What is UrbanBEATS?

The Urban Biophysical Environments and Technologies Simulator (UrbanBEATS) is an integrated model for supporting the planning and implementation of Water Sensitive Urban Design (WSUD) infrastructure in urban environments. The model links urban form and water infrastructure planning and assessment in a spatial simulation environment and can be used to engage stakeholders in a collaborative process.

Planning for the future usually follows a preconceived idea or pathway, guided by a Vision (e.g. future development pathways for a metropolitan region, actions to enhance urban sustainability and liveability). As we progress from a global scale to a region and, subsequently, the local context, we often find that mismatches between overarching vision and on-the-ground implementation occur as a result of:

  • a mistranslation of vision to sub-optimal policies
  • constraints imposed by a city’s ‘status quo’ (in governance or physical form)
  • design that follows the ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach

Strategic planning is a multi-level group process[1] that addresses the dilemma of ‘wicked problems’, i.e. multiple objectives and multiple stakeholders with often conflicting needs[2]. In the context of water infrastructure planning, especially Water Sensitive Urban Design (WSUD) at the local scale, stakeholders are faced with a complex network of policy, design and implementation decisions that are interrelated and have broader scale impact (see Figure 1 for a conceptual illustration of going from a ‘Vision’ to gaining ‘Value’ from sustainable water infrastructure).

Figure 1. Conceptual linking of planning at different scales with Water Sensitive Urban Design (WSUD) design and implementation.

Models have been valued as tools to support the collaborative planning process if they are used effectively[3-4]. Building an effective model, however, requires that thorough links be established between ‘Visions’ that have been defined for a city and the ‘Value’ that should be obtainable through harmonisation of design, innovation and the local context. UrbanBEATS was developed to embrace this complexity, to integrate the planning of water infrastructure with urban form and society. Its development began with a strong focus on Water Sensitive Urban Design (WSUD) stormwater systems specifically, but is slowly broadening in scope.

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Model Inputs

UrbanBEATS requires four basic input raster maps (ASCII format), but can read a variety of other relevant spatial data (see Figure 2). The motivation for this flexibility was the necessity of building a model that can provide useful information even when faced with limited data availability and/or quality.

Land use (usually derived from a zoning map, urban master plan or a regional classification) defines the most important planning constraints in the model and influences each and every water-related characteristic. Population (obtained from the census data or projections by planners for a new area) affects the resulting urban form and many urban water planning aspects. Elevation (a raster grid with 1m vertical accuracy is usually sufficient) helps the model determine the drainage connectivity within the urban environment, knowing how stormwater can travel through the catchment. Soil (a rough classification of the underlying soil types), adds additional depth to the design and placement of water infrastructure.

Figure 2. Overview of all UrbanBEATS Model Inputs (red boxes are minimal requirements for running the model)

There are many additional input maps that can be added to improve the modelling, including employment data, local facilities that are unique to the case study’s urban fabric, the location of lakes and alignment of rivers to better define the sub-catchment structure, groundwater levels for regions that have strong interaction with underlying aquifers and additional planning and social parameters that can further constrain the model in deciding on suitable locations for new water infrastructure.

Preparing the spatial data can be accomplished using Geographic Information System (GIS) tools including ESRI’s ArcGIS Suite of Tools or QGIS, an open source GIS program. A comprehensive guide for preparing data for UrbanBEATS is available (soon).

UrbanBEATS also requires non-spatial data in the form of rainfall and evapotranspiration data, design data for Water Sensitive Urban Design (WSUD) technologies (performance curves that can be obtained from local planning guidelines or through modelling with state-of-the-art models). Scaling factors (for water demands or climate) are also required if the investigation requires information about diurnal water usage patterns or future rainfall scenarios.

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Model Structure

UrbanBEATS has a cyclic model structure (shown below in Figure 3) that reflects the iterative process of exploratory modelling, design and planning. The model is designed to be able to undertake rapid simulation such that it can be used in both a participatory setting (a conference room with stakeholders) or by individuals.

Figure 3. UrbanBEATS Model Structure

The model works through a simple 5-step process that involves:

  1. Reading input maps: reading the four basic input maps and any additional maps provided by the user
  2. Discretising the simulation region: UrbanBEATS uses a conceptual representation of the urban environment (discussed below). This step organises the input data into the unique grid-based representation of the model
  3. Determine urban form: planning rules and regulations are used as input parameters along with the spatial data to conceptualise or ‘abstract’ the urban form. UrbanBEATS calculates key urban characteristics that are necessary for the planning of WSUD infrastructure
  4. Place/Adapt Water Infrastructure: the design, location and placement of WSUD infrastructure among other functions are performed here.
  5. Assess Performance: layouts of water infrastructure created by the model are assessed further here for their performance on a number of aspects.

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Spatial Scales

UrbanBEATS considers a range of spatial scales throughout the modelling process (Figure 4). The Block level represents the grid-based representation that the model uses and is also the level of detail at which model results are presented. The size of a single grid cell or “Block” is user-defined and should be matched according to the purpose of the modelling study.

The finest level of spatial detail is the “Patch” level, which is defined explicitly by the input data (although not drawn in the output map). Patch information is obtained from the input rasters and saved in the modelling data for use with certain model features (e.g. microclimate assessment). Beyond the patch level, UrbanBEATS uses a conceptual/abstract representation to depict the parcel and lot scales.

Figure 4. Spatial Scales in UrbanBEATS, data issues and associated water infrastructure

Different water infrastructure is considered at each scale of application. The centralised infrastructure at the largest scale is usually pre-defined and not altered by the model since the focus of UrbanBEATS is on the impact that decentralised or distributed systems can have on the region and its existing assets. Some technologies in the model (e.g. bioretention systems) are also scalable across the different levels in the hiearchy in Figure 4.

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Primary Modules

The primary modules of UrbanBEATS include the Spatial delineation module, Urban Planning Module, Water Infrastructure Planning Module and Performance Assessment Module. These are covered individually below.

Spatial Delineation Module

This module processes the input data and undertakes the following functions:

  • delineation of spatial grid and aggregation of spatial information to the grid or ‘Block’ level (Figure 5)
  • determination of water flow paths/drainage lines and sub-catchments based on the provided elevation data
  • delineation of land use patches and the nature of the urban land use mix in each grid cell or ‘Block’
  • identifying the geographic context of the case study (e.g. distance from nearest city centre) and ‘Block’ neighbourhoods (i.e. adjacent ‘Blocks’)

Figure 5. The UrbanBEATS Block Concept

As shown in Figure 5, the spatial delineation module produces a grid of ‘Blocks’, each containing information about the land use mix, population, topography and other metrics that are used by subsequent modules to determine the urban form and suitable water infrastructure. As such, the resulting model outputs are relative, but usually sufficiently detailed to provide insights into possible water infrastructure options in local areas of the case study (i.e. with the finest level of accuracy being a 200m x 200m urban area).

Urban Planning Module

The Urban Planning Module is responsible for the following tasks:

  • calculating
Water Infrastructure Planning Module

Figure 6. Conceptual Struture of the Water Infrastructure Planning Module

Performance Assessment Module

Simulation Modes

UrbanBEATS can be used in a number of different modes (see Figure 6): (1) Dynamic Simulation Mode, (2) Static Simulation Mode, (3) Benchmark Simulation Mode. Each of these modes are used in different contexts, but they can be combined to form a comprehensive picture of the model case study. The choice of simulation mode will depend on modelling aims, data availability and the rigour of assessment desired for a particular case study.


Figure 7. Different modes of simulation

Different case studies that are presented on this website and in the model’s publications illustrate how these different simulation modes can be used. Look out for new content as it is announced in the news section. An overview of the three modes is explained below:

Benchmark Simulation

This mode simulates one single design/planning/policy scenario in the model in a variety of ways to understand what water infrastructure opportunities are achievable on-site under given constraints. It also provides users an insight into the sensitivity and degree of variability of the scenario due to the model’s stochasticity.

Static Simulation

This mode allows users to model the influence of different policies/planning constraints on the resulting water infrastructure opportunities at a single point in time. The static mode can process a single or multiple sets of input maps that can represent different land zoning options or population projections and compares each ‘snapshot’ with each other.

Dynamic Simulation

This mode models the evolution of WSUD infrastruture through time based on pre-defined narratives and changing policy. In addition to WSUD planning algorithms, which produce feasible layouts of decentralised water infrastructure, the dynamic mode also makes decisions about when this planned infrastructure should be constructed in the landscape.

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Software Implementation

UrbanBEATS is an open source tools under the GNU General Public License and is coded in Python using the Qt framework. The software is obtainable over at the Downloads page and is currently only available for Windows. An OSX version for Mac is in the works, but may have limited functionality due to the interfaces that UrbanBEATS has with several state-of-the-art software tools such as the MUSIC model[5] and EPANET[6]. Tutorials, factsheets and other documentation are also available and more will be created as time passes and model development progresses.

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Ongoing Development

UrbanBEATS is programmed by myself, Peter M. Bach with the research guided by a diverse team of experts in the urban water field. The whole project itself is a learning experience for me in the development of effective tools to support urban water stakeholders. As such, I would greatly appreciate any feedback you can give me as well as your support and patience as I make amends to the software over the lifetime of this tool.

The development trajectories for UrbanBEATS, at least over the next few years, have been planned out. Time permitting, the model will begin to embrace a greater variety of urban water management aspects e.g. links of decentralised infrastructure with centralised networks (e.g. water supply and stormwater harvesting) as well as a range of non-water aspects that are influenced by effective urban water management (e.g. a microclimate assessment module).

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Download the Model Description as a PDF ( pdficon English)


  1. TE BRÖMMELSTROET, M. 2013. Performance of Planning Support Systems: What is it, and how do we report on it? Computers, Environment and Urban Systems, 41, 299-308.
  2. RITTEL, H. W. J. & WEBBER, M. M. 1973. Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning. Policy Sciences, 4, 155-169.
  3. GEERTMAN, S. & STILLWELL, J. 2004. Planning support systems: an inventory of current practice. Computers, Environment and Urban Systems, 28, 291-310.
  4. OLSSON, J. A. & ANDERSSON, L. 2007. Possibilities and problems with the use of models as a communication tool in water resource management. Water Resources Management, 21, 97-110.
  5. EWATER 2016. MUSIC by eWater, User Manual. Catchment Modelling Toolkit. Melbourne, Australia: eWater.
  6. ROSSMAN, L. A. 2000. EPANET 2 User Manual. Cincinnati, Ohio: National Risk Management Research Laboratory, US Environmental Protection Agency.