Geodesign Explained: The Elevator Speech

At the 2018 ESRI Geodesign Summit in Redlands, a completely worthwhile event

My last post was almost five months ago, and for good reason.  I’ve been compelled to turn my attention from CityEngine to Geodesign, a collaborative design framework I have struggled to neatly define. Why the interest?  When I was writing and producing web and media to support outreach for major public transportation projects in places like St. Louis and Milwaukee, we were touting a “new” design process that brought in residents, businesses and other stakeholders in the earliest phases.  This was nearly twenty years ago.  Today, it is accepted fact that without real community consensus, major changes in the landscape will be challenged in court and delayed perhaps for decades.

I came across Geodesign while working on my Master’s in GIS and immediately recognized it as something that would greatly increase my value as a GIS professional, particularly one with a background in media.


If you have talked with or e-mailed me, I may have referred you to this page.  Here are my talking points:

  • The heart and spirit of Geodesign is embodied on the cover of “A Framework for Geodesign, Changing Geography by Design” by Dr. Carl Steinitz, published in 2012 -- view on  See that place in the diagram where the four entities overlap? That’s where I want to pitch my tent, right there in the gooey center. (Carl Steinitz holds copyright to all his diagrams, but he told/wrote me he wants them used freely. You can’t explain Geodesign without them.)
  • Carl Steinitz is a professor emeritus of landscape architecture at Harvard University.  Jack Dangermond was a student of Carl’s in the 1960s and what he learned inspired him to create ESRI.  This book is “the bible” of Geodesign folks, the product of more than fifty years of thought, research and practice in hundreds of case studies.
  • Geodesign is a collaborative design framework involving design professions, information technologies, geographic sciences and the people of the place. GIS as such was not in the mix on those projects I worked.

Now let's talk about what Geodesign is and what it is not.

  • Geodesign  “…leverages geographic information, resulting in designs that more closely follow natural systems.”– Dr. Carl Steinitz
  • “Geodesign applies systems thinking to the creation of proposals for change and impact simulations in their geographic contexts, usually supported by digital technology.” – Michael Flaxman

For whatever project is at hand, think SYSTEMS, natural or man-made that run through your area of interest and may be part of a much larger whole. This is my list for a simulated study for revitalizing a historic downtown: Buildings, Green Infrastructure, Historic/Tourism, Mixed Use, Public Services/Safety, Public Parking, Public Spaces, Railways, Riverfront, Transport (Highways and Streets).  Ten systems is the norm for a Geodesign session.

  • “A collaborative activity that is not the exclusive territory of any design profession, geographic science or information technology.” – Dr. Carl Steinitz

GIS is being described as platform that provides the common ground between all participants and technologies. GIS professionals, think about working across disciplines and the power that comes from knowing the language and technology that unites. 

  • Each participant must know and be able to contribute something that the others cannot or do not. Yet, during the process, no one need lose his or her professional, scientific or personal identity.” – Dr. Carl Steinitz

Uh, wow. Here is perhaps the most important remark of all. Geodesign is ultimately about people, and in particular, the people of the place.  How do we all work together to bring about their ideas and visions?

  • Geodesign is an invented word; we are not producing "geodesigns", nor is there a "geodesigner" job description.
  • Geodesign is a framework and not a strict linear process.
  • The end product is not a drawing or a map, but a set of actions needed to implement the design. Visualization is not the purpose

My own description of Geodesign is based on a quote from Jack Dangermond: "Imagine if your initial design concept, scribbled on the back of a cocktail napkin, has the full power of GIS behind it. The sketch goes into the database, becoming a layer that can be compared to all the other layers in the database." For my part, Geodesign is designing on a canvas of the existing natural and/or built environment. We use geospatial data to create the canvas; the canvas can provide feedback on what you draw; we can capture what is drawn and bring it into a GIS.

There is much, much more to say, a whole lot more behind all of this. Stay tuned.

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