GeoDesign: A Primer

Reframing an Old Idea

Fig. 1

ArcGIS 10 with its new template-based architecture makes sketching a design with instant feedback a reality using a Wacom tablet.

Fig. 2

A four-lane boulevard with traffic calming features and bioswale for a median.

Fig. 3

Carl Steinitz’s GeoDesign Framework uses a series of social questions to guide stakeholders through the process of landscape change.

Fig. 4

ArcGIS 10 has a report template that quickly summarizes and records the impact of your sketch against performance metrics supporting iterative design, comparison of those designs, and decision making.

Fig. 5

This light-rail planning sketch ties into the underlying road network giving a walkability map of the light-rail stops. This gives a visualization of the ¼, ½, and 1 mile walkability radius along the road network, i.e. what areas are well served by the light-rail stations. This can then be used to find areas suitable for re-development.

Fig. 6

Using a template for park features that utilizes cartographic representations and a reference scale on the map, you can draw features in real-world distances. Trees and trail widths are consistent with your design specs, giving an instant visualization of the layout of the park.

Fig. 7

Placing features like park benches gives the ability to rotate the feature to the proper orientation by simply rotating the symbol or feature.

is a Project Manager in the GeoDesign Services group at Esri, where he is currently writing a book of GeoDesign case studies. He was formerly the GIS and Site Control Manager for the $22B MASDAR City Development Program, developing the world’s first carbon neutral, zero waste city.

Design that considers geography has been going on since humans started designing. Ancient cultures built settlements in close proximity to water and with good mountain views; they designed cities to maximize shading and natural cooling, and they positioned themselves in proximity to natural resources and trade routes. For thousands of years, design considering nature was, well, just natural.

Over time, ‘progress’ drove us away from these natural ways. Technological advances made it much easier for mankind to conquer – and even defy – nature. Today we extract resources at rates never seen before and we literally move mountains, often with little or no consideration for the environment. It was in this historical context that the architect Richard Neutra wrote Survival through Design (1954). An early environmentalist, Neutra’s approach to architectural design applied elements of biological and behavioral science and stressed the “inherent and inseparable relationship between man and nature.”

“Community planning is an art, but one in need of a large scientific
advisory board, chaired by an expert in biology.”
-Richard Neutra

In his book Design with Nature (1969), landscape architect Ian McHarg advocated a framework for design that helps humans achieve synergy with nature. In his view, design and planning that consider both environmental and social values in the context of both space and time help ensure a natural balance. McHarg’s pioneering work using overlay analysis had a fundamental influence on the up-and-coming field of environmental planning and simultaneously solidified the core concepts of the young field of geographic information systems (GIS).

Both Neutra and McHarg advocated for design and planning where nature took center stage – a new way to design. While not an entirely new idea, designing with nature is now more feasible due to advances in software technology.

During the 2010 TED Conference, Jack Dangermond took a philosophical approach to the question of design by comparing a Japanese garden to a modern suburb. He proposed a ‘designing with nature’ renaissance, centered on GeoDesign as an alternative to traditional processes.

“I believe that ‘designing with nature,’ or GeoDesign, is our next evolutionary step. GeoDesign is both an old idea and a new idea. It reopens our minds and hearts; it puts in our hands the means to achieve what the Japanese masters did so many years ago – designing with geographic knowledge, thus living harmoniously with nature.” -Jack Dangermond, Esri founder and president

These visionaries recognized the interconnectedness between humans and nature, that we have unintentionally created many of the problems we face today, and that we can ameliorate many of those problems through better design.

But we can’t do it by using the same thinking that got us here in the first place.

Esri’s Annual GeoDesign Summit was held Jan. 5-6, 2012 in Redlands.

GeoDesign is a new way of framing an old idea, made possible by new advances in science and information technology. The variety and complexity of information and technology have grown, changing the dynamics of decision making. Issues that arise are complex, emotional, and often political, but it is our responsibility to come together in open dialog if we are to design a better world for future generations. This dialog requires a new way of thinking, and a new way of working together.

GeoDesign can be seen as an integral framework for intelligent, holistic design that moves from designing around geography to actively designing with geography.

Thinking GeoDesign

Born from landscape architecture, geographic information systems (GIS) technology has a complex pedigree. GIS and design have long been intertwined, hard to separate, and competitive. GIS was seen as the place for mapping, planning, and analyses at the macro and meso scale, while computer-aided design (CAD) was seen as a design tool for engineering and architecture at the meso and micro scale. Those boundaries, ill defined and arbitrary to begin with, are beginning to blur further with the introduction of GeoDesign.

So exactly what is GeoDesign? It’s a combination of geography and design.

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. It often requires the creation of a sketch or model, followed by an iterative process of rapid redesign and evaluation of alternatives in order to attain the desired result.

GeoDesign combines the best of both these worlds, providing a new way of thinking that integrates science and values into the design process. By giving designers robust tools that support rapid evaluation of design alternatives and the probable impacts of those designs, GeoDesign provides the framework for exploring issues from an interdisciplinary point of view and for resolving conflicts between alternative value sets. In this sense, it can be seen as an integral framework for intelligent, holistic design that moves from designing around geography to actively designing with geography.


  • is design in geographic space
  • facilitates science-based design
  • facilitates values-based design
  • provides a framework for exploring issues and resolving conflict
  • improves the quality and efficiency of design
  • is multi-dimensional
  • seeks to maximize benefits to society while minimizing both short- and long-term impacts on the natural environment.

GeoDesign in Action

Imagine picking up a stylus and sketching the initial design for a 4-lane boulevard through a new area of town, like this.

As you sketch in a GeoDesign environment, a chart informs you on-the-fly of the social and environmental impacts of the proposed design, such as:

  • Construction cost
  • Runoff
  • Non-point source pollution
  • Predicted vehicle-related deaths and injuries based on a 40 mph speed limit
  • Estimates of air pollutants and their impact on health and climate.

The number of injuries and the amount of air pollutants are too high and need to come down. A glance at the chart shows that shielding pedestrians from vehicles by sketching trees between the road and sidewalk, and calming traffic by sketching in curb extensions, lowers the predicted impacts significantly, but not enough. An additional iteration is needed to meet the team’s goals.

A decision is made to split opposing lanes with a median to further decrease vehicle-related death and injury. Someone then recommends changing the median type from concrete to a bioswale dotted with trees. These changes are sketched, and the chart reveals that the new design reduces runoff, non-point source pollution, and air pollutants while also reducing injuries. The team is satisfied with the latest design. See Figure 2.

That is GeoDesign. It allows the designer to do their creative design work with the same ease as with pencil on paper, while receiving near real-time feedback on the impact of that design, thanks to GIS analysis being performed in the background. And that is the vision of GeoDesign: to provide a fundamental alternative to the way design is currently done, leading towards better solutions, better designs, and a better future.

The GeoDesign Framework

Carl Steinitz, professor of landscape architecture at Harvard University, first described how the GeoDesign Framework worked by posing it as a series of six questions relevant to landscape change. The first three questions describe the world as it is and assess its condition (the assessment process). The last three questions describe the world as it could be, evaluating proposed design alternatives and their impacts (the intervention process). See Figure 3.


The first question consists of abstracting geography into a series of inventory data layers. It is “How should the geo-scape (the planet’s life zone) be described?”

The second question, “How does the geo-scape operate?” requires combining geospatial data and the use of spatial analysis and modeling techniques to describe geographic processes and/or predict how spatial phenomena and processes might change over time.

The third question, “Is the geo-scape working well?” involves the creation of composite maps that combine a number of dissimilar things in a way that shows areas that are more favorable than others for certain activities. From Steinitz’s point of view, the assessment process consists of examining existing conditions and determining whether the current conditions are operating well or not. Typically the assessment phase involves the participation of a diverse set of subject matter experts and stakeholders who are involved in defining issues, metrics, and the proper method of analysis.


Once the assessment is complete, the geo-scape intervention process begins. The fourth question, “How might the geo-scape be altered?” involves the sketching of design alternatives directly onto a geospatially referenced surface or data layer.

The fifth question is answered by the quick evaluation of the impacts of those changes. It is “What differences might the changes cause?”

Finally, the sixth question, “Should the geo-scape be changed?” integrates considerations of policies and values into the decision process. The information produced by these impact models is used to help stakeholders and decision makers weigh the pros and cons of each decision factor so they can weigh alternative solutions and make the most informed decision possible.

GeoDesign in Practice

The GeoDesign Framework provides an excellent conceptual diagram for proposing changes to the geo-scape over any scale. However, as the project grows in scale and complexity, so do the analyses. That is where the GeoDesign Framework empowered by integrative workflows, intuitive design tools, GIS-driven geoprocessing, and feedback dashboards can really help to guide a design project from start to finish. Figures 4-5 show planning for walkability distances to public transportation; Figures 6-7 show sketches of public parks.

The specific ingredients of each project will be dependent on the issues, participants, available data, information, knowledge, culture, values, geographic context, and available technology. The goal is that the GeoDesign Framework will infuse design with a blend of values-based and science-based information made relevant by its geography and history to help designers and stakeholders make as wise a decision as possible, taking into account potential impacts.

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