Geodesign technology is revolutionizing how we envision the future, according to planners, architects, and engineers alike.
These new technologies could “totally change how we do things,” from urban design to environmental planning, says Eric Wittner of Esri, a GIS software company working on Geodesign software
Geodesign technology builds on geographic information systems (GIS) to create virtual workspaces where users can visualize—in two or three dimensions—physical spaces, be they city blocks, entire cities, or larger landscapes. With these visualizations in front of them, users can play with possible ways of designing or using these spaces, see what their proposed plans would look like, and then evaluate the potential implications of their designs—all in real or close-to-real time.
Through allowing people to envision “the world as it could be” and to assess “what-if scenarios” based on real-world data, this new capacity provides a new, user friendly way to evaluate alternative planning and design proposals, says Tom Fisher from the University of Minnesota. For example, CommunityViz, a Geodesign software developed by the company Placeways, helps users visualize and assess alternative land-use options.
City planners, real-estate developers, and anyone else involved in the planning process can use the program to create 3-D images of a proposed land use change, such as a new housing development. They can visually explore alternative housing development designs by moving buildings around, adding open space, and making other modifications to the on-screen proposal. Then they can use the program’s analytical capabilities to evaluate how their designs will likely affect features of concern, such as traffic flows, walkability, or stormwater runoff.
Another program, SeaSketch, is taking Geodesign to the ocean—and to the web. Officially launched on October 31, SeaSketch allows users to visualize marine areas, suggest management options for these regions, get real-time feedback on the potential consequences of their proposals, and share their ideas with decision-makers and other involved parties: all over the internet. The program, created by McClintock Labs of the University of Santa Barbara, is designed to help stakeholders affected by marine planning—such as ocean management personnel, fishermen, and conservation groups—meaningfully contribute to developing marine management strategies.
The online SeaSketch demo project provides an example of how the program works. Demo users can look at a map of the Santa Barbara Channel, suggest alternative shipping lanes through the Channel, see what these shipping lanes would look like, and then evaluate how these proposed shipping routes affect the likelihood of a ship colliding with a blue whale. Users can also see whether their proposed shipping lane runs into any conflicting uses, such as military test zones, and revise their proposed route accordingly.
The benefits of Geodesign technologies like CommunityViz and SeaSketch are myriad, according to proponents. Fundamentally, these tools allow planners, decision makers, and other to dynamically visualize and analyze proposals—be they proposals for urban green space or marine management plans—in real-time.
This is a major advancement over the basic GIS technology, says Jessie Agatstein, a graduate student in city planning at MIT. She says that Geodesign tools would have been enormously helpful to her during her work with the EPA last summer. Rather than presenting a management proposal to her colleagues, getting their feedback, and then having to go back to her computer to revise the proposal for the next team meeting, Geodesign tools would have allowed her to revise strategies and analyze them right there on the spot, she explained.
But the usefulness of Geodesign extends far beyond simply increasing the speed at which users develop and analyze alternative planning and design proposals, according to Carl Steinitz from Harvard University, who recently published the book A Framework for Geodesign. The ultimate goal of Geodesign technology, he says, is to produce better designs and to increase participation in planning.
The belief underpinning most Geodesign technology, according to Walker, is that “lots of people contributing their ideas and knowledge and priorities to the plan enriches it and hopefully makes buy-in more easy,” resulting in a “better technical solution as well as political solution.”
Getting stakeholders—that is, people affected by a planning or design proposal—involved in planning is “not a new idea at all”, says Steinitz. But, he adds, the big problem has long been, “how do you get them involved?”
Geodesign tools like CommunityViz and SeaSketch are designed to help people solve this problem by both making abstract data visual and understandable to people who “are not GIS experts” and by providing a way to dynamically incorporate the diverse ideas, interests, and knowledge of the people who will be affected by a plan or proposal, according to Fisher.
Is it working? Walker thinks so, saying that, based on use of CommunityViz in over 40 nations throughout the world, “We are seeing more informed planning, better collaboration. In terms of just sheer planning process, we’re seeing faster decisions…we’re seeing things like plan approvals going through faster.”
And the collaborative potential of Geodesign technology is rapidly expanding due to new web-based programs like SeaSketch, according to Walker, Fisher, and Steinitz. Through online Geodesign tools, people around the globe can view planning and design proposals—such as for a marine management plan—and learn about their likely effects. These tools can also be used to solicit feedback on proposals and to generate new proposals from around the globe. Moving Geodesign tools to the web will be “transformative”, says Fisher.
“It’s broken down space…it does not require people to be in the same room, and that means you can work with anybody,” adds Steinitz.
This online capability has made SeaSketch an attractive tool for the UN Environment Programme, which intends to use the technology to facilitate international discussions about managing the high seas, according to Evan Paul from McClintock Labs.
While people across the disciplines are excited about the potential of Geodesign to support more collaborative, participatory planning, they are also quick to point out that, like any technology, these tools have their limitations.
Walker said one important thing to keep in mind is that these tools are intended to support decision-making at the early stages; they are useful for helping involved parties explore possibilities and the potential implications of planning and design proposals. But “if you’re actually building the building…that’s when you need engineering tools,” he says.
More importantly, according to Paul, these tools aren’t designed to stand-alone. He says that programs like SeaSketch have the potential to greatly increase collaboration in planning decisions but need to be combined with an effective stakeholder engagement process in order to do so.
“There has to be a process that goes with this. This tool can help the process but it doesn’t replace it,” says Walker.
Additionally, Steinitz points out, Geodesign still faces problems that have been “around for centuries around whether people can agree on what to do and whether they have the means to implement it. Most design proposals do not get implemented.”
However, he is optimistic that effective use of Geodesign tools “will increase the odds” of better planning and greater support for these plans.
But, he notes, only “time and many, many, many other people involved will tell.”