Geography PhD creates virtual environment for coastal planning project

Graduate Studies, Social Sciences

- Anne MacLaurin

Newell. Photo: Angela Krewda.

What if you could experience the beauty of Sidney Spit (at the northern tip of Sidney Island) without leaving your home? Robert Newell has applied cutting-edge technology to develop a virtual reality experience that takes visitors on a tour of the park, over land and underwater, using visualization tools.

“Geographic visualization helps us see and interact with our environment in a virtual way,” says Newell, who graduates from UVic this month with a PhD in geography.

"By using GIS (geographic information systems) mapping technology and video game development software, I developed an immersive experience of Sidney Spit."

Newell is passionate about coastal planning and says geovisualization is a promising tool for engaging the public and decision-makers when it comes to parks and urban development.

“I could show you what a coastal place would look like if, for instance, there were offshore wind farms or a new marina or dock,” he says.

Growing up in Vancouver, Newell has always been drawn to the coast. Prior to starting his PhD, Newell had not experienced the beauty of Sidney Spit. That all changed as he developed his research project. He spent hours doing fieldwork in the park, sometimes camping overnight. When not working, Newell’s preferred activity was to take long walks.

“I’ve developed a hobby of going for lengthy walks,” he says. “After submitting a draft of my thesis, I did a 16-day walk from Victoria to Port Hardy (552 km).”

Newell's 2017 walk from Victoria to Port Hardy.

“Part of this bizarre hobby,” says Newell, “is designing the routes. I use Google Earth and record my paths with a Garmin GPS unit. I’ve probably always been a geographer at heart.”

Newell quickly realized how interdisciplinary geography is as his project involved spatial sciences, human environments and collaborative management. When he met his PhD supervisor, Dr. Rosaline Canessa, he was immediately excited about working with her on coastal geovisualization research.

When reviewing research around people and place, it occurred to me that I have a strong attachment to the Pacific Northwest. I love the coniferous trees, the ocean and trails, and with such a connection it becomes easy to see the importance of planning the use of parks together.
Robert Newell, geography PhD student

He thanks the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, UVic’s Faculty of Graduate Studies, the Joseph-Armand Bombardier CGS Doctoral Scholarship program and the Sarah Spencer Foundation for their support.

Newell currently holds a Banting Postdoctoral Fellowship and is continuing his visualization research in an urban planning context at Royal Roads University


In this story

Keywords: convocation, graduation, student life, alumni, geography, graduate research, technology, mapping

People: Robert Newell, Rosaline Canessa

Related stories