GIS Skills and Landscape Architecture Education

Caitlin Dempsey


The March 2012 issue of Landscape Architecture Magazine reviewed the current state of GIS education at landscape architecture schools and found that although GIS is a “vital tools for large-scale land planning” some schools are not making it mandatory for students to train in geospatial technologies.  

The magazine in Spring of 2011 contacted 73 chairs of every landscape architecture department in the United States and Canada.  Of those, 44 eventually responded to the survey.  

Overall, 34% of programs don’t require GIS proficiency in order to obtain a degree, and 18% require no GIS whatsoever as part of the program.

The study noted the irony that early GIS software developed partially originated from the landscape planning field:

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Landscape architects and designers played a pivotal role in the invention of GIS software back in the 1960s and 1970s. The work of Warren Manning and, later, Ian McHarg in overlaying maps was a source of inspiration to the software’s early developers. Other landscape architects were heavily involved in the development of the technology at the pioneering Laboratory for Computer Graphics at Harvard University, and Jack Dangermond, the president and CEO of Esri, the leading producer of GIS software, holds a master’s degree in landscape architecture. ( also has an interview with Jack Dangermond on Landscape Architecture and GIS history).

Only a smart part of landscape architecture education involves GIS coursework

The survey found that, on average, only 4.8 hours for a bachelor’s degree and 5.06 credit hours for an MLA degree included GIS instruction as part of a larger course.  GIS only instruction made up, on average, only 1.42 hours for a bachelor’s degree and 1.1 hours for an MLA degree.

How often are students required to use GIS technology in their studio courses? Credit: Landscape Architecture Magazine.
How often are students required to use GIS technology in their studio courses? Credit: Landscape Architecture Magazine.

The real world need to have GIS skills ultimately depends on the scale that the landscape architecture student will work in.  Carl Steinitz, a professor emeritus at Harvard, notes in the article that:

“If you look at the majority of landscape architecture graduates, they work in private offices on small projects and their traditional skills dating from past centuries are perfectly adequate for most of the work they do. But if they’re ambitious to work on more serious landscape-related problems at larger size, and in collaboration with other professionals, then I think GIS is absolutely necessary,”

In essence, those students that aren’t required to develop proficiency in GIS end up being limited to smaller projects.  GIS skills otherwise are need to understand the larger context of projects (impact on the surrounding area) and for collaborative projects.


Smith, R. (2012). GIS Skills Wanted. Landscape Architecture102(3), 44–50.

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About the author
Caitlin Dempsey
Caitlin Dempsey is the editor of Geography Realm and holds a master's degree in Geography from UCLA as well as a Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) from SJSU.