Planning with Google Earth – A Cost-Effective Alternative

GIS Contributor


Rick Tralies, a community planner with Natural Lands Trust, discusses how organizations can utilize Google Earth as an inexpensive (often free) mapping program.

Every good journalist answers to the “Five W’s”: Who? What? When? Where? and Why? More often than not, township officials are called upon to answer the question “Where?” Whether a developer wants to build a new subdivision, a homeowner wishes to install a new deck, a resident needs to find a soccer field, or the township wants to publicize its newly acquired open space, the question of ‘Where?’ must be clearly and accurately answered. Townships find themselves in the business of creating maps and displaying them to the public in paper and electronic form. So how can maps be provided in an effective and cost efficient manner?

It seems that maps are everywhere now. Sure, many of us still keep a Pennsylvania atlas in our glove compartments, but we also have the option of using our dashboard GPS unit, a laptop, or a smartphone to figure out where we are. Aerial photographs are just as easily accessible. It’s no longer necessary to go to your county planning commission to get a printout of an aerial. Simply log on to the Internet to see consistently updated satellite imagery. These new technologies have made maps available to the masses instantly. Townships can use these mapping technologies to easily and affordably communicate with both the public and their employees. At Natural Lands Trust, our Geographic Information Systems (GIS) department makes maps on a daily basis. These maps may document natural features subject to conservation easement, identify a parcel in an acquisition grant, or illustrate a future greenway in a township plan. GIS computer systems link fairly complex databases to maps and require more than a layman’s knowledge to use. However, making maps need not be exclusive to GIS professionals. Natural Lands Trust has added Google Earth, a powerful and inexpensive interactive mapping program to its mapping toolbox.

Google Earth is a desktop based, interactive mapping program. It’s free to download for personal use at and there is a commercial version available for purchase. The program features dynamic aerial images overlaid with street maps. Additional information about businesses, schools, public transportation, government boundaries, and more are included as layers within the maps. These features are similar to those found in Google Maps and other mapping websites. However, Google Earth also allows users to create their own maps and places, which can be toggled on or off, making it an attractive option for townships wanting to create customized maps.

Over Here, Just Off the Map…

At a recent Natural Lands Trust staff meeting, one of my colleagues presented a newly acquired property. He had a clear aerial photograph and property boundary projected on the screen behind him. When another staff member asked, “Isn’t this near the township building?” he answered by pointing to a spot off the screen, on the blank wall, and noting “The township building is right over here, just off the map…”

‘Just off the map’ is a common occurrence at meetings where static maps—paper or digital—are used to describe a location. Had my colleague been projecting a Google Earth map onto the screen, he could have zoomed in and out, showing the parcel in its context. Townships can use Google Earth similarly in Zoning Hearing Board (ZHB), Planning Commission, Board of Supervisors, or other meetings that deal with properties in any way. For instance, imagine a ZHB variance application to construct a pool in a side yard setback. Think how helpful it would be to the ZHB members as well as the audience to see an aerial of the property. With Google Earth, the ZHB could project an aerial view onto a large screen. They could zoom in to see the individual property, then zoom out and pan around to see if other neighbors in the area also have pools installed. This simple use of Google Earth provides a far greater amount of information than static maps, and Google Earth can provide it on the fly, helping to keep the meeting running smoothly.

The township could also use Google Earth to customize the map. In the previous scenario, it would be easy for the zoning officer to create a virtual pushpin at the location of the house in question, along with an outline of the property perimeter. The pushpin may have additional information attached, such as the owners’ names, the address, the variance requested, and relief sought. It may even include a photograph of the property. All of this information could be displayed on screen by simply clicking on the pushpin. The map could not only be shown at the ZHB meeting, it could be available on the township website.


What Does Our Comp Plan Say?

Townships spend long hours and thousands of dollars on Comprehensive Plans and other planning studies. Dozens of expensive, well-produced maps sit folded up in the back of the planning studies, on a shelf. Google Earth can give these plans new life. The overlay feature allows a township to scan maps from existing plans and import them to Google Earth. The maps can then be manually dragged and stretched into their correct locations within Google’s aerial images. The process is simple and does not require any complex scaling.

A township can scan and import their many different maps into Google Earth, creating a new layer for each. The maps can be toggled on and off, in order to compare and contrast the different plans. If you want to compare your land use map to your natural resources map, rather than paging through the back of your comp plan, flipping back and forth, the different layers can simply be faded in and out or turned on and off to see the multiple plans together. Each plan can also be faded or turned off to reveal the aerial photos below.

By manually stretching and moving the imported plans, Google Earth allows the user to eliminate the need for multiple software programs to view different types of maps. Your township engineer may use GIS and developers may submit plans in AutoCAD. By scanning the printed plans from each of these programs and importing the images into Google Earth, the different types of plans can be viewed side by side. Similarly, Google Earth facilitates multi-municipal planning projects. Maps that may have been created by different townships—as different file types at different scales—can be imported into Google Earth and viewed side by side, seamlessly.

But What Would it Look Like?

While township officials and their staff know how to read maps, the public often has difficulty understanding them. They may not be able to visualize a one acre lot or understand what two units per acre looks like on the ground. When a developer brings in plans for a one hundred unit subdivision, the township can use the overlay tool in Google Earth to view the new subdivision plan in the context of the neighborhood.

A developer’s rendering, which may be easier to read than development plans, can be imported into Google Earth, illustrating a three-dimensional view in the context of the existing surroundings. These illustrations can shift discussion away from the numbers solely (units, density, impervious surfaces) and give a clearer picture of what the subdivision may look like on the ground. It can show how connections can be made from the proposed subdivision to neighboring streets, trails, and adjacent development. Similarly, Google Earth—with the addition of its companion program, Google SketchUp—can show what changes to building regulations may look like. SketchUp is a downloadable 3-D modeling program also produced by Google. While architects and engineers use the program to create highly detailed models, townships can use the software to quickly create 3-D models for use in exhibits. The 3-D models created in SketchUp can also be imported into Google Earth.

When a township considers revising their ordinances to change dimensional regulations, it’s often difficult to understand what the dimensional changes would look like. Whether it’s a change in maximum building height or a reduction of minimum required yards, SketchUp models can demonstrate what these changes may look like. For example, SketchUp models could show how taller buildings would look on Main Street, helping answer the question of whether the height limit should be raised in the Zoning Ordinance. Interested in solar regulations? You can even perform sun, shade, and shadow analyses with Google Earth’s built in sunlight tools.

Townships often showcase a new library, fire station, or other civic building by displaying a drawing of the new building in their township lobby. These printed drawings are very informative for the residents who actually come into the township building. But a wider audience can be reached on the township website. The consulting architect can prepare a detailed 3-D model of the building in SketchUp, which then can be posted on the website for download. The model, which can be shown in the context of its actual location, can be viewed from all sides and be used interactively by anyone who uses Google Earth.

A Physical Tour becomes a Virtual Tour

Every year, Natural Lands Trust conducts a bus tour of conservation subdivisions—developments with open space that we promote under our statewide Growing Greener: Conservation by Design program. Every year, we get a handful of phone calls from township officials who can’t make the tour, asking us to send them our handouts. The handouts are useful, but they can’t replicate the experience of attending the tour. So a few years ago, we decided to take a different approach.

Using Google Earth, we created a virtual bus tour. The virtual bus tour has many advantages over typical printed handouts. Most notably, as Google Earth is a mapping program, the location of each subdivision is shown on the map using numbered pins. Outlines of the subdivision boundaries are also prominently displayed. The pins can be used to find directions to each subdivision and each is loaded with site information. Upon clicking on each pin, a pop up appears with a slideshow of each subdivision. Links to the Natural Lands Trust website, specifically to the locations of useful documents, are also embedded in each pop-up.

Another advantage of the virtual bus tour is that it is easier and less costly to distribute. Rather than printing and mailing folders of handouts to individuals, we can email the virtual tour. By emailing we save money on printing and postage. We are also able to post the bus tour as a download on our website, at . Anyone who has downloaded Google Earth can view our virtual bus tour and then explore the conservation subdivisions on their own.

A township could create a similar Google Earth virtual tour to show the local park systems and facilities available to residents; to illustrate the boundary of a local historic district with links to requirements for building alterations; or to inform residents where they can park to access a trail or greenway. Internally, township staff might create an inventory of storm sewer inlets, tracking clean out dates; or create a tour of the last decade’s approved subdivisions and land developments, evaluating how well their ordinances meet planning goals.

Google Earth in the Field

Many of us use Google Earth while sitting in our offices, viewing aerial photographs of what exists outside. But it can be used as a tool in the field as well through integration with smartphones and tablet computers. At Natural Lands Trust, our field staff uses Google Earth and smartphones to monitor conservation easements. Google Earth allows them to carry GIS information on their phones, showing property boundaries and points. Their phones act as GPS units to show them their locations. They also use the camera and note taking functions on their phones to take photos and record notes in the field. Now, rather than carrying a clipboard with a paper map, a camera, compass, and notepad, they simply bring their smartphone, featuring Google Earth.

In East Bradford Township, Assistant Manager Mandie Cantlin uses Google Earth to help plan events and organize volunteers on site. “One of my routine tasks is to coordinate trail work with volunteers,” she explains. “Google Earth allows me to show volunteers where trees are down or where other maintenance is needed. By importing the trails into Google Earth I can use pins to locate a particular point, show a picture, and provide instructions. Then volunteers can access all of the information they need. Those volunteers with smart phones can access the file while they are on the property, which is an added benefit!”

This approach works extremely well for describing specific places within a park, or a place which doesn’t have a physical address. Mandie can email her Google Earth pins out to her volunteers or post them on the Township website. Rather than trying to describe a location on a trail, she lets her Google Earth pins do the work.

Answering the “Where” Questions

At Natural Lands Trust, we still rely upon GIS and AutoCAD when technical maps are required. However, more and more of our staff members are discovering how easy it is to generate maps in Google Earth. As a township official you are often called upon to show “where” residents will find public facilities, “where” the next subdivision is proposed, “where” the storm sewer inlets need cleaning, and “where” you’ve planned for conservation and development. We think that Google Earth can do all of these things and much, much more.

About the Author

Rick Tralies, RLA, ASLA, is a community planner with Natural Lands Trust, which offers comprehensive Google Earth training for municipalities and other organizations. To learn more about upcoming workshops or private training, contact Rick at 610-353-5587 ext. 262 or

Natural Lands Trust is dedicated to protecting the forests, fields, streams, and wetlands that are essential to the sustainability of life in eastern Pennsylvania and southern New Jersey. Since its founding in 1953, Natural Lands Trust has preserved more than 100,000 acres, including 42 nature preserves totaling more than 22,000 acres. Today, millions of people enjoy the healthy habitats, clean air and water, bountiful recreational opportunities, and scenic beauty provided by the lands the organization has preserved. For more information, visit


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