The Guy who Invented GIS has a Vision for the Future of Urban Planning, but It Requires Open Data and Standards to Make it Happen @Esri


ND: What would you want to do next?

JD: I can share that. A big one is augmented reality for urban planning. I see it as a technology for getting citizen engagement. I think it must be balanced with this notion that, with citizens, they can put on some goggles, walk down a street, and see a proposed development, and get engaged in their urban planning and what’s going to be.

I think one of the big things for me is creating a future. My background is landscape architecture and urban planning. And in that space, we’re trying to push geodesign, which is all about linking science to the design field.

You saw some of that on Monday [at the conference plenary] with the ArcGIS group. Urban is a new product which, while collaborative with GIS, is a total standalone technology, a platform for city planners that will be an information system for them to creatively do 3D zoning design—which is the backbone for 3D building design—and do transactions on an integrated smart city in such a way that we could quickly evaluate the alternative consequences of one design versus another.

Geodesign as a background is the idea that would bring all the GI science into the design process and then allow designers to create alternative scenarios and quickly give feedback. And then make rational decisions.

Linked to ArcGIS Urban was this effort we’re doing in community engagement. In addition to planners having cool tools to involve developers, involve realtors, involve the private sector in creating different evolutionary steps of a city, one of our goals is to involve all the citizenry in the city so that people are connected. And understand the—transparently—the consequences of this decision versus that.

Take for example my own little hometown. Some years ago, a few people quietly made decisions about zoning on our western side of the town. As a result, all these big box warehouses that are empty and not clearly performing for our community got built. And if the city only knew or if the citizens really knew—because my town has a lot of people that really care about their town—it probably wouldn’t have happened. And so, we didn’t really have involvement. And this is going on in virtually every city around the world. What we need, I think, is better understanding of the consequences of future scenario.

[My idea is] to tell you what I really dream and hope about: that we leverage all of our geographic knowledge in such a way that it can be set up for people that who make decisions— about urbanization and urban planning or actually any kind of decisions—and enable the involvement of citizenry so they’re smarter.

Then we can stop creating footprints that are only for one objective function and more holistically involve all the environmental considerations, all the social considerations, in an open forum. And I think the language of what’s happened with 3D GIS is enabling that.

ND: You were mentioning that things are now evolving with the 3D GIS. You’ve got this whole really cool 3D ArcGIS Pro. It’s amazing, but I feel it’s missing the 3D basemaps. Is that something you’ve considered?

.[There’s a need to] sort of harmonize all of those into a single basemap for the entire planet. That’s a big job.

And there’s multiple technologies. There’s the 3D features approach. There’s this sort of photometric approach. There’s the voxel approach. There’s, as you know, different technologies, and different people are advocating 3D realities in cities using different footprints.

A single basemap for the entire planet – that a big job.  To be usable for example for even pre-concept design at a city scale – say designing a new city and the road and rail servicing that city – you need absolute positional accuracy of less than 1m DEM, the closest global dataset we have is SRTM DEM at around 30m (just over 1 arc second).  Doing work in several countries trying to piece together LIDAR and other data at around the 1m resolution, with huge holes around airports, national security areas etc.  its a nightmare – even here in the UK which has open source at less resolution than Nasa at  50m and with its wonderful Lidar Finder  of open source piecemeal LIDAR  STM and DSM for flood defense purposes (typically 1m) but lots of holes.

We cant total station the planet, we need a better way of scanning the large parts of the planet where urbanisation is happening most quickly to make a difference.

Of course as every GIS person, or into GIS Urban Planner or Urban Designer know the basemap is only 20% of it.  The other 80% is the data.  We don yet have global open data standards and models of recording data on cities, places, streets and parcels.  Usually we have to make a guess, an interpolation, from the data we have.  Luckily Esri now has good tools for this but if you mention Empirical Baysian Regression Kriging in a room of planners you are likely to cause an accident as they rush to the fire doors.

I speak to many residents groups, environmentalist etc who oppose even the finest and most ecologically sensitive new designs simply because they cannot visualize them.  They walk down a country lane, the local agricultural landscape crushed by years of intensive farming and see the few trees left, the few patches of native biodiverse plants left, and think any development will inevitably crush them all beneath concrete and tarmac because they think all developers and planners are lairs, promising them one thing and delivering another.

Many of these groups would love access to data so see the alternatives, to see what could be done, but it is so hard, even for someone like me working 30 years in this field.  I also speak to many boutique firms struggling to fill the gaps in the geodesign field, one firm doing a spreadsheet model of viability, discounted cash flow and peak debt for a development, but no spatial interface, another firm doing 3D city models but needing a better interface to CAD masterplans and models which calculate masterplan parametrics in order to balance the land use budget, other firm developing cloud based urban transport and/or economic models but needing a smooth two way interface to GIS and masterplans.  The list goes on – but they all have a common need.  Not so much to link from product X to Product Y but link from Product X to any product by a common API and a Common open source data standard stored in an open source database updated in real time.  (see my article for JAIP on the why this is the common bedrock of all planning tasks ).

So for example you could change a road alignment (or any other parameter) and bigo no more one months work recalculating everything at a city and regional scale There are lots of ideas brewing up here.  In the UK Future Cities Catapult and Transport Systems Catapult .

Indeed in writing the last line of this post calling for the community to work on such a standard I find that FSC at the end of August launched such a project. So Esri, Autodesk, Bentley etc. everyone, get involved.  The productive way with these things is not so much to argue for years about the standard but build a crude and horribly imperfect prototype, based on my ‘Planagon Planet’ project for a global spatial addressing planning information and modelling system, the Esri XML data model for cities and utilities, and possibly Bentleys AECOSIM CIM model- in which crazy task ill be almost live blogging on in the coming weeks and seeking the community’s input on where i’ve gone right and wrong.

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