What is Geodesign?

Caitlin Dempsey


Recent progress with the use of technology to analyse data from various sorts to a very fine level of granularity has allowed planners to understand requirements as never before. The benefits that technology has brought to the planning world are considerable.  A planning project can now use standard data sets to provide baseline assumptions from which it can analyse requirements.  Because standardised data is used the results of that analysis are more reliable and can take into account far greater levels of detail than ever before.  Geodesign is a new discipline that seeks to extend the analytical role of traditional GIS into a solution production area.

It is a set of processes that allow the integration of data regarding the built and the natural world for planning purposes.  Analysis and design based upon data, stake holder participation and evaluation of the process is expected to see far more effective planning decisions being implemented in years to come.

It is also seen as a way of presenting design based solutions to development issues in a way that permits marginalised groups of people.  It is thought that geodesign technologies will encourage participation in the design process and will create greater understanding of the complex issues being designed out for those populations affected by the final outcome.  The ability for geodesign to enable marginalised people to participate in the design process is seen as central to the levels of acceptance accorded to future projects by similar groups. Technology permits the collation and presentation of key data in a format that allows stakeholders to engage in “what if” type activities and see the results of their speculation rapidly.

Geodesign provides a structure and interface that allows GIS to work with additional technologies such as Computer Aided Design and landscape architecture. In principle, high level design elements associated with a new project can be mapped against existing GIS models to check for suitability when compared with known topographic, social and economic data.  Where issues are identified in this way, they can be resolved by design before any model becomes too complex to allow for easy remediation of identified issues.

The structured approach to data mapping that is employed by GIS solutions can now be applied to data in many different physical, economic and social arenas.  The substance of the Earth can now be structured and mapped using the important geo-spatial codings used in GIS to include detail about the surface of the planet, what lies below the surface, what is found in the atmosphere.  Existing geo-spatial coding mechanisms will need extra definition to allow this additional information to be included so that depth and height can now be recorded.

Geodesign is now becoming embedded into planning processes and four textbook examples that demonstrate its value include;

  • Decision making in Yellowstone – human interaction with the ecosystems of Yellowstone National Park has required careful and detailed management to secure the environment.  As population growth increases and pressure on the park increases with it, a model for the sustainable management of resources in the park was required.  A geodesign toolset has been used to model potential scenarios where human impact on wildlife can be seen, and this is then fed into local and regional planning processes.
  • Climate Change Planning for Cape Cod – Cape Cod in Massachusetts is a large coastal feature that is particularly susceptible to coastal erosion due to its deposited sand core.  It is also home to 15 towns and numerous small villages so there is considerable interest to understand the impact of coastal erosion, particularly in the light of expected global warming.  Geodesign was used to look at physical aspects of the area that crossed multiple administrative regions by utilising data that was collected locally, by residents that could be fed back into the project database.  Multiple agencies, including the Fish and Wildlife Service, Federal Highway Administration and the National Park Service all worked with local groups to identify key infrastructure changes that would be required in the area.
  • The Jane Goodall Institute –The Jane Goodall Institute has been observing chimpanzee activity in Tanzania for many years and has watched how social and economic pressure impacted on the apes they were monitoring.  Through a series of initiatives, identified with the use of Geodesign they have been able to improve the socioeconomic lot of villagers local to their project whilst avoiding ape populations and local village’s impacting each other.
  • A New Polder in the Netherlands – in order to meet ongoing challenges with existing polder infrastructures a new polder was required in South Holland.  The project team structured the planning process around existing data sets so that they could be presented to stakeholders for their involvement.  Geodesign technologies, including touch sensitive maps, were used to encourage stakeholder participation in the process.  The rapid feed back to comments about the proposed development were instrumental in ensure high levels of stakeholder acceptance of the final project.

As a discipline, geodesign is being championed and developed at a fast rate because of the support and involvement of commercial organisations such as Esri who operate in the GIS arena. Industry support is currently being seen with the organisation of industry wide design summits to identify future requirements for the development of technologies and product sets

The industry sees the inclusion of geodesign functionality as a natural extension of the developing standards being seen in the GIS arena.  Geodesign cannot function without the underlying support of GIS as it requires accurate and precise base maps to work with but the industry is expected to see more planners rather than GIS professionals using the available tools.



Pintea, Lilian (2011), From Maps to GeoDesign, Conserving Great Ape Landscapes In Africa, Summer Unkown

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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.

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