/ Column / Informing Design

Informing Design

Shannon McElvaney on May 16, 2012 - in Column, Design/Engineering, Featured

Geographic information systems (GIS) technology and design have long been intertwined, hard to separate, and competitive. Born from landscape architecture, GIS was seen as the place for mapping, planning, and analysis, while computer-aided design (CAD) was seen as a design tool for engineering and architecture. Those boundaries, ill-defined and arbitrary to begin with, are beginning to blur further with the introduction of geodesign.

What is Geodesign?

Geodesign is a combination of geography and design.
[pullquote_right]Geodesign combines the best of both these worlds, providing a new way of thinking that integrates science and social values into the design process.[/pullquote_right]
Geography is about place and processes, the human and the natural, across both space and time. It seeks to organize, understand, and describe the world.

Design is about intent or purpose. A creative act requiring imagination, design can produce something entirely new, or improve upon something that already exists.

Geodesign combines the best of both these worlds, providing a new way of thinking that integrates science and social values into the design process. It gives designers a robust set of tools that support rapid evaluation of design alternatives and the probable impacts of those designs.

Esri City Engine technology created this rendering of what a fictional development would look like in the City of Philadelphia, demonstrating the power of rule-based 3D modeling to inform design. (Data courtesy of Pictometry and City of Philadelphia retrieved from Pennsylvania Spatial Data Access)

From Infrastructure to Ecostructure

“We face a number of critical situations in which we have pushed infrastructure, ecosystems, and entire animal and human communities toward tipping points and potentially catastrophic collapses,” says Thomas Fisher, University of Minnesota. “I see geodesign as a key tool in enabling us to avoid such catastrophic events by making the consequences of our decisions, policies, and incentives evident and by showing alternatives to current trajectories.”

Another critical way geodesign can help is through its ability to model the cumulative impact of a design concept. As Paul Zwick, University of Florida points out in the book he coauthored with Margaret Carr, Smart Land-Use Analysis, environmental damage, traffic congestion, and loss of place are often the results of many incremental land-use changes that occur over time. Taken by themselves, they are insignificant, but taken as a whole, the impact can be extreme—the proverbial “tragedy of the commons.”

Geodesign offers a new way to balance the often competing needs of both nature and humans. “Geodesign provides a solution for tackling the inherent contradictions between ecological versus commercial approaches to design,” observes Jen Sheldon, Yellowstone Ecological Research Center. “It allows us to approach the urgent paradox that humans strongly desire progress and comfort but are simultaneously destroying both with breathtaking shortsightedness.”

A new geodesign tool for creating, managing and populating scenarios in ArcGIS depicts the ease at which multiple landuse scenarios can be sketched against various physical, environmental and social constraints, informing design in the Nose Creek Watershed in Alberta. (Image courtesy of O2 Planning + Design, Inc; map data courtesy of GeoBase®)

Sustainability has become a hot topic for city planning and design, but it means different things to different people. “There is a lot of focus on the term sustainability, and people immediately think of carbon reduction and resource consumption,” says Matthew Palavido, Design + Planning, AECOM. “However, sustainability means a viable functional community in the social sense. Geodesign helps ensure that communities are viable—in the sense that there is equal and adequate access to services—and foster community interaction.”

The Age of Geodesign

The big promise of geodesign is well-defined integrative workflows driving more efficient and better informed design. The ability to easily include the geographic context of a site—the environment, society, and the economy—directly into the design process will let designers quickly weigh the cumulative impact of design alternatives to meet increasingly stringent performance metrics.

What’s needed to support the coming age of geodesign?

  • Ubiquitous, easy-to access data will be addressed by the move towards cloud computing.
  • Academic institutions need to respond by producing ever more creative, responsible systems thinkers to meet this.
  • Software developers need to develop intuitive, solutions-oriented apps capable of running on any device.

Recently, the United Nations altered its approach to climate change from that of mitigation to one of adaptation. The ramifications on infrastructure are enormous. Anyone who is not addressing sustainability in design or planning practice right now will be soon. The fast pace of climate change, globalization, urbanization, population growth, and resource scarcity demands it. To create a sustainable future will require innovation on a scale and at a rate never seen before.  The time is right for geodesign.

Yellowstone Ecological Research Center uses geodesign to perform “what if” scenarios, balancing growth against climate change in an attempt to protect both people and species in one of the last intact ecosystems in North America. (Photos courtesy of Hamilton Greenwood)

A Roadmap for Change

No longer is a building, just a building, or a road, a simple form of infrastructure. Each must be thought of in a new light, as part of a living system. In nature, there is no waste, only a continuous flow of nutrients and energy between the non-living and the living. A common misunderstanding of evolutionist theory is that the drama is all about the survival of the fittest. What is forgotten is that the “fittest” are those species most able to adapt to change, and that requires diversity and an efficiency of design only known to nature.

Dieter Rams, best known for his work at Braun, put it this way. “This complex situation is increasing and possibly irreversible: there are no discrete actions anymore. Everything interacts and is dependent on other things; we must think more thoroughly about what we are doing, how we are doing it and why we are doing it.”

Geodesign simplifies complexity by showing the interconnectedness between things, such as the relationship between urban design and health or economic vitality and open space. By informing design, geodesign provides a foundational framework for building adaptability and resilience back into our rapidly changing world.

[pullquote_right]The big promise of geodesign is well-defined integrative workflows driving more efficient and better informed design. [/pullquote_right]

For more information refer to Geodesign: Case Studies in Regional and Urban Planning (ISBN: 978-1-58948-316-3) available June 25, 2012 at esri.com/esripress and online retailers worldwide.

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About Shannon McElvaney

Shannon McElvaney is the sustainable development industry manager at Esri and a geodesign evangelist working on developing geodesign tools, techniques, and processes that will enable people to design, build, and maintain livable, sustainable, healthy communities. He has more than 18 years of experience applying a broad range of geospatial technologies across a variety of industries.

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