Wide ranging and significant research in recent years has highlighted the need for greater levels of engagement with end users in planning and design of the built environment. This has been against a background of far reaching advances in IT technologies, which have facilitated the widespread use of computer modelling to present design ideas in non-traditional and non-technical formats. In the context of urban redesign and public participation, the research reported in this paper emerged from an observation that pre-rendered walkthroughs of designs have become commonplace, and that the effect on cognition and preference might be significant. For the particular case study area, it was notable that the arrangement and proximity of buildings was such that the site could arguably be best understood through navigation at human scale, as opposed to through the use of traditional drawings or plans. The research proceeded to investigate whether the active navigation of a desktop virtual model of an urban environment leads to better understanding and perception than passive observation of a walkthrough, and the methodology employed commonly available and widely used modelling packages to present a small townscape, navigable using controls commonly found in modern computer ‘games’. The technical and study based results from this research have implications for how design ideas can be best presented to clients and other end users in the future, to ensure that design processes can be more clearly informed, and to avoid problems related to the interaction and understanding of architectural information by non-experts. The study results suggest that active navigation as opposed to passive observation does not affect choice between two versions of a model. However, benefits in terms of engagement, involvement, and a demonstrated tendency for the active condition to generate stronger perceptions and sensations suggest that use of navigable models could carry benefits in terms of engagement, thus adding benefits in terms of the user and study implementation without compromising or influencing the outcome. If it were the case that an exercise was required to establish whether participants could understand layout, or to establish how participants felt about the attractiveness of a place, or the sensations which might be felt once in a space, an ability to actively navigate a space better allows participants to feel that they had experienced a simulation of what the as-built space would be like.