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© 2018 by Ahmed Abukhater

GIS for Planning and Community Development: Solving Global Challenges

January 3, 2011

Summary:

 

GIS helps us better understand our world so we can meet global challenges. By applying what we know of science and GIS to what we do not know, we can get to what we really need to know - how to enhance quality of life and achieve a better future. These issues are spatial in nature and require spatial tools and spatial thinking. Esri's Ahmed Abukhater argues that GIS is a key tool for planners as they plan for and with people.

 

Each day, policy makers aspire to achieve desired future conditions, but the rapidly changing world challenges planning professionals to reach these goals. Two competing factors are creating continuous environmental and social crises. The first is the natural world with its sensitive areas and limited and disputed resources. The second is the human footprint with an expanding population that threatens many of these resources. The combination of these factors results in many complex urban and environmental problems.The challenges we face are expanding across multiple regions and scales including social and environmental conflicts, air pollution, climate change and inequitable allocation of resources. Expanding urbanization and population prompt planners and policy makers to look for a better understanding of the problems we face and ways to meaningfully address these issues - particularly in large urban areas where housing shortages are becoming critical.Because we live in a rapidly changing world, our future is contingent on what we do today and the nature of our intervention. We need the future to not simply happen to us but rather be one that we shape and define today. We need greater knowledge of our environment and our relationship with it as well as awareness of how to protect its valuable resources through conservation of nature. We also need to foster efficiency and sustainability by relying on alternative fuels and policies that promote energy efficiency. It's essential that comprehensive planning takes into account all key aspects that impact our existence. To achieve this, we need to involve many parties and foster a shared vision that translates into concrete, collaborative action.GIS helps us better understand our world so we can meet global challenges. By applying what we know of science and GIS to what we do not know, we can get to what we really need to know - how to enhance quality of life and achieve a better future. These issues are spatial in nature and require spatial tools and spatial thinking. Creating and applying GIS tools and knowledge allow us to integrate geographic intelligence into how we think and behave. To that end, GIS can govern our relationship with the environment as well as help us perceive intricate relationships that otherwise we would never be able to understand.Planners engage in a plethora of activities, but their work generally reflects the tension among three main competing interests: equity, economy and the environment, also known as the "three Es." Regardless of their specialty, planners pay a great deal of attention to the notion of sustainability, which encapsulates these three key elements. With this in mind, planners and community developers are in constant search of tools that can balance these often-conflicting interests as well as enhance their ability to make informed decisions that promote collaborative public participation processes and eventually, good urban form. Planners and policy makers are keen to strike the right balance between these three factors. In practice, however, this is easier said than done because one of these aspects usually dominates, causing property, development, or resource conflicts. This creates a problem best known as reactive planning, which often results in precipitous action with disastrous results.

This troubling side of planning and policy making is indicative of the need to rely on new tools and approaches to change the way we think, plan and - most importantly - envision our future. With GIS, we can create new approaches that help us understand the relationship between man and the environment. This calls for more integrated tools that build a holistic and comprehensive approach to resolving planning problems.

 

Planning for People
Traditional practical applications of GIS in planning can be referred to as "planning for people," where planners do the work and make decisions on behalf of the community. This includes asset and facility management and planning for natural and man-made disasters before they happen and mitigating impacts after they occur - for example, modeling areas that are most vulnerable to wildfire to predict where a fire is most likely to happen and preparing to minimize its impact. By using GIS-based, multiple-criteria evaluation (MCE) and applying numerous factors that were consolidated into these criteria, planners can weigh and combine these factors into one layer, showing areas of high wildfire vulnerability. Knowing the population at risk enables planners to determine where to allocate and locate resources most effectively.

By integrating geographic data with geoprocessing, modeling and visualization tools, we can evaluate the impact of human activities and land-use changes on the built environment. For example, GIS can be used to evaluate different land-use scenarios based on environmental implications. Adding particular land uses to an existing land-use plan will likely show increased amounts of impervious coverage, which in turn can cause a great deal of runoff and flooding that damage the environment. Using GIS, planners can compare and contrast two scenarios of land-use changes to determine which one is more environmentally friendly and promotes low-impact development.

GIS is also used in economic development, in site selection and suitability analysis, and for finding the right sites to locate new businesses and grow existing ones. Within economic development, GIS is used to support the emerging trend of economic gardening, a new way to foster local and regional economic growth by nurturing existing small businesses in the community.

Additionally, planners are deploying GIS to encourage smart growth and promote green and lean cities, sustainable development initiatives, and effective growth management. For example, GIS can be used to determine the best locations for low-density residential development by employing a set of criteria and assigning different weights and values to each individual factor. These weights can reflect whether we are concerned more with protecting the environment or with economic development goals.

 

Planning with People
GIS can also be used to promote a more collaborative and engaging way of planning - planning with people. In the context of land-use planning, planners try to determine where we are now, where we want to be in the future, and how we get there. To accomplish desired future conditions with the people, planning is an ongoing process, rather than a product. While creating the plan, planners should seek bidirectional community input to make sure that the process is collaborative and transparent.

 

But how can planners do that? They can follow an emerging trend, Planning 2.0, which has three components or levels of implementation:
 

  1. Inform the impacted and interested stakeholders, including the public, by disseminating information and maps through online GIS.

  2. Involve the public by getting its feedback on proposed projects and land-use changes. This is enabled by crowdsourcing (also referred to as capturing volunteered geographic information), where citizens act as sensors and a source of geographic information.

  3. Empower the public to make informed decisions about existing and new development.

Using GIS as a collaborative platform empowers both decision makers and the broader community by exploiting the Web as a platform to deliver geoservices, often enabled by cloud computing capabilities and open data sharing policies.

People are using social media to communicate every day and express things that are important to them, so why not leverage social media to empower citizens to make decisions regarding what should and should not happen in their communities? Planning 2.0 incorporates online GIS and social media to support collaborative planning and ongoing public participation. This combination enhances government transparency and accountability by creating a societal infrastructure for human interaction.

What makes planning with GIS an effective and efficient way to achieve a future that we all desire? The answer lies in the ability to visualize development that helps us understand the places in which we live. We can modify development patterns and view results on the fly, and we can show the different impacts of new developments and study the spatial morphology of the urban fabric in two- and three-dimensional environments. Modeling capabilities allow us to apply cutting-edge technology to conservation, economic development and land-use planning and policy making.

Today, GIS technology is advancing rapidly, providing many new capabilities and innovations in planning. This growing technology provides a platform for more efficient and effective planning and decision making - not only mapping and visualization but also modeling, spatial analysis, data management, Web services and mobile solutions. GIS is being used everywhere to help us solve real problems and confront new challenges.

 

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