What makes it ‘geodesign’?

A Framework for Geodesign: Changing Geography by Design 2012, showing the four necessary components of geodesign. image: Carl Steinitz
A Framework for Geodesign: Changing Geography by Design, showing the four necessary components of geodesign.
image: Carl Steinitz

The term “geodesign” has some amount of buzz around it. For example, there is a Wikipedia entry; the University of Southern California offers a “Bachelor of Science in Geodesign” major; Penn State Online offers a “Graduate Certificate in Geodesign”; Carl Steinitz recently published his book “A Framework for Geodesign: Changing Geography by Design”; and so on.  This is still within a small community, mind you, ask most of your friends if they have heard of ‘geodesign’, or what it might be, and you get (or at least I usually do) mostly puzzled looks.

I’ve been listening, and contributing, to the conversation that gave birth to the term for some time. Last year, in a talk at the ESRI User’s Conference in San Diego, I said “When I first heard the term I felt like I had been using it for a long time – though of course I hadn’t.”  I argued then that geodesign may be “the computer-aided design some of us have been imaging, wishing for, and working on, for many years” — making reference to the common somewhat mundane use of the term ‘CAD’ to mean simply “drawing with computers”, rather than the more ambitious “aiding design”.

What constitutes ‘design’? How is it different from ‘planning’? What might be ‘aids’ to the creative processes and how could these be effectively used? How do computation and information technology fit into these questions? These are, of course, deep questions with a wide range of sometimes strong – even divisive – opinions, a scant but interesting and growing literature, and a large number of un-resolved and possibly un-knowable issues.

As I have some strong opinions about this, have contributed somewhat to the literature, and value the opportunity for an informed and informative (and hopefully not divisive!) conversation, I will offer here my own thoughts:

One avenue of recourse is definition. Perhaps if we have a succinct definition of geodesign it will help to rule certain activities in or out. But as is the case with ‘design’ itself, there are a number of competing definitions from which to choose.

The Wikipedia entry, for example, says: “Geodesign is a design and planning method which tightly couples the creation of design proposals with impact simulations informed by geographic contexts”, quoting Michael Flaxman. This is pretty good, since it finesses the question of design vs planning by simply connecting them with “and”; alludes to the central role of advanced digital technology by reference to “impact simulations”; and suggests issues of scale by the term “geographic contexts”.

GIS Process in 500 Acre Resource Park Design image: David Leonard
GIS Process in 500 Acre Resource Park Design
image: David Leonard

But finessing, alluding, and suggesting don’t make for crisp definitions.

Furthermore, the entry goes on to state: “…it’s still somewhat unclear whether geodesign differs greatly in substance from existing efforts [in environmental design]”–  and so Wikipedia may not help much in being definitive!

The shortest definition in use – “changing geography by design” – is attractive for its brevity. Attributed to Carl Steinitz (and the subtitle of his book), it offers little to argue with — except of course for the definitions of ‘geography’ and ‘design’, respectively.  For me, its broadness is its downfall though, for this definition would surely include the works of Egyptian pharaonic builders, 19th century railroad companies, and the architects of the Interstate Highway System; and for the reasons I will give below I want to exclude them.

My own definition goes like this:

“Geodesign is environmental design usually involving large areas, complex issues, and multi-person teams, that leverages the powers of digital computing, algorithmic processes, and communications technologies to foster collaborative, information-based design projects, and that depends upon timely feedback about impacts and implications of proposed designs, based on dynamic modeling and simulation, and informed by systems thinking. Systems thinking means that multiple interconnected systems are considered, and that the models and simulations evaluate impacts over a larger area, greater complexity, and longer time-frame than any immediate design proposal.”

My definition requires that digital data, information processing, computing, and algorithmic processes are involved (i.e. not just intuition and training); that the efforts are collaborative (not purely individual); that simulations and evaluations are timely (and not only ‘visual’); and that the geographic and temporal scope of impacts considered is broad (broader than the ‘immediate design proposal’). And by specifying ‘environmental’ design (not ‘landscape design’), I mean not just that it happens in the natural and built world, but that the ethics and interests of environmentalism are engaged in the process.  Finally, requiring ‘systems thinking’ recognizes the dynamic and interconnected nature of the world we live in, and the necessity for identifying and understanding connections and systems (e.g. ecosystems, transportation systems, and others.) Thus, geodesign projects will be aimed at increased environmental quality, not just economic growth or transport efficiency, at sustainability, minimum impact, and concern for ecological structure and function, as well as for human communities and concerns.

Coastal Wetland Design with Inundation Assessment (Coordination with Hydrologist, Biologist, and Geotechnical Engineer) image: David Leonard
Coastal Wetland Design with Inundation Assessment (Coordination with Hydrologist, Biologist, and Geotechnical Engineer)
image: David Leonard

So, the design of a dam, a wildlife refuge, ‘eco-city’, or transportation-oriented development, in the 21st century, would all be ‘geodesign’, as they would surely leverage GIS, CAD, remote-sensing, and other digital data and computational tools and teams of specialists; the design of a sculpture garden, or even a 100-hectare master plan, by a virtuoso solo landscape architect with a 2B pencil, would not qualify.

What Patrick Geddes or Frederick Olmsted did wasn’t geodesign, in my view, since they predated the digital. Some of Ian McHarg’s work qualifies, because there were already the glimmerings of the digital. Much of Carl Steinitz’s work qualifies, as demonstrated in his recent book. All landscape architecture and planning is not geodesign, by these criteria:  some isn’t digital, some isn’t collaborative, some isn’t of sufficient scale or sufficiently informed by impact simulations or systems thinking – but some is, and at a growing percentage.

I don’t mean by this to diminish in any way the efforts of individuals or small teams, or modest projects, or people who work without computers or satellite data – I appreciate that we need all kinds of approaches, and every little bit helps.  I also understand that geodesign projects may well involve non-digital techniques and skills – we do still live in the ‘meat world’ (as opposed to ‘cyberspace’), after all. But I do think that the 21st century offers us enough examples of projects and problems around the world that are large and complex enough to require the approaches of geodesign, meeting my definition above; even if geodesign is just “a newly evolved way of achieving age-old ends.”

by Stephen M Ervin, MLA, PhD, FASLA, Harvard GSD, Department of Landscape Architecture

3 thoughts on “What makes it ‘geodesign’?

  1. waynetinlin September 1, 2013 / 3:21 pm

    Thanks Steven – I think that you have come up with an excellent definition. I like it because it clearly differentiates geodesign thinking and positioning from its many family relatives, all which share some common traits. Emphasising systems thinking is important because that is what provides its unifying principle – the sum of all its parts – and makes it unique as a study. Great post.

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