Geodesign to Create Smarter Cities and Adaptable Landscapes

GIS Contributor


Nadia Amoroso, PhD writes about geodesign and the geodesign technology platform offered by Esri as it pertains to Smart Cities.  

Cities are under threat from the impacts of climate change. In recent years major urban centres have been struggling to cope with temperature extremes, urban heat islands, flooding and increased storm activity.

Cities are under stress from increased population density, traffic congestion, poor storm water management and poor air quality.

The need to intelligently assess and evaluate planning and design solutions for sustainable and resilient cities is a must. These design strategies need to take into account geographic data, designing with a thorough knowledge of the earth and its systems. Designing with “geo-data” has come to be known as Geodesign and this technology plays a significant role in moving towards the ideal of a Smart City.

Damage from Storm Sandy. Image from
Damage from Storm Sandy. Image from

Geodesign as a discipline has been evolving over the past half century. In 1969, landscape architect Ian McHarg published “Design with Nature”, documenting his revolutionary method of design; the McHargian Mapping Overlay System. He would layer a series of maps, each showing a different system on site such as hydrology, soil type, topography and vegetation. He would then use the accumulated data to evaluate suitable places for site-specific development. By superimposing all the layers of data, the connections, constraints, and opportunities for design elements emerged and became visible. This process and visual enabled the designer to make informed design decisions.

From Design with Nature
From Design with Nature

The works of Ian McHarg provided inspiration to another landscape architect, Jack Dangermond, who foresaw the importance of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) in making intelligent planning decisions. The same year McHarg published his work, Dangermond founded Esri, a company with the stated vision “to create responsible and sustainable solutions to problems at local and global scales.” With the advent of computer technology and GIS, mapping tools had become both more powerful and accessible. Landscape architects, environmental scientists and planners began to latch on the capabilities of the new technology.

Fast-forward a few decades, and now the amount of data available on any given site is staggering. Architects, landscape architects and urban planners know that it is vital to research and incorporate levels of information in designs, but the task can seem overly complex and time consuming. There are too many programs and platforms to learn and the programs often don’t work well together. Adding to the frustration is the necessity of collaboration with other many other professions, each using their own unique approach.

As one of the global leaders in GIS and mapping technologies, Esri has extended GIS into the planning and environmental design sectors, bringing all layers of information into a powerful Geodesign Solutions Platform that leverage GIS into the design process and workflow.

Process and Workflow. Source: Esri
Process and Workflow. Source: Esri

At a recent Geodesign Summit at Esri’s headquarters in Redlands, professionals and academics showcased how Geodesign tools and strategies can help overcome these design challenges. The Geodesign Solutions Platform combines sketching and modeling tools with the power of geo-data, creating a powerful extension of GIS that taps into design by including 2D and 3D creative site analysis, sketching, diagramming and 3D modeling as part of the design process. The suite of applications include GeoPlanner, ArcGIS Pro, and CityEngine.

GeoPlanner allows the designer to create, analyze, and report on planning alternatives and scenarios. Throughout the design process, web-based analytics and dashboards help to visualize design implications in real time. Land use, transportation issues, walkability assess to specific amenities or even the impacts of a hurricane are shown for each of the design alternatives. Whatever the information needed, solid decisions can be made backed by solid data. Because GeoPlanner is web based it allows the designer the flexibility to pull in data and quickly make designs on a tablet, mobile device or laptop. As part of a collaborative team, each person involved in the process can access and edit the information. Feedback from stakeholder communities is collected through digital collaboration, marking up maps digitally so that feedback can be applied to the next design iteration.

This image showcases suitability analysis for a hypothetical bus rapid (BRT) transit route takes into account proximity to parks and existing transit, as well as current and potential households and jobs. Source: Esri.
This image showcases suitability analysis for a hypothetical bus rapid (BRT) transit route takes into account proximity to parks and existing transit, as well as current and potential households and jobs. Source: Esri.

ArcGIS Pro is the next step in the process, and this is where designers and planners can see and analyse the project in both 2D and 3D. The designer can sketch in 2D and see the built form and landscape in 3D (with 2D and 3D viewports), and perform site analysis in 3D for such factors as viewsheds, wind, solar radiation, glare, land use and walkability.

This image showcases 2D and 3D geo-data along with analysis. Source: Esri
This image showcases 2D and 3D geo-data along with analysis. Source: Esri

CityEngine is the application that allows the designer/ planner to do some really cool things like designing entire communities to streetscaping. Design decisions are based on goals, objectives and specifications, and all pertinent GIS data is incorporated in the design. Different options for streetscapes can be created and tested in 3D using CityEngine. Designers quickly change the width, look and overall street and its edges.Bike lanes, curbs, planters, markers, and trees (various species) , all in 3D, can be created and changed using Esri CityEngine’s Complete Streets.

Streetscape design using CityEngine. Source: Esri
Streetscape design using CityEngine. Source: Esri

“Complete Streets” is a built-in procedural rule that applies knowledge and concepts from transportation planning guidelines and standards. The parameters can be changed quickly to get a new streetscape. Planners and designers can quickly alter bike lanes, sidewalks, street widths and characters see the impact of their developments and street designs with real-time feedback.

Working through this Geodesign Platform as part of the planning process, designers and planners of the built environment are able to confidently answer the questions:

  • Will my plan meet the overall objectives and program requirements?
  • Will I be able to conduct a thorough site inventory and analysis?
  • Will my proposal pose an environmental risk?
  • What key performance indicators need to be studied further?
  • How will the proposal increase the overall performance and goals?
  • Can I defend my proposal with strong evidence-based reporting?
  • How can I communicate to the client that the selected option is the best possible choice?

Esri’s Geodesign Solutions Platform offers a seamless and collaborative workflow that provides a way for those in the urban design, planning and environmental design sectors to manage designs and data in one place, enabling them to make informed decisions. Communication of these plans to the public becomes simplified, and with clear designs backed by solid data, stakeholders are able to understand and approve plans, thus moving projects forward without long delays.

Geodesign provides an integrative design process to help solve today’s complex problems leveraging the skill of the designer with the latest technologies, and communicating design clearly through understandable maps and images.

“. . planning for the future requires a system or multidisciplinary approach to planning based on both values and science. This type of integrative thinking and awareness of the effects of our collective actions is the future of planning and design.” Shannon McElvaney, global industry manager for community development at Esri

Special thanks to graduate student Adele Pierre of the University of Guelph for her research assistance.

About the Author

Nadia Amoroso, PhD, ASLA, is an academic in landscape architecture and urban design. Her work focuses on visual representation, urban design and creative mapping. She is a GeoDesign and Creative Cartography Evangelist. She teaches at the University of Guelph, Department of Landscape Architecture; she also collaborates with Esri Inc and operates a design/ visualization practice in Toronto, Canada. She is the author/ editor of a number of books including, The Exposed City: Mapping the Urban Invisibles, Representing Landscapes: A Visual Collection of Landscape Architectural Drawings, Digital Landscape Architecture Now and more recently Representing Landscapes: Digital.

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