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May 18th, 2008
The Need for GIS in Urban Sustainability

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Soon, if it has not already happened, the majority of the human species will live in sprawling cities. As urban density moves forward, the need to understand the dynamics of a particular urban region, the interrelationships between population, land use, transportation, economics, environment, and other factors is crucial to effectively develop policies and determine where best to invest funding to create more sustainable urban environments. The use of GIS in this endeavor provides solid, spatially-referenced data that serves as a fact-based foundation for the decisions that need to be made to ensure a sustainable future for humanity and the planet of which we are all a part.

The human population on planet Earth is about to reach a tipping point unique in its history. Sometime over the course of 2007 and 2008, the global human population will, for the first time, consist of more urban dwellers than rural dwellers (Lee 2007; UN-HABITAT 2006). Soon, if it has not already happened, the majority of the human species will live in sprawling cities where existing urban problems such as air and water pollution, traffic congestion and transportation, sprawl, sanitation, energy, public health, and local economic issues will be exacerbated. This changing dynamic between people and where and how they live on the Earth will have important repercussions for humanity’s future, especially in light of the growing evidence in support of global climate change and the growing need to find more sustainable ways of existing in this world.

As governments, non-profits, and civil society move forward with trying to establish a more sustainable way of living in the world, where the current generation can meet their needs without compromising the ability of future generations to do the same (WCED 1987), the rapidly expanding urban regions of the world are becoming the center of attention in this movement. Given global increases in the numbers of people living in slums and in the levels of urban pollution, many consider cities to be the heart of the problem rather than a piece of the solution. However, the flow of people into the world’s cities is unlikely to slow any time soon. In spite of their problems, cities provide better economic and life opportunities for many, including the poor. Herein lies the opportunity to look at cities anew and to shift the focus of their development to a sustainable model. Urban sustainability allows for decision-makers to create urban living patterns and habitats for people that are in harmony with natural energy and resource flows. They can also take advantage of economies of scale to ensure efficient resource use and higher quality of life for all of their residents (Lee 2007).

As this work of urban sustainability moves forward, the need to understand the dynamics of a particular urban region, the interrelationships between population, land use, transportation, economics, environment, and other factors is crucial to effectively develop policies and determine where best to invest funding to create more sustainable urban environments. To understand these dynamics, the gathering, organizing, analysis, and dissemination of the myriad of social, economic, and environmental information for decision- and policy-making is vital to the goal of creating more sustainable cities (Campagna 2006). This process is beginning in many places, but the question remains open regarding how to best assess whether urban regions are moving in the direction of sustainability and what tools and methodologies are best to use for this type of assessment. In my recently completed capstone project at the University of Denver, I argued that geographic information systems (GIS) are a fundamental tool that planners and policy-makers must utilize to ensure the sustainability of our cities. The use of GIS in this endeavor provides solid, spatially-referenced data that serves as a fact-based foundation for the decisions that need to be made to ensure a sustainable future for humanity and planet of which we are all a part. However, the research showed that the tools and methodologies currently being developed through academic and private research are often not making it into the hands of the decision-makers that wrestle with these issues everyday. A solution to this problem will be a key step forward in ensuring a sustainable urban future.

The capstone paper reviewed the intersection of GIS and urban sustainability through empirical research of case studies and provides answers to the following questions:

•    Is GIS technology being used by decision-makers to assess urban sustainability and to create more sustainable urban policies based on those assessments?
•    If GIS is being used by decision-makers for assessing and creating sustainable urban policy, what specific aspects of urban sustainability is it being utilized to study?
•    If GIS is not being utilized, what is preventing GIS from being used by decision-makers to analyze and address urban sustainability issues and how can that use be improved?

These questions were addressed through a comprehensive review of published literature relevant to this subject and through analysis of two case studies from different regions of the world. Processes and procedures were analyzed to show how GIS technology is used to create sound, sustainable policies for the world’s expanding cities.

After reviewing the literature and evaluating the two case studies, the answers to the questions asked above are more complicated than originally anticipated. Given that all the literature found on this topic came out of either university or government-sponsored research studies, the answer to the first question is a qualified “No”. While the literature and the case studies show unequivocally that GIS has a very important role to play in the assessment of urban sustainability and in formulating sustainable urban policies, all of the work currently being documented is typically not being done by the decision-makers: politicians, city planners, policy analysts, non-profit groups, civic organizations, and others. If work is actually being done by decision-makers within their various jurisdictions, that work is not being documented in the literature, is difficult to obtain, or is simply not being published.

Given that knowledge, the second question becomes difficult to answer, since decision-makers do not appear to be directly involved in the use of GIS for the assessment of urban sustainability. While the literature makes it very clear that GIS is being used to assess policies for all aspects of urban sustainability, environmental, social, and economic, it is not decision-makers directly doing that work at this time, but academic and other researchers not directly connected to the decision-making process. This leads directly into the third question, as GIS does not appear to be used by decision-makers specifically to assess urban sustainability. Given the extent to which this concept is documented in the literature, it appears likely that the methodologies being developed by the researchers are not being made available to those in the best position to use it.

What follows are five recommendations developed in the capstone project that will begin the process of bringing these methodologies to decision-makers. These recommendations will facilitate the relationships and open the communication channels necessary to transfer these methodologies from the realms of research to the front lines where they can be used by decision-makers in the daily work of creating urban sustainability policy.

The first recommendation is for universities and other organizations involved in the research of urban sustainability assessment to form partnerships with various decision-makers to begin training them in these methodologies for their day-to-day work in urban planning and policy making. These decision-makers include, but are not limited to, their local city councils or county commissions, planning departments, regional planning agencies, infrastructure districts, school districts, and others. This needs to happen both in developed as well as developing nations, with those who are able to come up to speed quickly on these methodologies assisting those with lower levels of resources or training who may need assistance. An example of how these partnerships would form would be for a research group such as the Center for Sustainable Urbanism (UCD 2008a) or the Sustainable Infrastructure Engineering Project (UCD 2008b) at the University of Colorado Denver (UCD) or the Institute for Sustainable Cities at the City University of New York (CUNY 2008) to reach out to their local decision-makers. They would start by offering to develop pilot projects that demonstrate how the methodologies would benefit the decision-makers. This would be followed by creating opportunities for training of decision-makers and their staffs so that they would be able to continue this work on their own. The relationships formed would facilitate long-term knowledge transfer drawing on further research and deepening experience by all parties, allowing their partnership to improve the knowledge base for all in this field.

Second, the results of this research must not only be published in academic journals, but also in popular trade journals, such as the American Planning Association’s Planning magazine, the American Society of Civil Engineer’s Civil Engineering magazine, or the Urban & Regional Information System Association’s URISA Journal, where the information will get into the hands of decision-makers and their staffs who are actually doing the work of assessing and developing policy for sustainable cities. While publications such as these are not the best place by their nature to go into too much technical detail on the methodologies and tools being communicated, they can serve as a bridge between the academic and practical worlds and can facilitate conversation and knowledge transfer between them. In this age of seamless information, no trade journal stands alone as a printed publication. Various websites, weblogs, e-mail discussion lists, online journals, and other resources can supplement this type of knowledge transfer.

The third recommendation is for increased funding for and continuation of current and future research efforts on this topic. This is necessary to ensure a continuous body of current knowledge. This research should also include documentation and dissemination of what is actually being done by decision-makers in the field. By documenting the fruits of the partnerships formed based on the first recommendation, the practical experience of those doing this work on a daily basis can be assessed and results shared for the increasing knowledge of academics and decision-makers everywhere. This can utilize all of the knowledge transfer methods noted in the first two recommendations to ensure that the information is disseminated as widely as possible to all interested parties.

Fourth, all education programs that relate to urban sustainability need to incorporate coursework in this subject area into their programs. This would not only include programs in geographic information science and GIS, but would also include programs such as geography, urban and regional planning, landscape architecture, public policy and administration, environmental policy and management, engineering, and public health, among others. Instructors should expose students to the basic tools and methodologies of urban sustainability assessment, particularly the application of GIS in the process, and allow them to pursue deeper knowledge of the topic as their own interests allow. This provides another avenue for this knowledge to filter out into the working world and to ensure the continuous research noted above. It will also give students, no matter which aspect of sustainable development their interest lies in, an appreciation of the power and utility of GIS in this field as they move forward into their careers.

Finally, decision-makers need to hire urban sustainability analysts with a knowledge of GIS and place them at all levels of their organization, from the GIS technician entering new data and updating databases to the highest levels of leadership. Urban sustainability is a multifaceted concept, and no one department or organization can develop sustainability policy on its own. While many cities have public and private organizations to help coordinate and encourage sustainability efforts, such as Seattle, Washington’s Sustainable Seattle (2008), a private non-profit organization, or Denver, Colorado’s Greenprint Denver (2008), an initiative of the mayor’s office, every aspect of government and civil society must involved in this process. This not only includes the local planning department or a jurisdiction’s GIS department, it also includes public works departments, economic development offices, environmental and public health divisions, all the way up to the legislative and executive offices of the jurisdiction. By including urban sustainability analysts trained in the most up-to-date tools and methodologies on their teams, decision-makers, non-profits, and civil society can work together from a solid foundation of information to develop the best policies for a sustainable urban future.

Based on the review of the literature and the frequency that stories on climate change and urban congestion appear in the popular media, the need to begin moving our cities in a more sustainable direction is becoming more and more urgent with each passing day. However, without effective tools for assessment and solid, spatially grounded models from which to work, decision-makers cannot know which of the paths before them is the best path toward a sustainable future. As this study shows, the tools and methodologies are out there. Now they need to be placed into the hands of those who can best use them to assist in creating a more sustainable world for all life on this planet.


Brian Ray James recently completed his Master of Applied Science in Environmental Policy & Management at the University of Denver, as well as a Certificate of Advanced Study in Geographic Information Systems (GIS). Brian is currently the Outreach Coordinator for Eco-Justice Ministries in Denver, Colorado.

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