GIS

Spatial Technologies-Make Public Planning Accessible

1 Jun, 2005 By: James L. Sipes

GIS, decision-making software and 3D imagery combine to help communities work together.


There is a tremendous need for communities to improve the way they plan for the future. On Camano Island, Washington, where I live, things are rapidly changing. This small island located about 50 miles north of Seattle used to be primarily rural, but growth in recent years seems out of control. New houses are popping up at an incredible rate, and discussions are underway whether to widen the one road onto the island. Many residents have lived on the island for years and moved here because it was a quiet and peaceful place—far from the hustle and bustle of city life. As growth continues, citizens of Camano Island want to have a stronger voice in how their community grows.

Camano Island is not the only place where citizens are concerned about changes occurring in their communities. Citizens no longer want to leave planning professionals with decisions about road and school locations, land-use zoning and open-space preservation. At the same time that citizens and local decisionmakers want to get more involved, community-planning issues are becoming more complex. Traditional planning and design techniques are inadequate for addressing these changes—they are more reactive than proactive.

A number of obstacles have limited public involvement in the planning process in the past. Many communities are entrenched in their planning process both politically and organizationally. Changing their approach is perceived to be too costly because of the need for new technology and data, as well as the need for new staff or retraining existing staff. Today the technology and the necessary geospatial data are available, and most municipalities have staff proficient in GIS, so the need for retraining is minimal. What needs to change is the process. There must be a commitment by city executives to find a way to involve the public.

The main idea behind GIS decision-making software is that citizens should be involved in the planning process because of their local knowledge and concern for their communities. An informed public makes better decisions, supports policy and helps ensure that changes in their community are planned. Many communities are turning to the combination of GIS, decision-making software and 3D visualization technology to involve the public in the planning process.

3D Modeling Tools for All

Most GIS programs are effective for working with geospatial data, and digital mapping is still one of the best ways to visually display information about a place. The problem is that though GIS maps may be easily understood by planning professionals, they're difficult for the general public to understand. As a result, many GIS programs have added powerful 3D modeling tools that can make complex concepts easier to grasp.

"The nice thing about generating 2D maps and 3D imagery is that citizens can 'see' the results of their input," says Steve Mullen, founding principal of ForeSee Consulting (4C). If the public is concerned about the visual impact of a new residential development, a 3D model that shows what that development would look like has more meaning than a 2D drawing.

Decisions

For citizens to become more involved in planning communities, the process used to make decisions in GIS must be quick, transparent and easy. In the past, decision-making aspects of GIS programs have focused on cultural and natural resources. The public was not interactively involved with making decisions.

One of my biggest complaints is that too often decisions are made in a box, and the only things shared with the public are the final maps. On one project I was involved in, one of the key aspects was determining acceptable growth patterns within a city. This involved identifying preservation areas and development areas, looking at a number of different factors that would affect growth and then applying different growth rates to determine potential outcomes. A big problem was that the planners didn't identify what factors were used to determine potential growth, and when asked, they couldn't clearly define what factors were used. Citizens felt alienated because there was no opportunity for input. As a result, the proposed plan was defeated.

One concern with trying to get people involved in the planning process is that the result can be oversimplified—and a dumbed-down version doesn't address the problems at hand. "Planning and design are complex tasks, but we can't afford to be less comprehensive about how we address our built landscapes," says Mullen. "The negative implications of dumbing-up the process can be seen all around us, as undesired consequences. Our role should be to devise strategies that enable decisiveness despite complexity, not to propose solutions based upon simplistic criteria."

Today most of the information needed to make decisions about community changes is already available in GIS format. It simply needs to be analyzed and organized in a meaningful way. Typically the only information that must be added is value data, which can be obtained from surveys, workshops and other interaction with citizens. A new breed of decision-making software strives to combine GIS technology with the principles of land-use planning, resource management and collaborative community processes in ways that are visually accessible and help add value data to the planning process.

Decision-Making GIS Software

It may seem strange to talk about specific decision-making GIS software, because fundamentally all GIS programs aid in making decisions. Most of the top GIS programs integrate geospatial data, 3D imagery and design processes. For example, ESRI's ArcGIS provides this type of decision-making process via capabilities that enable the analysis of geospatial data. ArcGIS Desktop provides a geoprocessing framework of tools that can run as dialog boxes in ArcToolbox, inputs to models in ModelBuilder, functions in scripts and through commands. ArcToolbox is an organized collection of geoprocessing tools and ModelBuilder is a visual modeling language for building workflows and scripts. ArcToolbox contains a comprehensive collection of functions such as data management and conversion, coverage processing, statistical analysis, vector analysis and geocoding. It's embedded in ArcCatalog and ArcMap and is available in ArcView, ArcEditor and ArcInfo. ModelBuilder provides a graphical modeling framework for working with geoprocessing models that are basically dataflow diagrams linking tools and data.

What If? Some programs are geared specifically toward making GIS capabilities more accessible to members of the general public. What If? is an interactive GIS-based system that can also generate alternate development scenarios that can affect a community. It focuses on policy-oriented decisions such as those regarding infrastructure expansion, regulations, open-space policies and urban growth boundaries. What If? can be used as a stand-alone product or as an add-on to any GIS that uses ESRI's shape file format. It's intended for use in public settings and is relatively easy to use.

 Figure 1. CommunityViz can help visualize potential changes in a community such as Boulder, Colorado. Image courtesy of CommunityViz.
Figure 1. CommunityViz can help visualize potential changes in a community such as Boulder, Colorado. Image courtesy of CommunityViz.

CommunityViz, developed by the Orton Family Foundation, a not-for-profit, private operating foundation based in Vermont, is a GIS decision-making program gaining popularity with communities that want a more open planning process (figures 1–3). It allows users to define different alternatives and scenarios, evaluate impacts and create quick 3D visualizations that can be used to help the public understand the impacts. CommunityViz is an analysis engine that encourages visual thinking to help reveal possibilities and opportunities without oversimplification. The software currently is an extension to ESRI's ArcGIS and ArcMap v8.3/9.

Figure 2. The towns of Lewiston, Idaho, and Clarkston, Washington, are located along the banks of the lower Snake River, which is being studied to determine the social, environmental and economic impacts of removing dams along the river. Image courtesy of CommunityViz.
Figure 2. The towns of Lewiston, Idaho, and Clarkston, Washington, are located along the banks of the lower Snake River, which is being studied to determine the social, environmental and economic impacts of removing dams along the river. Image courtesy of CommunityViz.

CommunityViz used to sell for $4,995 per licensed user, and this was on top of the cost of ArcGIS and Spatial Analyst, both of which were required to run CommunityViz. This cost made it difficult for small communities to afford the program. The Orton Family Foundation is eliminating that problem by making it available at $185, including software, a resource disk and self-service technical support via the Web. The Foundation has entered into an agreement with Placeways, an independent company owned and operated by former Foundation employees, to provide ongoing distribution, maintenance and support of the software.

Figure 3. The city of Littleton created a 3D visualization of the a proposed Marathon Oil site development project that would include medium-sized commercial structures, two "big-box" commercial buildings and 234 single-family residences, allowing the city council and community to get an accurate sense of the proposed development. Image courtesy of CommunityViz.
Figure 3. The city of Littleton created a 3D visualization of the a proposed Marathon Oil site development project that would include medium-sized commercial structures, two "big-box" commercial buildings and 234 single-family residences, allowing the city council and community to get an accurate sense of the proposed development. Image courtesy of CommunityViz.

CommunityViz currently includes Scenario 360 and SiteBuilder 3D. Scenario 360 provides a rich set of quantitative impact analysis capabilities and is the basic framework for the ability to compare alternatives. Scenario 360 can be used to analyze build-out, develop land use plans, make zoning and permitting decisions, examine visual impacts, evaluate environmental impacts, assess fire risks and determine potential development patterns.

CommunityViz uses MultiGen-Paradigm's SiteBuilder 3D to provide 3D capabilities. The SiteBuilder 3D module packaged with CommunityViz is a slightly scaled down version of MultiGen-Paradigm's full-featured product of the same name. SiteBuilder 3D is an extension to ESRI's ArcView GIS used to convert 2D geospatial data into 3D imagery. ModelBuilder 3D, another MultiGen-Paradigm program, is a companion product to SiteBuilder 3D used to build 3D models of buildings, objects and vegetation that are then incorporated into SiteBuilder. The CommunityViz version of SiteBuilder 3D comes with an exclusive library that includes hundreds of 3D models.

The Foundation is transitioning out of the consulting and training business and so refers new clients to prequalified third-party service providers such as Place-ways and Fore-See Consulting. Placeways is the only authorized technical service provider for bug fixes, upgrades and any other service that requires access to the application source code. For live support, customers can purchase a service plan through Placeways.

Nonprofits, universities and local governments sometimes provide CommunityViz-related services as well. Although it would be nice to see CommunityViz move toward becoming open-source software, there are currently no plans to publish the source code because of logistical and legal obstacles. The Foundation and Placeways encourage users to share models, analyses, templates and other innovations.

Easing Community Concerns

A number of reasons explain the growing use of GIS decision-making software in community planning. One big benefit is increased efficiency in most phases of the planning process—communities find that the time it takes to implement policy changes is actually reduced.

Costs are still a concern for small communities, but access to existing GIS data, the ever-increasing number of GIS users and low-cost programs such as CommunityViz have made public involvement in the planning process more affordable than ever.

Citizens are also quicker to accept planning when they've been involved in the process and have a much better understanding of how and why decisions are made. After all, they were the ones who made these decisions!

James L. Sipes is the founding principal of Sand County Studios in Seattle, Washington. Reach him at jsipes@sandcountystudios.com.


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