Not since the advent of the scale model has anything lent itself so strongly to urban planning as does a new computer program that lets architects look into Salt Lake City's future.

Developed by ASSIST, a non-profit architectural design agency, and the University of Utah, the program generates computer graphic drawings of every street, alley, building and window sill in a 40-block downtown area.Moreover, the program permits planners to insert proposed developments - such as any one of four proposed downtown high-rises - into the downtown landscape drawn by the computer.

Traditionally, architects relied on scale models made with blocks and cardboard to depict only the "birds-eye view" of an area, said Tony Serrato, an associate professor of architecture at the University of Utah.

"But now with the computer, we can do so much more."

By manipulating the thousands of bits of data entered into the program by U. architectural graduate students, Serrato can view the cityscape or individual buildings from hundreds of different perspectives, something that's impossible with outdated models.

Changing vantage points allows planners to consider building proposals and other planning issues from, for example, a pedestrian perspective or from that of a businessman in the shadow of a huge proposed office tower.

"There is so much more power here because we can take a proposal and look at it from any number of vantage points," said ASSIST Director Roger Borgenicht.

ASSIST and Serrato's students have already generated several scenarios for developing downtown Salt Lake's ailing Block 57, the subject of an intensive redevelopment effort by Salt Lake City.

"We can afford to make the mistakes on paper," Serrato said. "You can see problems and things that can turn out to be very expensive mistakes and the simulation helps you to see these things before they happen."

The simulation is so telling, said Borgenicht, that ASSIST is working with the city's planning department to incorporate its use into the city's public hearing process, an idea Planning Director Allen Johnson welcomes.

"It's a dynamic tool. It allows us to manipulate variables. We can do a lot of `what ifs,' and that's exciting," he said.

There are several alternatives for using the program, Johnson said, including developing an ordinance requiring all "significant" development proposals to be subject to computer simulation.

The simulation will be invaluable in helping the city build several parking complexes - necessary evils in downtown Salt Lake - by helping planners visualize the structures' impact in the area, Johnson said.

Johnson, Serrato and Borgenicht agree the program's most important feature is its ability to let the public visualize how proposed development will affect a given area.

"Cities belong to all of us," Serrato said. "If you visualize this way, chances are that you'll make a lot better decisions."

ASSIST, along with Serrato and his students, implemented the program early this year with a $2,400 grant from the Utah Arts Council and additional support from the Urban Design Coalition.

"It was very, very labor-intensive," he said, explaining that each downtown feature had to be measured and then entered into the computer. Today, students are still inputting data that will enable the computer to reproduce features along the Wasatch Front.