2008 National Planning Conference: Practice Keynote

Jack Dangermond

By Meghan Stromberg
Senior Editor,

Ian McHarg advised planners to "consider all the factors as explicit information in planning decisions" in is seminal book, Design With Nature. In the 30-some years than have passed since then, the tools available to planners to help them to make informed decisions and create innovative solutions to challenges have changed dramatically. Furthermore, the basis of those tools, geographic science, has applications that reach far beyond the realm of physical planning.

That was the message of Tuesday's 2008 National Planning Conference Practice Keynote. In "Creating Our Future — The Geographic Approach," president and founder of ESRI Jack Dangermond took planners through the history of GIS, explained how planners and others are using the evolving technology in their work today, and looked forward to its far-reaching applications for the future.

"You and I live in a time period that is unparalleled, a world that has many problems: a growing population, global warming, social conflicts, and food shortages [among them]. Planners may see these issues more clearly than most," Dangermond said. To tackle these local and global concerns, we'll have to take a geographic approach — a concept that Dangermond said is already familiar to planners. He said that a framework, geographic science, already exists for understanding and managing our planet.

Planners are the greatest users of GIS, said Dangermond. While that continues to be true, the technology has become far more widespread. Companies, for instance, use it to locate new chain stores. Governments use it in economic development, to attract the kinds of businesses that belong and will be successful. Health organizations are using GIS to understand and find solutions to epidemics like AIDS and cancer. The information, he said, doesn't simply come from dots on a map, but from an understanding of a rich mixture of data and knowing how to use those data together to informed decisions.

GIS, Dangermond stressed, is not just about managing and manipulating data. Today, it is also about sharing models and methods for conceptualizing planning processes now available online and rapidly changing how GIS is being used. "The concept of volunteering geographic information is not new, but the web provides a new format to do this," he said. "It doesn't replace an authoritative source, but is another resource we can exploit."

He pointed to popular applications from companies like Google that allow planners and other professionals — as well as laypeople — to share and combine information in ways never before imagined. "I can take a Google Earth basemap and viewer, but overlay some more sophisticated data and publish it for others to use. I'm pulling in volunteered GIS into my professional GIS for everyone to see and use."

"[The web] is helping to bring the geographic approach into everything we do," he said, adding that this is only the beginning. Speeded up computer performance, greater bandwidth, and other technological improvements mean that the use of GIS will increase and continue to evolve. Already, workers in the field in any industry can also be analysts by using a mobile device and server environment to add newly gained information to existing data and evaluate it in real-time. Planners can digitally sketch various options over layers of pertinent information, knowing immediately how the placement of a house, for instance, could affect runoff and how many trees would be lost.

Ultimately, though, Dangermond sees the application of geographic knowledge as central to bigger problems. "I think the world needs a new approach, and a geographic approach is the way to do it."

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