A Monumental Shift for Planners Starts with GIS

An original version of this post appeared on Esri's Industry blog. It is reposted with permission.

A graduate student walked to the edge of the booth, looked up at the banners, looked at the kiosks, and shook his head.

"Yeah," he said, "I don't know why I'd need this. This stuff is for mappers. I'm going to be a planner."

At the time, I was working for GIS, Inc., an Esri Business Partner. My colleague and I were helping to work the Esri booth at the 1999 APA National Planning Conference in Seattle. This soon-to-be-planner's thoughts were fairly common at the time among planning professionals. GIS required a lot of money, a beefy machine to run, and a couple weeks' worth of training to get started. In fact, in my first job in planning, there wasn't another planner using GIS in the entire office...and for those very reasons.

What Happens When We Take a Location Approach?

Over the last 20 years, one of the undeniable trends I've watched at the National Planning Conference (and dozens of APA chapter conferences) is the number of students who not only have GIS as part of their curriculum, but have embraced it as a necessary tool to do the work that's expected of them. This has led to a new generation of planners who design their communities with GIS. Why is that? It's not because I've gotten better at answering that grad student's question.

The theories, practices, and disciplines of community planning have evolved significantly, particularly in the last few decades. Even as these changes have taken place, one constant has not only remained, but become even more prominent. Location is the common factor that influences how, where, and when planners and developers design their communities. Location is also the driver for how citizens and stakeholders react and respond to these designs. Measuring, analyzing, and visualizing location is where GIS shines, and with the new web-based tools available, planning professionals can utilize these geospatial tools without being GIS experts.

Think about this from the standpoint of day-to-day workflows revolving around current planning in communities across the world. This can be in the form of a rezoning, subdivision review, variance, site plan, and so forth. Planners must balance the requests from landowners and developers with the short- and long-term needs of the community. Some of these workflows are strictly regulatory (e.g., lot size, setbacks, easements, etc.), while many of the workflows require subjective analysis about the design. GIS adds the element of location into each of these workflows, empowering planning departments to automate common processes like public notification and land-use inquiries, standardize data collection like code enforcement, and leverage data into applications to visualize, measure, and analyze proposed developments.

Asking Ourselves New Questions Through GIS

One of the most impactful components of using GIS to design communities is how it moves discussions from strictly reactive to proactive. No longer do planners have to sit and wait for a developer to submit a site plan or a subdivision review. Using web apps like ArcGIS Urban, planners can create multiple development scenarios ahead of time and actually work with the property owner or developer to identify designs that meet the characteristics and needs of a neighborhood. You don't have to have been working in planning long to realize the time and money (and headaches) this approach would save developers, administrators, and your colleagues. In the past, this would have taken an inordinate amount of planning staff time or money to perform through a consultant.

Designing digitally generates a data-driven approach to community development. It becomes less about the planner just saying this is a good idea and becomes more about seeing the metrics for this development. The questions evolve to not only what it could look like, but how many people will this development house? What's the impact on impervious surfaces, stormwater, and traffic? How many jobs could this mixed-use development create? What's the tax base impact? All of this can be designed and measured through web-based GIS tools that planners can be up and running on in a fraction of the time that it would have taken 20 years ago.

GIS stopped being a luxury and started becoming a necessity for planning professionals years ago. Now, with the ability to design, analyze, and collaborate over a secure web platform, planners can quickly find the best, most sustainable development path forward in both the short and long term for their community.

Commitment to Continued Education

I've dedicated my career to introducing how GIS can transform the way planners serve our communities. Part of this work has always been in partnership with the American Planning Association and that is why many years ago we worked together to make sure all Esri courses offer AICP Certification Maintenance (CM) credits.

Today, I am excited to announce a new effort with the American Planning Association to make GIS training more approachable for planners new and experienced with GIS. Our new training plan provides guidance on the steps you can take today to master new technologies for common planning workflows.

GIS Learning Plan

build or enhance your GIS skills

The new GIS learning plan offers a step-by-step process to build or enhance your GIS skills. The goal of the learning plan is to make GIS training more approachable to all planners.

Understanding data and how to analyze it is just one part of your job. Helping the community and decision makers "see" how the data translates into outcomes enhances decision making and better equips the community to navigate change. Through this skill development, you will be better positioned to help connect analytics to the story of planning, demonstrating the immediate- and long-term value of planning.

This learning plan is part of APA's ongoing partnership with Esri to help ensure members have access to timely and relevant training opportunities.

Explore the Training Plan

Author's note: I often think about that graduate student and I hope he has shifted his thinking — if he is a planner, he is a mapper.

Top photo: metamorworks/gettyimages.com

Keith Cooke
About the Author
Keith Cooke is the Global Industry Manager for Planning & Community Development at Esri.

March 17, 2021