During the first half of the twentieth century, a Scotsman by the name of Patrick Geddes pioneered a new concept of urban and landscape planning. Another Scot, Ian McHarg, continued in the same field, and explored the idea of layering regional features over urban settings, work that grew into the field of Geographical Information Systems, GIS. The Geographical aspect or layers reflected the geology, soils, hydrology, roads and land usage. The Information component was the scientific methodology used to the greatest effect and the Systems brought in data analysis and technology that calculated outcomes. Geodesign is an extension of GIS in that it combines the science and use of technology regarding spatial planning, with the art of designing spaces of benefit to all people, both now and far into the future. ESRI (Environmental Systems Research Institute) describes geodesign as “The emerging field of geodesign can be characterized as the collaboration of science and design that takes into account the interconnectedness between humans and nature.” This major will appeal to students interested in the application of geographic information systems to building more sustainable and resilient communities.

This exciting field of study carries even greater importance today than ever before. A vast and ever-changing range of societal, environmental and economic challenges is confronting our earth – challenges exacerbated by a global pandemic and the impacts of climate change. We need more resilient community designs that take into account the reality of people’s lives, as well as the built and the natural environments. Good geodesign will provide opportunities for marginalized people to participate in the creation of their communities – case in point: The Jane Goodall Institute in Tanzania, where geodesign was used to improve the socioeconomic lives of local villagers, while at the same time, avoiding any negative impact on the great ape population. Using the input of local community groups and federal agencies, thoughtful geodesign theories were put into practice on Cape Cod, MA, to identify key infrastructure planning that would be required in light of the impact of coastal erosion, created by anticipated global warming.

This field is growing, changing and developing quickly and offers many opportunities for geodesign and GIS specialists. It is an up-and-coming field of study and will appeal to both the scientific mind of a GIS practitioner and the imaginative visions of a designer – GIS technology and spatial analytics are intersecting with ways of rethinking design to improve the environment. The need for qualified geodesign graduates will increase every year and new technology will always lead the way. Typical coursework for this major will include statistics, spatial design, the built environment, urban planning, designing livable communities, mapping, spatial reasoning, GIS modeling, ecology, natural resources, society and population, water, transportation, environmental sciences, politics and economics. Global geodesign is another wing of geodesign, clearly with a global reach.

Programs in geodesign are still emerging, with some worthy of special note: University of Georgia and University of Southern California both offer an undergraduate degree in geodesign; Northern Arizona University offers a BS in Geographic Science and Community Planning; University of Wisconsin has a Geodesign Capstone Certificate Program, and master’s degrees are offered at Penn State, Philadelphia University and the University of Arizona.  Colleges are creating programs with an eye on the need for professionals to understand how better to integrate science with design. Similar programs may be housed within the departments of landscape architecture, geography, urban ecology, and engineering.

For young people with a passion for improving communities, understanding how to accommodate the real lives of people under the increasing threat of global warming, with an excitement for the use of technology and design to bring about the creation of new knowledge found at the intersection of the spatial sciences, architecture and urban planning, geodesign deserves another look.


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