Designing with Data: Working in the Age of Geodesign

Geodesign creates the potential for real-time vetting of design ideas within the grander context of a geographical site

Data is becoming the designer’s new best friend. Urban designers, architects, and landscape architects – whether they’ve realized it yet, or not – will soon be integrating massive sets of data into every design they do.

These fields are entering the age of geodesign, an emerging concept that melds the geospatial data of geographic information systems, or GIS, with simulation and design evaluation techniques. Through geographic analysis of the various streams of data relating to a project and its site, geodesign creates the potential for real-time vetting of design ideas within the grander context of the site. From hydrology and habitat to traffic patterns and energy regimes, multitudes of data are now easily available and nearly as easily integrated into the designs of the built environment. Designers can quickly know how a 10-story building would affect shadows, water stresses, parking demands, and solar energy potential in a neighborhood. Or how those factors would change if it were 15 stories. Or how such a project would be affected by 15 inches of sea level rise over the next decade. The applications run wide and long – from weighing transit oriented development versus traditional development along an as-yet-unbuilt light rail line to assessing stakeholder support for various redevelopment schemes to analyzing the impact of a proposed roadway on the grazing patterns of wildlife in a national park. Planners, designers, and resource managers are using geodesign for all of these projects and more. Projects like these were highlighted at the recent GeoDesign Summit, a two-day conference held at the Redlands, California headquarters of GIS software powerhouse Esri.

Example after example showed how geospatial information could not only inform the design process, but actually improve the way projects respond to and relate with that information. “Geodesign is not just for the designers,” Esri president and founder Jack Dangermond told the crowd. “No, Geodesign is for the foresters, for transportation analysts, for store retail siting of locations, for everyone. It’s a way of thinking. It’s a new way of bringing science into the way we make spatial designs of all types.” Key to it all is the data. Anyone familiar with GIS knows that these systems can provide an overwhelming amount of data – from topography to land use designations to water tables to climate. Typically, a designer would apply the relevant data to a project’s site to gain a more comprehensive picture of how things fit together. Through geodesign, designers can tap into a greater pool of relevant data from all over the world – energy usage of a similar building type in Jerusalem or the effects on wildlife habitat of a similar daylighting project. These layers of information can be added to any design project and analyzed to reveal how the conditions of each layer interact with or affect the other, and how tweaking one might skew another.

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It’s an intense set of calculations and interrelations that can add robustness to nearly any design decision. So site-specific data is important to the geodesign process, but even more important is site-relevant data, collected from disparate projects that share conditions. This cloud of shared datasets means that a designer doesn’t necessarily need to have every aspect of a specific site covered to be able to model and analyze various designs.

Carl Steinitz of the Harvard Graduate School of Design and an early practitioner of geodesign called this collected and shared data “history”, and noted that this pool of knowledge will only grow and become more useful. The potential of geodesign presented at the summit is impressive. With rich data sets and increasingly nimble analytical tools, it’s suddenly possible for almost any half-smart designer to plan places to accommodate the needs of generations of people not yet born, or to reduce or even eliminate a project’s impacts on native bird species.

This augmented design reality of algorithmically-enhanced data sets and scenario models offers a sort of near-omniscience that titillates the mind into picturing a time not far off when every city plan and building will be designed and built into perfect harmony with its surroundings. Of course, that won’t be happening. There will always be externalities, unintended consequences, and unforeseen conditions. A world without them would be perhaps even more disturbing than what we’re dealing with now. But the promise of geodesign is that we may be able to get very, very close to that ideal. Designers – and all those subjected to their work – should look kindly on this looming possibility.

Nate Berg is a writer on cities, technology, and design. He lives in Los Angeles.

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