Dangermond: “We Must Apply the Logic of Landscape Architects”

“My whole life has been leading up this presentation,” said Jack Dangermond, ASLA, founder and president of ESRI, to an audience of thousands of landscape architects at the opening session of the 2013 ASLA Annual Meeting in Boston. He was trained as a landscape architect, but couldn’t find a job when he graduated, so he started his own firm focused on digitizing geography. That small firm grew into ESRI, which now has 9,000 employees across the globe. Dangermond said his life has been focused on creating accessible geographic information systems (GIS) that can help us reach a “better, more sustainable future.” But to achieve this, Dangermond said we must also “apply the logic of landscape architects,” merging design and technology into “geo-design.”

“The world is facing incredible challenges,” including climate change, population growth, and urbanization. “Sometimes I feel like things are not going to work out for humanity.” When Dangermond gets down though, he starts thinking about a 50-100 year plan for the planet, which involves harnessing the “best design talent and science and technology.” He believes the framework for this effort is really the “landscape architect’s methodology,” boosted with the power of the Web.

Landscape architecture provides a systematic approach for creating a more sustainable future. He said Ian McHarg, who wrote the seminal book, Design with Nature, was right, “landscape architects have the skills to deal with our common problems.” GIS is then how we can “bring science to that design process.” Dangermond’s goal is to “geo-empower landscape planning and architecture through a set of applications.”

He said GIS tools are central to efforts in public health, agriculture, forestry, resource exploration, urban and transportation planning and design. They are now being used to monitor climate and other planetary changes, and respond to natural disasters. Furthermore, conservation organizations are using GIS to “analyze and design strategies to protect our landscapes.”

GIS technologies are becoming more pervasive. Dangermond said a few million people now use these systems. To further expand the reach of these tools, the new approach is to put “geo information into the cloud, like Steve Jobs did with music.” With geo data in the cloud, “we can better mash-up and analyze.” There’s now no “need to download software, we can just use our browsers.” Dangermond called Web GIS a “transformation.”

With faster machines and web-based services, landscape architects can “analyze changes in real time,” and also make changes instantly, creating a “living atlas.” Furthermore, designers can “integrated tweets, spreadsheets, enterprise data, and sensor from infrastructure to interpret data dynamically.”

As with open-source GIS systems like Harvard’s World Map and others, the Web now allows ESRI to more easily share data and designs, “further breaking down barriers between professional design disciplines.” Today, “more than a million maps are now shared via the cloud.”

In the new iteration of Web GIS, ESRI GIS specialist Suzanne Foss said there’s a “suite of base maps,” which include “authoritative sources, not just commercial sources – but the owners of the data.” She said “these are intelligent maps about people – including demography, health, and even behaviors.” Income is provided down to the census area.

Designers can then use ESRI’s GIS systems to overlay data, which can be weighted to create different “suitability maps.” This will enable users to “determine how well we are achieving goals, and use analysis to inform design.” As an example, she demo-ed how to find the most biodiversity-rich and endangered areas to protect from sprawl in Santa Cruz, California.

Another ESRI expert, Eric Wittner, introduced ESRI’s “procedural modeling” technology, which can be used to create 3D designs on top of existing maps. “These maps are data-driven and rules-driven. It’s not like Sketchup; it’s more intelligent.” In a preview, he showed how an entire urban design can be created on the fly, and even show how much sunlight would hit the community at different times of the day. Once these dynamic 3D designs are created, they can then be saved and shared as PDF files so clients and community groups can fly-through them, too.

Dangermond believes these technologies will “transform landscape architecture,” as they will scale-up the ability of landscape architects to affect change. But for them to work, landscape architects need to actually use these GIS tools, not just “pass off the work to the CAD guy.” Geo-design represents a more “rational-based design” approach that will ultimately help the planet.

Image credits:ESRI

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