Figure 2 This digital city model of Seattle was created using Autodesk software; it combines aerial imagery with GIS, CAD and BIM data. Image courtesy of Parsons Brinckerhoff.

Making Sustainable Cities Real

Autodesk and NCDC Affect Urban Environments

By Karen Nozik, Eco-writer

It's been fifteen short yearssince the President's Council on Sustainable Development first grappled with the definition of sustainability—a now ubiquitous term that is often overused, misused and perhaps, given its importance, not used nearly enough. President Clinton established the President's Council on Sustainable Development (PCSD) in June 1993 to advise him on developing bold new approaches to achieving economic, environment-al, and social equity goals. Since then, Digital Earth technology has arrived at a dizzying speed, providing a "glass house" view of the planet.

Clear scientific evidence suggests that humanity is living unsustainably, and that efforts are needed to keep human use of natural resources within sustainable limits. Subsequently, a tide of mainstream understanding and consensus is emerging around the urgency of using resources more efficiently. In every direction, on nearly every issue, from energy to water to land use to greenhouse gas emissions, on every continent and in every country, the world is waking up to the idea that we are all in this together and we'd better act fast.

Over half of the world's population now live in urban areas. Given the sheer impact cities have on the use of resources, city governments understand their crucial role as change agents and are responding with timely and sweeping proclamations of going green. In July of 2007, 600 mayors from across the United States and Puerto Rico signed the U.S. Conference of Mayors' Climate Protection Agreement, pledging by 2012 to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 7 percent below 1990 levels. As of December 2008, 910 mayors have endorsed the accord. Under it, participating cities commit to taking the following three actions:

  1. Strive to meet or beat the Kyoto Protocol targets in their own communities, through actions ranging from anti-sprawl land-use policies to urban forest restoration projects to public information campaigns;
  2. Urge their state governments and the federal government to enact policies and programs to meet or beat the greenhouse gas emission reduction target suggested for the United States in the Kyoto Protocol; and
  3. Urge the U.S. Congress to pass the bipartisan greenhouse gas reduction legislation, which would establish a national emission trading system.

This spirit of cooperation by cities as central players in maintaining planetary health shows great progress and arrives none too soon. Growing support from mayors across the world is significant; by 2050, two-thirds of the 9.4 billion people sharing the planet will live in cities (according to Doug Eberhard of Autodesk). At the rate of current development, with buildings consuming 39 percent of all energy use and 68 percent of total electricity, emitting 38 percent of all greenhouse gases, and contributing 30 percent of all waste outputs, pragmatic steps must be employed immediately to meet the demands of the future. Aging cities' infrastructures undoubtedly will be pushed to the limit when the world's population doubles in just 40 years.

With so much at stake, figuring out ways for cities to move beyond proclamations and good intentions to achieving their sustainability goals is imperative. Can geospatial technologies be employed to make sustainable cities real? So far, U.S. policy makers show a mediocre record of using information already available to them. (Think Atlanta, running out of water in 2007).

Putting more information in the hands of those charged with managing resources better won't necessarily work unless data can be analyzed and synthesized collaboratively across disciplines. Solutions require a holistic approach that can deliver significant resource efficiencies with economic gains. Luckily, new advanced technologies for satellite mapping on a large scale have reached the point where they can revolutionize the way resources are managed.

One of the companies working at the forefront of these technologies is NCDC Imaging. NCDC Imaging & Mapping is a Native American-owned small business firm (Colorado Springs, Colo.). The firm develops innovative remote sensing and GIS solutions for natural resource assessment, environmental management, emergency response planning, agriculture, renewable energy and geo-referenced meteorological applications.

Jason San Souci, Executive Vice President/COO with NCDC, explains, "GIS allows a new level of viewing and analysis of geographic data that can reveal patterns and insight not otherwise apparent." The example he uses is of quantifying the value of trees in urban communities. "We know that urban trees offer shade on hot sunny days. Summertime studies have shown a 1-2 degree Fahrenheit decrease in temperature for every increase of 10 percent vegetation cover. Houses shaded by trees need 4-25 percent less energy for cooling than those standing in the open. Homes sheltered by trees from wind reap winter heat savings of as much as 10.3 thousand BTUs or approximately $52.00 annually."

He also noted, "Trees also reduce noise and act as a natural air filter. Community forests increase property values, enhance recreation, and lead to reduced crime rates and safer neighborhoods. Given these benefits, it's an easy decision for cities to invest in their urban tree cover. But in order to arrive at informed decisions and effective conservation strategies, decision makers need to have an exact survey of what's there."

GIS data can show the existing number and location of trees in a city, how much carbon those trees store each year, the potential for air pollution mitigation, annual storm water savings, temperature fluctuations due to missing or extra tree cover, and other data. Decision makers can see clearly how much more a city can save by planting more trees. This example can be applied to a host of issues across separate municipal departments. "If the left hand can learn what the right hand is doing, as it were, multi-disciplinary collaborations on carbon emissions, storm water, transportation, land use development… virtually any individual project can be observed to see how it affects the total big picture," explains San Souci.

GIS technology can provide key measurements of carbon sequestration and air pollution levels, and of their changes over time. With the help of multi-resolution digital imagery, city planners can view highly detailed visual pictures and can conduct critical analysis, budgeting, forecasting, and modeling on a multitude of municipal functions such as water conservation, erosion control, air quality modeling, renewable energy, and smart growth planning. Policy makers then can understand resource complexities better, allowing them to arrive at sustainable solutions with economically favorable terms.

The town of Castle Rock, Colorado, recently put technology to good use in order to meet its overall water conservation goals. In 2006, the town's utilities began investigating the concept of using water budgets. A lack of access to large sources of renewable water, in combination with an ever-increasing population, was stressing its water resources as well as its environmental stewardship responsibilities.

Town council managers could see that saving a potential 35 percent in water use was in the town's best interests, according to Billie Owens, Program Analyst for Castle Rock Utilities. The town needed a rate structure that was easy to understand, would provide customers with the water they needed at a reasonable rate, and would create an incentive to conserve water. The town also needed to stabilize agency revenue while making efficiency a central part of its mission. Town managers set about finding the most efficient means of capturing irrigated areas for over 14,000 customers.

Figure 1 Water issues were addressed for the town council of Castle Rock, Colorado, by NCDC Imaging.

That's where NCDC Imaging came in. The company was working on a project in nearby Aurora, Colorado, where irrigated area data had been produced using high-resolution satellite imagery to support a lawn irrigation return flow study. In early 2007, Castle Rock and NCDC shared data needs and requirements and soon began mapping work using imagery collected the previous summer.

Over the next couple of months, data on irrigated vs. non-irrigated areas, impervious surfaces, trees, and other features were collected through a mostly automated image analysis approach. The results were merged with Castle Rock's parcels to produce statistics useful for developing a water budget rate structure and other long-term resource planning purposes. See Figure 1.

The project allowed the town to understand its customers and to use data to evaluate water usage patterns by user category, landscape, and irrigation efficiency, as well as to identify the amount of landscaping associated with varying residential lot sizes. From there, Castle Rock was able to develop a water budget and to begin forecasting for the future. The analysis prompted further policy development work on additional water conservation practices, storm water issues, environment-al sustainability, and even lawn irrigation return flow efficiencies.

A Digital City is Worth 100,000 Words

Another company exhorting the virtues of using new technology to build and share smarter models across municipal departments is Autodesk, Inc., a leader in 2D and 3D design software for the manufacturing, building and construction, and media and entertainment markets. Since its introduction of AutoCAD software in 1982, Autodesk has developed the industry's broadest portfolio of state-of-the-art digital prototyping solutions to help customers experience their ideas before they are real.

The company recently announced its Digital City initiative, which allows municipal leaders to plan, design, construct and operate cities in better and more sustainable ways. A digital city allows stakeholders from the public, city government, construction, and business communities to work together to understand how many different proposals could impact the urban environment by experiencing the future of the city before it becomes real. The technology is designed to provide a collaborative environment for visualizing, analyzing and simulating the future impact of urban design and development at a city-wide scale. Doug Eberhard, Industry Evangelist and Sr. Director at Autodesk, says simply, "A digital city is worth 100,000 words."

Decision makers can look at and share files early in the design cycle, making sustainable design more efficient and cost-effective. Three-dimensional models help ideas come to life and "snap into place." For instance, developers can look at a model, determine if a watershed can support placement of a project in a certain location, and correct any mistakes before a project gets built or environmental degradation occurs. Projects are completed faster because there is more accuracy and transparency, and the models help build trust in the larger community.

Autodesk recently announced that it would work with Salzburg, Austria, as its first pilot city to integrate city data into a highly detailed 3D model. The goal of the pilot program is for Salzburg to be able to bring together 3D models of above- and below-ground features in an open platform that supports secure and robust integration of CAD; building information modeling (BIM); and geospatial, civil engineering, and infrastructure data over a wide geographic area. By combining these data with realistic visualization, analysis and simulation tools, a digital city can deliver an intuitive and compelling way to understand the impact of plans and proposals from any point in time and from any point of view. See Figures 2-3.

Figure 3 Various data sources have been combined to create a digital city model of Portland used to support numerous projects and agencies. Image courtesy of

The combination of city data with realistic visualization and simulation tools will allow Salzburg to view and interact with the city landscape, as well as to analyze the impact of future urban planning, tourism, and economic development projects before they are built.

As sustainability continues to move to the forefront of public consciousness and is seen by many as the natural progression in human evolution, cities are dedicating their efforts to feeding and powering themselves with minimal reliance on surrounding open spaces, and to creating the smallest possible ecological footprint for their residents. Geospatial technologies are already playing a central role in sustaining human existence on Earth and will continue to help move entire metropolitan regions closer to achieving their sustainability goals in the years ahead.


Sensors & Systems | Monitoring, Analyzing and Adapting to Global Change | Stay in tune with the transformation. Subscribe to the free weekly newsletter.