Geography’s favorite nephew: GeoDesign

Wednesday, July 2, 2014 - 3:58pm

By David Zubenko

Two years ago I decided to switch majors and made the transition from architecture to geography.  Upon moving into the department I wanted to learn as much as I could about the field and what opportunities awaited after graduation.  As such I contacted various geographers and asked them about their experiences.  Since I had a background in architecture, one of them said I should look into GeoDesign.  I did some research and found two books on the subject, GeoDesign: Case Studies in Regional and Urban Planning by Shannon McElvaney and A Framework for GeoDesign: Changing Geography by Design by Carl Steinitz. 

[See Steinitz’s Coffee Hour lecture on “Landscape Planning: A History of Influencial Ideas” on Mediasite]

These books proved very informative and together provided a basic understanding of GeoDesign that I was able to expand upon this past semester in Landscape Architecture 450, a GeoDesign course taught by Timothy Murtha.  I found the experience to be engaging and worthwhile, and therefore wanted to take this opportunity to discuss GeoDesign in general and the class in particular. 

Geography has always impacted design, from the location of cities down to the layout of individual streets and buildings.  In the past this may have been seen as an obstacle, but GeoDesign uses GIS technology to turn it into an advantage.  By harnessing the power of GIS multiple layers of information can be combined and analyzed, resulting in better design decisions that pick up on connections that otherwise would be missed.  The use of GIS also allows designers to consider a variety of scenarios in a quick and efficient manner, something that is not possible in a traditional design framework.  In addition GeoDesign generates and encourages a collaborative effort that results in more effective solutions.  Although the concepts behind GeoDesign have existed for quite some time, it was not until the second half of the twentieth century that they were formalized into this exciting and burgeoning field.

Throughout history various civilizations have undertaken design that in some way reflects their surroundings.  One notable exception, however, is the suburbia that sprung up across America after World War II.  This endless expanse of houses and shopping malls prompted architect Richard Neutra to call for design that was more in tune with nature, where the consequences of each component were considered and analyzed.  The development of GIS in the late 1960s added another dimension to this concept, as information could be stored and processed in a variety of new ways.  It was also around this time that Harvard landscape architecture professor Carl Steinitz began to pick up on these ideas and incorporate them into his classes.  One of his students was Jack Dangermond, co-founder of noted GIS software vender ESRI.  In 2010 Dangermond gave a TED Talk where he referred to this approach as “GeoDesign”, and thus a new field was born.  That same year ESRI hosted the first American GeoDesign summit, and in 2013 Europe launched their own version of the event.  These conferences attract hundreds of GIS professionals that help spread the concept of GeoDesign to a wider audience.

To train students in this new field GeoDesign classes have been seeping into universities throughout the country, and Penn State is no exception.  In 2013 the Department of Geography and the Stuckeman School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture launched a 14 credit graduate certificate in GeoDesign through the Penn State World Campus.  The curriculum consists of two GIS classes, a class regarding the history, theory, and principles of GeoDesign, and two classes regarding the implementation of GeoDesign.  This past semester undergraduate students were exposed to GeoDesign for the first time through Landscape Architecture 450.  Like any new course the class has had its ups and downs, according to instructor Timothy Murtha:

“Developing a new course is generally straightforward because there is often a well guided intellectual history that can and often does guide the content presented. For GeoDesign, the challenge is that many individual researchers, scholars and disciplines are picking up Steinitz's framework [
A Framework for GeoDesign: Changing Geography by Design] and adapting and transforming it. The course's role is to expose students to the diversity of GeoDesign thinking through manageable and open ended content. Because GeoDesign is so new, the course should be seen as a way to explore new topics in GeoDesign, and not just what has been written in the last 3-4 years.”

The class is centered around a semester long project where students conduct an analysis through a GeoDesign framework.  This semester my peers did projects on the Loyalsock Trail in Central Pennsylvania, urban renewal in Reading (Pennsylvania), the Schuykill Transportation Corridor, urban vacancy in Philadelphia, ancient Maya ruins in Belize, and the nature of slums in Calcutta, India.  For my project I focused on the public transportation system in Pittsburgh and how it could be improved.  Although I ultimately devised a satisfactory solution I found the process to be the most rewarding part of the experience, a sentiment echoed by my colleagues and Professor Murtha:

“Fifteen weeks isn't a great deal of time to address some of the topics students are trying to examine in the course. That's okay if an emphasis is placed on the process and approach and not necessarily the outcome. This should allow students to try to tackle big topics and to do so in creative ways as long as they can clearly know at the end of the semester how far they have come and what the next steps are in the process.”

GeoDesign itself is in the process of emerging as a new and interesting field with a variety of applications.  Regardless of whether or not you have a GIS background I would encourage you to look at it and what it has to offer.  “GeoDesign: Case Studies in Regional and Urban Planning” is a particularly assessable book that illustrates a number of scenarios in which a GeoDesign framework has been used to address a problem.  The corresponding solutions are inventive, creative, and, most importantly, show the benefits of using GeoDesign to shape the world around us. 



Link to graduate certificate program at Penn State:
Link to “Issuu” of my project: