Earlier this year, nearly 200 people—planners, engineers, developers (of both software and real estate), architects, and academics—gathered in Redlands, Calif., at the corporate headquarters of ESRI. Founded as the Environmental Systems Research Institute in 1969 by Jack Dangermond, the company is the market leader in GIS (geographic information system) technologies; its ArcGIS is the most widely used software of its kind, with versions that can be used online and on mobile phones. ESRI was hosting the first-ever GeoDesign Summit: three days of sessions and workshops geared to map out the future impact of GIS on design.

Loosely defined as the integration of geographic analysis and tools into the design process, the term “geodesign,” while not proprietarily linked to ESRI, is viewed as part of the company’s lexicon by the geospatial community, broadly composed of urban planners, cartographers, geographers and other social scientists, and emergency response and military analysts, among others. Geodesign, as Dangermond sees it, is shorthand for the complex interrelationship of spatial data and architecture. It is the interface between land use, census blocks, traffic patterns, air quality tables, and any other data set, on the one hand, and the process of building—site planning, conceptual design, programming, and construction drawings—on the other.

Dangermond, who has a master’s degree in landscape architecture from Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, is as much resident philosopher as company president, and he draws his ideas about GIS and design from landscape architect Ian McHarg’s 1969 book Design With Nature. McHarg’s book spelled out the connections between environmental impact, social factors, and appropriate development. Holistic planning may seem commonsensical now, but at the time, it was part of a growing backlash against Modernism’s sweeping gestures. The GeoDesign Summit expressly set out to explore technological advances, but its goals were no less lofty than to save the Earth.

“From a sustainability point of view, there’s great potential in geodesign to move design in a new direction,” explains Thomas Fisher, dean of the University of Minnesota’s College of Design and the summit’s keynote speaker. (He’s also a contributing editor to architect.) “It asks, ‘How can we use our buildings more effectively?’ and answers the question, ‘Do you need to build at all?’ As designers, we are often intuitive, but our decisions are not based on data. We don’t know the consequences. Geodesign allows architects to make decisions based on [impacts] such as water [use] and carbon output.” In his talk, Fisher said that geodesign could potentially forestall the kinds of housing development patterns that led to the recent economic crisis, and could help track food production and foresee possible shortages. The claims may sound omniscient, but they are rooted in real-life data.

To understand geodesign, it is important first to be clear on GIS. Urban planners, conservationists, sociologists, and others have long used it to manage and visualize data­base information across a region or an urban area. The U.S. Forest Service can use a GIS map to manage information about endangered species (points may represent Southern Spotted Owls), or a city manager may use GIS to layer types of crime and crime rates over land-value maps. Importantly, GIS maps can change over time, so it’s possible to track how an event can impact surrounding conditions. And increasingly, the data under­pinning GIS visualizations can be downloaded by the public for free or at very low cost.

Given the right data sets, GIS can go beyond locative analysis and reveal social and cultural information. In 2005, the Spatial Information Design Lab, a research group at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, mapped the city-prison-city-prison migration loop in five U.S. cities, with striking implications. The lab’s co-directors, Laura Kurgan and Sarah Williams, identified individual “million-dollar” blocks whose residents had been incarcerated at a public cost of $1 million or more. “Architects tend to just use GIS for base maps or land-use diagrams,” says Williams, who teaches data visualization to Columbia’s architecture and planning students. “But that is just one slice. It offers a dynamic way of representing unseen patterns and contextual relationships across a regional area.”

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