The 3D Urban Map That Will Revolutionize Urban Development

Illena Yu
May 7, 2019

***This article is a story curated by SparkAmpLab that can be shared or modified for re-post***

With New York City’s massive skyscrapers, absurdly expensive housing, and retail spaces that can cost thousands of dollars a square foot annually, property development is at an all time high. But the zoning codes found in urban cities that dictate the requirements and abilities of a potential development are cumbersome and complex, and are still a huge burden to developers.

Zoning resolutions in urban cities are extraordinarily complex. New York City’s zoning codes, like many zoning codes in urban cities worldwide, are extremely old, confusing, and difficult to interpret. For the last hundred years, developers have evaluated zoning with private zoning consultants. These consultants manually interpret the zoning code with each development in mind, which is laborious, expensive, and most importantly time-consuming. In the world’s most competitive real estate markets, developers often have mere hours to make million-dollar-decisions, yet zoning experts often take days to provide a given development’s full zoning information. Given technology’s rapid advances in the past few decades, developers should not be evaluating zoning using century-old, inefficient, and slow expert-centered industry practices. Envelope, a Manhattan-based startup, agrees.

Founded by Sarah Williams, who is the director of MIT’s Civic Data Design Lab and a renowned GIS expert, Envelope has aimed to revolutionize how developers analyze zoning and conceive projects. Since 2015, Envelope’s team of software engineers, applied mathematicians, and zoning experts have worked to create and refine their product: a powerful 3D web application that gives urban real estate professionals real-time zoning information. Already successful in New York City, Envelope cuts out the need for zoning consultants, saves developers money and time, and in turn makes developments happen.


Using its advanced proprietary software, Envelope has integrated 100 years of zoning data into an engine that visually represents cities in 3D urban map data. It shows you what’s possible to build on a given block and lot, with air rights, bonuses, and everything else you need to know. It also helps model the rezoning or variances necessary to make a development happen. Additionally, Envelope offers line-of-sight analysis, which can demonstrate what your property’s future views may look like, and what can obstruct them. And it does all of this in 3D, enabling you to fully visualize developments and their surroundings. While Envelope is predominantly in New York City, its advanced technology is currently being scaled to urban environments worldwide, and in due time may make zoning consultants nearly obsolete.

Proptech is a rapidly growing sector of technological innovation. And with its 3D urban map, Envelope is poised to revolutionize zoning analysis and slowly replace the consultants that have been central to developers worldwide for over a century.

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