Geodesign Evolves From Academic Exercise to Practical Applications

February 17, 2014

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At the start of the fifth Geodesign Summit in Redlands, California, Tom Fisher, dean of the College of Design at the University of Minnesota, read a definition of "geodesign" that was steeped in academic jargon too complicated to repeat. He then supplied his own, more simplified definition of geodesign as "a marriage of spatial power of both GIS and design."

Jack Dangermond, CEO of Esri and host of the event, followed Fisher and provided his own definition: "taking geographic knowledge and integrating it with the design process and using it for planning.”

There are two takeaways from these definitions:

  1. The community of geodesigners continues to search for a self-defining set of principals … a mission statement perhaps.
  2. The geodesign movement is clearly heading from the purely academic to the practical and useful.

Having this event on the Esri campus gave support to the second statement, as GIS, as Dangermond stated, "is a foundation technology to enable geodesign; GIS is helping to integrate our technologies." Dangermond continued, "GIS and geodesign will become pervasive but will require apps to make it happen ... Technology has to be open and available to new entrepreneurs; my forecast [is] that the world will be filled with the apps based on a geospatial infrastructure, open and easily accessible.”

The keynote presentations focused on practical applications and implementations of geodesign.

Observations by a Landscape Architect

Kongjian Yu, a professor and dean of the College of Architecture and Landscape Architecture, Peking University and a visiting professor at Harvard University's Graduate School of Design, provided one of the keynote presentations. Yu is also the president and principal designer of Turenscape.An internationally awarded architect, Yu focused his remarks on his work with China's ecological and population growth challenges.

According to Yu, the Chinese government recognizes the ecological problems facing the country. He suggested two levels of environmental integration that would help mitigate existing problems:

  1. Configurative: using spatial planning to understand the ecological infrastructure and create an ideal relationship between man and nature
  2. Transformative: using design to make ecological infrastructure sustainable and make it aesthetically attractive

China's EPA approved his approach and supported a pilot project called the National Ecological Security Pattern Planning 2012. Since his original study, over 100,000 Chinese officials have learned about the national plan for ecological security. The objective is to thoughtfully and consciously integrate the natural environment with the need to accommodate exploding growth, and to ideally plan urban centers. Today, said Yu, the ecological impact is being more carefully considered. Some examples of Yu's influence can be seen in projects on which he has worked:

Problem: Flooding in highly populated areas

Solution: Create a plan for water management by identifying flood areas (10- or 50-year flood zones) and create “floodable” park areas. Acknowledge that these areas flood regularly, and transform the landscape and attract people to the area with paths and recreational furniture that can sustain floodwaters. This is a concept Yu called "make friends with floods."

Problem: After flooding, helping nature recover

Solution: Analyze how different species adapt to different acidity levels. Catch storm water to create areas of distinct habitats and allow different species to occupy each "pod" or catchment area where water is diverted.

Problem: Polluted streams

Solution: Adapt landscapes to become an integral part of a natural filtration system. A one-mile strip of a stream was designated to filter water taking into account the natural topographic flow. In two years the stream was converted into a natural wetland area to clean up pollution. Using this model, Yu suggested scaling the project to integrate 30 rivers into the ecological plan of land use and water management.

Observations by a Biologist

Janine Benyus provided a biologist’s perspective. Benyus is the founder of Biomimicry 3.8 and a recipient of the "Hero for the Planet Award” by Time Magazine. She is also the director of a non-profit organization called

What is "biomimicry?" Biomimicry identifies how nature functions and examines whether humans can solve environmental problems by asking, "How would nature solve this problem?" More specifically, Benyus defined it as “a conscious emulation of the time-tested wisdom of nature and adapting nature's solutions by mimicking how nature works.”

For example, Benyus advocates that we carefully learn nature's keys to resilience. From there we can adapt design principles by studying local organisms when they are stressed by natural phenomenon. Benyus observed how certain trees withstand hurricane force winds. Benyus pointed to the example that during Hurricane Katrina only a handful of the oldest Live Oak trees were lost in the city of New Orleans. Why and how could they survive Category 3 hurricane winds? Benyus suggested that by understanding this kind of resilience, biologists can create ecological performances standards.

The standards can be cataloged and she even suggested the need for a "biological information system," a "BIS," similar to how GIS currently functions as a platform for understanding geospatial information.

Both speakers helped push an important message to the attendees. Geodesign is evolving from an academic exercise to practical applications. Each believes they are employing the precepts of geodesign and applying them to environmental challenges. Both Yu and Benyus are examples of practitioners who are doing the work of a new breed of geodesigners.

My Take on Geodesign 2014

These keynoters were remarkable for their individual endeavors and ideas. What they’ve accomplished through their vision, insights and counsel has yielded tangible benefits. Their work points toward solutions for current environmental challenges. Let’s acknowledge that their success has helped geodesign move from the conceptual to the practical.

Some observations. When I started my career in the ‘80s, image processing and CAD systems were clunky, expensive and command-line driven. With today’s standards, interoperability exists between design drawings, imagery and spatial primitives. Today, our user interfaces consist of ribbon bars, workflow wizards and model builders, thankfully. We can iterate and visualize much quicker; we're more productive. Rule bases give discipline to our models but allow us to change and adapt to different data inputs. Spatial statistics distill multivariate information. We can more easily consume three-dimensional data. This, I believe, has given rise to geodesign as a methodology and discipline.

However, I also see confusion in the marketplace with so many labels that are attached to methods that visualize information and conduct geospatial projects. Urban planners may like the term "geodesign," while architects and civil engineers may prefer “building information modeling” (BIM). But, when these professionals come together to discuss a downtown redevelopment project, a GIS solution is, many times, the common framework. Is GIS the common language we speak? Some software is better at design while others are for spatial analysis. Yet all can process geospatially-referenced data. Whether we call this GIS or geodesign or BIM, the language of geospatial information is evolving and we need to be in tune with the nuances that professional disciplines are adopting.


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