Geodesign Helps Communities Address Growing Pains

By Matt Ball

San Francisco is experiencing some well-publicized growing pains. Employment in the city is on the rise, housing costs are going up, and longtime residents are being displaced. Shuttle bus services for big companies are under scrutiny because they have brought an influx of new residents and a subsequent spike of housing prices (and evictions) along their routes.

For a city that's bounded by water on three sides, the question at hand is, "How can growth be managed smartly within a finite area and a transition to infill development with the corresponding lack of easily developed vacant land?"

Geodesign addresses this and other complex questions.

The San Francisco Planning Department recently engaged in a geodesign visualization demonstration to illustrate how a 3D city model based on current zoning, building height controls, and land use could be used to explore planning options.The 3D visualizations showed a range of techniques and uses, from simply mapping zoning or land use information onto 3D buildings to portraying analytic results. It also explored how interactive maps can be interrogated to aid understanding.

"3D provides a better visual representation that shows location and magnitude clearly," says Scott Edmondson, strategic sustainabilityplanner-economist at the San Francisco Planning Department. "3D cities make complex urban analysis easier, enabling system simulation with its potential to usher in a new era of urban systems planning."

Overall, the 3D visualization techniques showed the city’s settlement pattern and allowed an understanding of whether that would change substantially from growth under current zoning or against possible rezoning scenarios. Working in 3D provided a powerful way to explore and test ideas.

Complex Challenges

Communities around the world are faced with the conundrum that if they're doing things right, they'll draw more people, leading to expansion, which will put enormous pressures on preserving the essence of the place. Design professionals who are charged with balancing growth and its impacts must engage multiple constituencies.

Achieving a design that can move forward into construction requires building a constituency that engages different perspectives without alienating too many of them. The route to consensus is largely the role of planners, who have an increasing amount of data and technologies at their disposal.

"Planning sits at a nexus of the design-and-build communities," says James Drinan, executive director at the American Planning Association. "We need a coherent narrative to communicate all of the data that we collect and make it relatable and compelling to individuals. Storytelling humanizes data, and placemaking is a form of storytelling."

The concept, framework, and tools of geodesign are taking hold at universities and in design and planning practices because geodesign captures the story of place. It engages multiple stakeholders in system-based thinking to arrive at a consensus. This is achieved with visual collaboration that addresses such infrastructure needs as transportation systems, water, and housing as well as issues such as livability, justice, commerce, and tourism.

"Geodesign is a fundamental language of discourse," says Jack Dangermond, president and founder of Esri. "It's a rich dialog of context that provides a foundation to address our hardest challenges."

Thankfully, the increasing volume of accessible data is helping systems and design tools better reflect how our cities operate, with a more holistic representation. Storm water management has shifted toward the idea of green infrastructure, where natural systems are employed to slow runoff and absorb water to mitigate catastrophic flooding. Transportation planning has shifted from allowing congestion toward supporting better mobility planning with a focus on multimodal people moving. This improved understanding, together with technologies to sense and report change, are transforming our society into smart communities to help us address the fast pace of global change.

Engagement Examples

Communities and consultants are getting creative with technology deployment and are generating an impact with more inclusive placemaking. Web-based systems, coupled with community interaction tools that can be delivered to handheld devices, are breaking down barriers and leading to more collaborative planning.

Below are a few case study examples presented at the Geodesign Summit, which took place in Redlands, California, from January 24 to 26, 2017:

  • The consulting firm Placeworks has been working with Menlo Park, California, on the city's planning process to accommodate the arrival of new residents directly due to the phenomenal growth of Facebook, which has its headquarters in the city. The city needs to accommodate 5,000 more residents within walking distance of the Facebook campus. Using GeoPlanner for ArcGIS, Placeworks created an intelligent analysis tool that allowed stakeholders to modify land use, evaluate water needs, and estimate the costs and benefits of different proposals. Placeworks also created a smartphone application that citizens could use to navigate their city and designate places they would prioritize for preservation.
  • The City of Billings, Montana, along with the consulting firm Geodata Services, used a consensus-driven approach to accommodate the addition of 50,000 people by 2035. Citizens were engaged in scenario-planning exercises to determine where they wanted to see Billings grow or be preserved. Analysis of parks, walkability, public safety, transportation, and property tax revenues helped inform decisions based on costs. A mix of high-density infill development, with less land and lower infrastructure costs, was compared with low-density, one-acre parcels. Infill costs proved cheapest given the existing infrastructure, even though low-density parcels had nearly an identical tax revenue. The city received responses from more than 1,200 residents, and the master plan Beyond Billings was finalized with a prioritization of public values.
  • The City of Charlotte, North Carolina, and Mecklenburg County are working with the consulting firm LandDesign on a master plan for the Cross Charlotte Trail. The 26-mile foot and bicycle path forms a greenway and connector across the city. Analysis of the impact of this trail equates trail-oriented development with transit-oriented development, showing a return on investment for trail creation that includes the addition of 11.4 jobs per million dollars spent, compared with just 7.8 jobs for road-only projects. Outreach for the proposed path has proved successful, with citizens expressing the wish that it could be built faster or span a larger area of the city. A $30 million bond referendum passed, and path building is under way.
  • Richland County, South Carolina, is undergoing a transformation from a rural community to an urban one and is working to balance growth while protecting the environment. Considerable pressure has been placed on its storm water systems as a result of extreme rain events, failing infrastructure, and flooding. A joint task force between the county's planning and conservation departments was formed to evaluate green infrastructure enhancements that could improve air and water quality, storm water controls, and habitat protection while lowering infrastructure costs, threats to property, and human safety. The resultant ideas are now making their way into plans for current and future land use.

The Evolution Toward Smart GIS

In order to fuel smarter communities, GIS has evolved to smart GIS.

"Smart GIS is at the confluence of three types of systems," says Dangermond. "These are systems of transaction and record keeping; systems of engagement that reflect identity and involve geographic sharing; and systems of insight, where exploratory spatial analysis allows us to look at big data to create interpretations of how the world works."

In many organizations, GIS is a system of record, where the map holds the truth of what is, what was, and what is planned. GIS has been moving toward more of a system of engagement, where constituents can voice their input and even offer up their own designs for the community plan. GIS has also been an original creator and manager of big data, where aggregation of information leads to understanding.

Smart GIS bridges these systems and aggregates content to provide context about everything. It improves the pace of receiving and acting on feedback, taking inputs from everything that moves and changes. It helps us to shift the narrative away from focusing on individual impacts to aiming toward long-term common goals, such as making our children smarter and healthier.

In the future, we might see experiential (augmented/virtual reality) environments for an immersive presentation of planning scenarios to improve our understanding of them. The goal is not to wow constituents — and certainly not to sink more money into the planning process — but to reach a shared understanding that speeds the improvement of our places with a focus on what we all value.

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