Esri Geodesign Summit 2020

by Daniel Martin, ASLA, MLA

Interest in geodesign has grown since the first summit was held in 2010. / image: Esri

Esri’s yearly Geodesign Summit is a nexus for cutting edge practice, research, networking, and collaboration around some of today’s toughest problems. Held February 24 – 27, 2020, this year marked the eleventh summit. The theme “seeing clearly” speaks to geodesign workflows which cut through the noise to the signal and allows for the effects of different alternatives to be derived through digital testing before breaking ground. Under that overarching theme, this year also focused on the AEC space through an emphasis on speakers in the practice realm who leverage geodesign in real-world projects.

Esri president Jack Dangermond giving a talk entitled “Geospatial Infrastructure—A Foundation for Geodesign.” He shared Esri’s vision of how rapidly evolving technology will help catalyze the future of geodesign and better enable us to see what others can’t. / image: Esri

If landscape architecture design workflows and geodesign workflows were laid out in a Venn diagram, the overlap would be substantial. Similarities include thorough inventory and analysis of project context and underlying environmental variables, creation of multiple concepts and iterations, leveraging input from stakeholders (client, public, and regulatory), and the graphic communication of all these elements. Given all those similarities, geodesign can be summarized as data, evaluation, and impact-driven design. Using software (such as GIS) to model design alternatives and project their effects into quantitative results, mistakes are made virtually while the optimum scenario is chosen, thereby saving time, money, and the social and environmental costs of failed projects or unintended results.

Networking social following the presentations for the day. / image: Esri

This year brought over 50 speakers to share their work. A vast range of topics were covered, but all spoke to how geodesign helps to find the most suitable, environmentally friendly, and sustainable options for solving problems and using space. The speakers included:

  • Aiman Duckworth, Senior Landscape Architect and Urban Ecologist with Biohabitats, shared how geodesign was used in developing the Urban Ecology Framework in Atlanta, GA, which improves the urban/environmental interface.
  • Pamela Conrad, ASLA, Principle with CMG Landscape Architecture, discussed how lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions from landscape architecture projects can be calculated and minimized prior to installation.
  • Mike Sprague and Lisa Marr of Trout Headwaters, Inc. showed how geodesign drives the design, implementation, and monitoring of quality habitat restoration in large projects.
  • Chuck Flink, FASLA, president of Greenways Incorporated, highlighted some of the many projects he has completed, and how communication and participation improve outcomes.
  • Jeremy Schewe, co-founder of Ecobot, Inc., walked through how a primordial cloud forest in Guatemala was discovered and protected, and the local population empowered.

The summit webpage can be accessed here, where a full accounting of the speakers, agenda, and presentations topics can be found. The 2020 video proceedings aren’t yet available, but they will be soon. In the meantime, the 2019 proceedings can be viewed now on YouTube.

A panel discussion with selected speakers, moderated by Kelleann Foster, RLA, ASLA, Director of online geodesign graduate programs at Penn State. / image: Esri

In addition to all the examples of geodesign in practice, the summit included much in the way of cutting-edge research and how it translates into real world results. Several such presentations include:

  • Galen Newman, ASLA, Associate Professor at Texas A&M, Department of Landscape Architecture and Urban Planning, shared a cutting-edge model which predicts urban vacancy so it can be incorporated into planning and design.
  • Glenn Page, President/CEO of Sustainametrix, discussed social, biophysical, and governance systems, and how novel approaches to mapping these are influencing regenerative design.
  • Stuart Cowan, Systems Convener at the Regenerative Communities Network, shared the latest geospatial tools he is using to map and monitor critical biophysical and socioeconomic factors, and to design the appropriate solutions.
  • Glen Low, co-founder of The Earth Genome, described the Groundwater Recharge Assessment Tool, which optimizes the use of rain and snow water to recharge aquifers on agriculture, green infrastructure, and natural lands.

Prior to the presentations, the International Geodesign Collaboration (IGC) was hosted on the Esri Campus and brought with it a body of research from universities across the globe. Facilitated by thought leaders such as Carl Steinitz, Hon. ASLA (Alexander and Victoria Wiley Professor of Landscape Architecture and Planning, Emeritus, Harvard University Graduate School of Design, and honorary professor, Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis, University College London), the IGC “was conceived as a means to compare the approaches and experiences of globally dispersed teams tackling the projects they would normally do, but using a common framework of guiding assumptions, project sizes, scenarios, analytical systems and presentation formats.” Their purpose in doing so is to curate a common framework for comparing projects which operate in many different ecological and cultural contexts. The results of the IGC meeting was presented to the Geodesign Summit participants as part of the summit kickoff.

The 2020 IGC at Esri Campus in Redlands, CA. / image: Esri

One of the most enjoyable elements of the summit was the various opportunities to network. Starting each day with a hosted breakfast, the conference attendees had opportunities to meet new colleagues and friends while discussing shared interests. Snacks were provided throughout the morning and afternoon, too. During presentation breaks many attendees would get into conversations that lasted until the final moments before the next presentation. There were also several hosted lunches at the Esri Café, and networking social happy hours for all. Another great chance to network was the Breakout Discussion Sessions during the afternoons, where a panel of presenters would head into a smaller room and attendees engaged in free-form discussion.

Organic opportunities to network and collaborate. / image: Esri

By design, each presentation at the summit was on the same stage to allow for a shared experience and common foundation from which networking and collaboration could grow. Geodesign and those who practice it take on many of the world’s most pressing challenges by engaging with collaboration from the start. The cross-pollination found at the summit made for an exciting room to be in as expertise and enthusiasm for software, science, policy, and design formed a united front to tackle problems and improve the geo-design of this planet.

All presentations were in the same venue so that everyone could attend each one. / image: Esri

If you are interested in learning more about how GIS and geodesign can advance your work, would like to attend next years Summit, or perhaps would like to present your work at the Summit, feel free to contact me directly and I would be pleased to talk with you further.

Daniel Martin, ASLA, MLA

Daniel Martin, ASLA, MLA, is a consultant and project manager on the geodesign practice team in the Professional Services Division at Esri. He has a background in landscape architecture, ecological restoration, wildlife management, and environmental banking. Daniel is an officer of the ASLA Ecology and Restoration Professional Practice Network (PPN) and served as co-chair between 2016 – 2018.

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