Launch event on Nov. 13 to “push up” the virtual Chattanooga by populating it with models of actual buildings.

Karen Liwanpo, the creative director at Smart Furniture, came up with the idea for Chattanooga 3D just before 48Hour Launch. At first, she thought the idea would stand out in the crowd of the event’s more traditionally minded concepts but was concerned by its scope.

“I e-mailed (Google) and said, ‘Is this crazy? I want to do this in a week and a half and put Chattanooga on the map. It’s next weekend; what do we do?'” Ms. Liwanpo said.

In response, Google put Ms. Liwanpo in contact with Chris Wilson as a project consultant. Mr. Wilson led a similar effort in 2007 to populate Google Earth’s virtual representation of McMinnville, Tenn.

Thanks to Mr. Wilson’s and Ms. Liwanpo’s familiarity with Google’s SketchUp 3D modeling software, their team of about 25 volunteers so far have created 14 models, some of multiple buildings.

Partners like RiverCity and local independent architects and architectural firms have offered the team computer-aided design schematics for many downtown buildings to speed up the modeling process.

The show of support has been encouraging, Ms. Liwanpo said.

“This is such a great project, and it’s people thinking ‘big picture’ for Chattanooga,” Ms. Liwanpo said. “This is something large-scale, not for profit for us, but for Chattanooga, it could be really beneficial.”

The models are now awaiting final approval for inclusion into Google Earth, but Google representatives’ interest in the project should accelerate that process.

“We’re excited to see the Chattanooga community working together,” said Bruce Polderman, Google’s senior business project manager, in an e-mailed statement. “Whether you’re a resident or have never visited Chattanooga, being able to explore the town virtually … is a great way to learn more about it, no matter where you are.”

Aside from the appeal of seeing a city represented in 3D, there are many applications to efforts like Chattanooga 3D, said Stephen Culp, who co-founded the project.

Google Earth’s ability to integrate contact information, Web sites and other data into the maps makes a vibrant presence on the service of obvious use to tourists, city planners and event organizers, Mr. Culp said.

“This project can make Chattanooga more accessible to all kinds of people and organizations,” Mr. Culp said. “Eventually, folks everywhere will be able to explore Chattanooga in Google Earth, create presentations, plan events, conduct research, showcase art, promote their business or neighborhood — you name it.”

Ms. Liwanpo said she hopes to attract more volunteer support for Chattanooga 3D and involve other groups like university courses in the process.

The project so far has focused on buildings downtown, between the riverfront and Main Street. Within a year, given sufficient support, Ms. Liwanpo said she would like to have modeled all the landmark buildings and pieces of art on display throughout the city.


* Visit www.chattanooga3D.com to sign up as a volunteer, view a list of buildings that need to be photographed or modeled.
* Download Google Earth and Google SketchUp for free at earth.google.com and sketchup.google.com, respectively.


Many Chattanooga buildings already have been modeled and are awaiting approval from Google before being uploaded, including:

* Big River Brewing Company (2001 Riverside Drive)
* The Bijou Theatre (215 Broad St.)
* The DoubleTree Hotel (407 Chestnut St.)
* Smart Furniture (413 Market St.)


Chattanooga 3D is a work-in-progress, but many cities’ virtual counterparts are almost fully digitized. Download Google Earth for free at earth.google.com, check the “3D Buildings” box and you can be virtually walking the streets of any of the following cities in minutes:

* Seattle
* Dublin
* Tokyo
* Valencia, Spain
* New York City
* Sydney
* Miami


1. With appropriate photos of each side of the building being created, the modeler uses the Google Earth satellite image to select the building’s location and surrounding area. This image also will be used to texture the roof of the model.

2. Using a tool in Google SketchUp, the modeler creates a basic 3D blueprint of the building. At this point, the model is gray and featureless.

3. The modeler now applies the photos to each side of the building as textures. The photos must be adjusted to cover the model exactly and avoid perspective “pinching.”

4. With the building model complete, the modeler must “geo locate” the building by adjusting its orientation and scale to match the Google Earth satellite imagery. At this point, the model must be reviewed by Google before being included in the program.

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