GIS in Urban Planning

GIS Contributor


Frank Stafford, a graduate of Cambridge University with a background in Civil Engineering writes about why GIS is being used in Urban Planning.  

The high installation and operational costs of GIS initially was a barrier to the adoption of geospatial technologies in the field of urban planning. A grid based software known as Sinton’s IMGRID was the strongest at the time. The software focused mainly on mapping with little focus on analytical functions. As the price of hardware decreased and the user friendliness of GIS software increased, the use of GIS in urban planning has grown. Today, GIS finds its use in a multitude of public and private sector departments even in the developing countries.

As the world continues to move towards urbanization, the need for effective urban planning continues to grow. However, the issue of urban planning becomes more complex as time goes by. This is partly because of the infrastructure that is already in place. While we are focus on urban planning today, we often do not have the liberty to modify the infrastructure that was built a long time ago. We can try to work around it but we will have to compromise our urban planning needs at some point, which means that we will always try to fit in the system as to suit the already intact infrastructure.

Land is a valuable resource that constantly appreciates in value. It is not possible to achieve what we used to achieve fifty years back with the help of surveying. The world today is advancing faster than ever with big leaps and bounds made in the field of technology. We need highly specialized GIS equipment, advanced softwares and adequately skilled labor to achieve our objectives. Urban planning and management is a complex task, one that cannot be completed without the use of a powerful analytical tool like GIS.

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GIS finds its use in urban planning as an analytical and modeling tool. It can be applied to a wide array of problems. This comprises addressing problems related to data base structures, simple and complex analytical models alike. GIS is also useful in monitoring of an area or conducting a feasibility study of a location for a specific purpose e.g. ascertaining the suitability of a location for the construction of a bridge or dam. Feasibility study of even smaller structures like schools and hospitals is essential and can be easily conducted with the help of GIS. However, areas where variants of a design or alternate plans are required, the use of GIS are supplemented with more specialized equipment to produce better results.

GIS is commonly used in urban planning to assists with land use planning and development zoning maps. Zoning map from the City of Cambridge, MA.
GIS is commonly used in urban planning to assists with land use planning and development zoning maps. Zoning map from the City of Cambridge, MA.

The use of GIS in environmental planning is increasingly being sought to address problems of spatial modelling. It has been proved to be highly valuable and useful for such tasks. Apart from that, GIS aids in providing information regarding the environmental suitability of a land and its level and nature of contamination. It can also be used to ascertain the feasibility of an area for waste disposal and treatment. Factors such as chemical, biological, topographical and physical properties of the area should be examined and taken into consideration. Widespread issues like that of wetlands can be easily addressed with the help of GIS and remote sensing technologies.

GIS accumulates and provides different aspects of spatial information under one system. Geographical data can be easily analyzed and worked with. This allows us to portray different variants of digital information in more objective ways.

GIS allows urban planners to visualize alternative scenarios to compare outcomes.  In this example San Antonio's Broadway Corridor was modeled three ways in INDEX: existing conditions, current plan build-out, and stakeholders' alternative plan build-out.
GIS allows urban planners to visualize alternative scenarios to compare outcomes. In this example, the City of San Antonio’s Broadway Corridor was modeled three ways: existing conditions, current plan build-out, and stakeholders’ alternative plan build-out. Source: San Antonio, Texas, Uses GIS Tool for Collaborative Planning, Esri.

The two variants of digital spatial data, GIS and Remote Sensing go side by side to aid in urban planning. The applications of GIS in urban planning especially in areas of spatial modeling have improved manifold in the past two decades. Professionals around the world are relying extensively on the use of GIS in determining suitability and conducting case studies of lands.

GIS has long been used to monitor different geographical features for change of nature. Technologists exploit the monitoring properties of GIS to trace changes of pattern or behavior of a land over a specified time. It helps professionals make informed decisions about the development condition of an area and work out a plan.

Working towards urban planning, the first generation had to rely on the thinking and opinion of sociologists, designers and economists to achieve their objectives. Then with the advent of GIS, the scenario changed with professionals reaping the utmost benefits of urban planning. Today, GIS is not just a capturing and analyzing tool but a valuable asset in spatial modeling, decision making and a lot of other disciplines.


Armstrong M P, Densham P J 1990 Database organization strategies for spatial decision support systems. International Journal of Geographical Information Systems 4: 3–20

Batty M 1990 Information systems and technology for urban and regional planning in developing countries: a review of UNCRD’s research project, Vol. 1. Nagoya, Japan, United Nations Centre for Regional Development

Batty M 1992 Urban modeling in computer-graphic and geographic information system environments. Environment and Planning B: Planning and Design 19: 663–88

Huxhold W.E and Levisohn A.G. (1995). Managing Geographic Information System Projects. Oxford University Press. Oxford, New York.

Adewolu A.S. (1989) “The role of Geographic Information System in Urban Planning and development” (PDF). Presented at the workshop on Computer Application for Urban Development Management, Netherlands.

“Environmental Management Information System (EMIS)”: A Tool for Environmental Planning and management [United Nations Centre for Human settlement (HABITAT) and United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)]


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Guest articles from GIS professionals. Authorship information is listed at the bottom of the articles.