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What Is Geodesign–and Can It Protect Us from Natural Disasters?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Esri created this fictional rendering of urban redevelopment in Philadelphia using GIS data and 3-D modeling.

As New York, New Jersey and other states hit hard during Superstorm Sandy last fall begin their long road to recovery, the decisions they make on how to rebuild are crucial to determining how well they’re weather than next big storm. The choices range from installing large storm-surge sea barriers near Staten Island and at the mouth of New York Harbor to keep rising waters at bay, to cultivating wetlands around the southern tip of Manhattan that can provide a natural buffer.

Both concepts are on the drawing boards and are being fiercely debated on their merits. Although they are radically different, each one takes geographic design into consideration to some degree. Geodesign is an approach to city planning, land use and natural resource management that takes into account the tendency in recent years to overdevelop land at the expense of natural habitats, as well as population growth and climate change, which have left communities increasingly vulnerable to natural disasters.

Geodesign arose thanks largely to the availability of geographic information system (GIS) data. Such data is gathered from maps, aerial photos, satellites and surveys and stored in large databases where it can be analyzed, modeled and queried. Particularly useful is data provided by the Landsat program, a joint initiative between the U.S. Geological Survey and NASA, has been placing satellites in orbit since 1972 to collect GIS data.

“With GIS, we have the tools to understand our landscape and [the] impact of our design decisions,” says Tom Fisher, dean of the University of Minnesota’s College of Design. As an analytical tool, GIS is more than geographical information—it’s a way to visualize weather, climate and demographic data as well, he adds.

Careful study of GIS data—which includes weather data but also takes into account population demographics, land use and a variety of other factors—could uncover clues about the likely intensity and impact of future storms as well as the extent to which zoning decisions can mitigate potential damage, according to Fisher, the emcee and moderator of this week’s Geodesign Summit hosted by GIS mapping software maker Esri at the company’s Redlands, Calif., headquarters. “This is an issue with Sandy—do we rebuild on the same sites, considering there could be another [major] storm within the next seven or so years? My sense is not that we lack data but that we’ve lacked the ability to visualize it and apply it to certain places,” he adds.

Geodesign is not entirely new, of course. After the1930s Dust Bowl across the over-farmed Great Plains, the U.S. government initiated changes in land cultivation, Fischer says. Federal organizations such as the Civilian Conservation Corps cultivated grass on government-protected lands to keep topsoil in place and retain moisture. They also planted millions of trees from Canada to Texas to block wind gusts and likewise keep soil in place. Farmers were also educated on how to rotate crops, implement soil terracing and use other more sustainable farming methods.

Regardless of how New York and New Jersey decide to rebuild, geodesign projects are already underway nationwide. The city of Asheville, N.C., offers an interactive mapping tool called Priority Places to help local businesses determine where best to put their offices and factories, help urban planners find neighborhoods for renewal projects and help real estate developers make decisions based on population demographics and zoning regulations. In Montana, the Yellowstone Ecological Research Center’s data processing and modeling capabilities help biologists and land managers with landscape planning and management of local species and their habitats. Meanwhile, Florida planners are turning to geospatial data that reveals information about the state’s population distribution to anticipate the state’s needs in 2060, by which time the population is expected to have doubled to 36 million people, placing a heavier burden on already overcrowded urban areas and infrastructure.

About the Author: Larry is the associate editor of technology for Scientific American, covering a variety of tech-related topics, including biotech, computers, military tech, nanotech and robots. Follow on Twitter @lggreenemeier.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. jabailo 10:54 pm 01/25/2013

    One can make a general comment that disasters, like terrorist attacks, have their worst effects in centralized dense cities. Not only are more people initially affected, but centralized infrastructure is crippled so trains and roads jam up preventing survivors for escaping. If we want to hedge our bets, we’d spread ourselves out as thinly as possible and downsize the metropolises.

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  2. 2. priddseren 1:14 am 01/26/2013

    While everything in the article is reasonable it doesnt really comment on another use, deciding certain land uses are just not workable and to begin moving. There are many locations, small towns and even larger cities which are simply built on land that is just not a good location for being a city. Geodesign should be able to determine if it is feasible to mitigate the dangers of the location or provide and objective decision to in effect move the city and or its people before the next calamity.

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  3. 3. cjoyce 8:25 am 01/26/2013

    priddseren

    I believe you must have misread the article. The point you make in your comment is in fact directly addressed, “This is an issue with Sandy—do we rebuild on the same sites, considering there could be another [major] storm within the next seven or so years?” I feel that in the majority of cases those elected to govern opt for not making unpopular decisions, focusing instead on the election portion of the equation. This not really the elected officials’ fault, rather ours, the electorate.

    Using Sandy as an example, it’s just downright ridiculous to continue building and rebuilding on islands which are in reality just tall sand bars. Nice places to visit, but totally unsuitable for permanent homes, and towns. Through proper governance, development should be restricted and as appropriate removed.

    We have long had the knowledge but lacked the will to act in accordance with said knowledge. Having been involved with development and implementation of GIS in coastal areas I have seen this lack of will (willpower.) The general public needs this knowledge, hence the importance of outlets such as Sci. Am.

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  4. 4. G. Karst 11:23 am 01/26/2013

    Flood plains should not be issued building permits for residential buildings period. They should be used exclusively for recreational areas, wildlife refuge, hotels, agriculture, etc.

    To continue building on flood plains and hurricane prone beaches is only possible due to public funded government insurance schemes which benefit the rich, like Al Gore.

    It is not the severe weather that causes so much damage, it is HOW and WHERE we continue to build, that causes the damage. You would think, as a people we would be a little smarter, about such things. After all, we need parks, beaches, crops… anyway. GK

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  5. 5. dwbd 12:26 pm 01/26/2013

    @jabailo: “…One can make a general comment that disasters, like terrorist attacks, have their worst effects in centralized dense cities…”

    That’s a good point. Frank Lloyd Wright advocated cities built in long strips so you would have city in the country and country in the city. Greatly simplifies transportation and distribution of goods to high speed rail type services. And indeed leaves the area much less vulnerable to disasters or war.

    The drivable suburban architecture of the modern city has consumed 35% of our nation’s resources according to some analysis. With an urban strip architecture people would be in walking distance in the one direction, and otherwise use efficient electric rail services. High speed for longer distances to nodes and low speed between nodes.

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  6. 6. karenalcott 2:25 pm 01/26/2013

    While it would be crazy expensive to just start replacing or relocating entire neighborhoods, it would require little effort, once the geographic and oceanographic studies have produced the required maps, to mitigate the problem of on going losses. What is required is to get the Federal Mortgage Insurance and the property insurance underwriters on the same page. Designate those areas that will not be accepted for new insurance against either damage or default. This should not have any impact on innocent homeowners who bought a home or business unaware of the risk. Instead it would be triggered by a naturaly occurring disaster that is very likely to reoccur, instead of receiving the ammount required to rebuild, one would receive the ammount required to build or buy a similar property in as near-by an area as is available and designated as “safe”. But only once, if you want you could rebuild in place, but you would never be issued insurance or qualify for a standard mortgage again. This would bring down costs for municipalities and responsible homeowners a lot over time. Let the big storms surge in and the chaparral burn out, while we move out of harms way. In this model, seaside resorts and ski chalets would still exist because they are profitable, but other citizens would no longer be subsidizing them.

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  7. 7. tharter 3:02 pm 01/26/2013

    @Jabailo

    “One can make a general comment that disasters, like terrorist attacks, have their worst effects in centralized dense cities. Not only are more people initially affected, but centralized infrastructure is crippled so trains and roads jam up preventing survivors for escaping. If we want to hedge our bets, we’d spread ourselves out as thinly as possible and downsize the metropolises.”

    Maybe. HOWEVER. I will note that high density urban areas have the smallest amount of infrastructure PER PERSON. So, take N people and put them close together and you have N infrastructure. If you spread them out you have some extra factor more infrastructure, X. X is spread over more area, so it will get hit more often but the damage done per disaster will be less. OTOH N < X, and will get hit less often. You could, simplistically, assume that the same fraction of N and X will get damaged over time, in which case N, the highly urbanized area actually has lower losses.

    Of course I don't know which way the numbers actually fall out. The "equal percentage over time" assumption may be wrong. My guess is there's data available to crunch to answer that question, and maybe it has been already. It may also depend on the locality, the land use, etc. It might make more sense to have residential areas concentrated and manufacturing areas spread out etc.

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  8. 8. julianpenrod 8:34 pm 01/26/2013

    This may cause this not to be printed or to be removed, but it’s not surprising that the recent incident, Sandy< should be invoked to "justify" another draconian alteration of reality. Just another in a string of engineered disasters meant to swindle the dull witte, the shallow and the gullible into thinking such things are necessarily normal and to frighten them int taking psychopathically self destructive measures to deal with them.
    Chemtrails denatured the atmosphere by pouring in tons of weather modification chemicals. The horrendous results were blamed on fossil fuels. A "justification" for cutting off contact with oil producing nations and emphasizing "alternative" energy, promising they would not damage the environment. Just like one of them, nuclear energy, was promised would be "so cheap it wouldn't even pay to monitor its use"! And,now, as the perverting of the weather becomes severe, plans are afoot to do everything from envelope the entire planet in clouds to placing huge umbrellas in orbit, both guaranteed to produce a dispiriting darkness and depirve the people of the light blue of clear skies, which has been shown to inspire imagination in many.
    September 11 created a generation whose primary tenet is, "If someone isn't your slave, they're your enemy, and that means they have to be killed." How few recognized that "terrorism", in order to survive, never sought out such immensely high profile attacks? They were generally small attacks. And, if there ever was a scaling up, it was never to such a gigantic degree. Nothing approaching the nature or scale of the events of September 11 had ever happened before! What was essentially a ragtag band of dissidents would never call down on themselves the amount of reprisal something like September 11 would be guaranteed to create! In a natural evolution of "terrorism", it would not have occurred! But it wasn't natural! It was engineered by those who have immense power to fight being held accountable! And how many of those who failed to see the gigantic flaws in the "official story" of September 11 also failed to notice that, in the ten or so years immediately afterward, high profile "terrorist" events and claimed plans burst out at a rate such that there were more in a decade than in the century preceding? These are crucial things to realize, but the New World Order counts on a plurality, if not the majority, being too dim to achieve it.
    The same for such things as the Sandy Hook incident. The fact is, there are glaring failures in the "official story". The fact that those failures are eminent and significant and ca't be effectively argued away can be seen in the fact that, whenever questions are brought up, opponents' only "argument" is, "The 'official story' has it that children were killed here? How can you question the authenticity of a story as visceral as that? The worse an accusation is, the more true it is. Truly bad accusations must never be investigated to see if they're really lies!" That's part of the doggerel used to "prove" the "official story" of September 11 was true! "The 'official story' has 3,000 people being killed that day! How dare you question whether that visceral story is true or not?"
    And, now, the manufactured "disaster" of "Hurricane" Sandy is being used to "justify" eliminating all natural habitat and turn the country into one large concentration camp! Sandy was nothing but a normal nor'easter. Power loss was due to utility companies arbitrarily shutting down electricity. Cables were allowed to sit on the ground for days! That's illegal if they have power in them! Highway lights were out, but they aren't fed by overhead wires. No cherry pickers were around for days, only vans cruising back and forth. As for "flooding", New Jersey has been subjected to upscale, rich communities regularly opening the floodgates on their reservoirs, even when the levels aren't high, and destructively inundating lower lying communities. Much of it seems intended to destroy property values. Include just lying about places beign flooded that aren't and the gullible will be convinced. Similarly for using demolition to ruin land and pretend it was caused by a "hurricane". There have been hurricanes through the area before, with no effects like this. And, when the "news" was calling it a "superstorm", not one "climate change" adherent said on blogs that this was a case of the "extreme weather" "global warming" is supposed to bring!
    It is all a lie.

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  9. 9. alan6302 9:00 pm 01/26/2013

    Construction should be terminated until after the great destruction and culling. I am sure that the elite has their underground towns ready by now. Rumor has it that a couple were nuked. There is no guarantee that the bunkers will survive, unless there really is time travel info out there.

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  10. 10. dwbd 12:31 pm 01/27/2013

    Tharter: “..that high density urban areas have the smallest amount of infrastructure PER PERSON..”

    That is not really a significant advantage. You could say subsistence farmers & hunter gatherers or slum dwellers have the smallest infrastructure per person, i.e none. There is a lot more to quality of life than cramming maximum people into minimal area, like the Green Agenda program advocates:

    youtube.com/watch?feature=endscreen&v=bFEZ4b2ciJE&NR=1

    Cramming maximum people into minimal area MOST ASSUREDLY increases the death & destruction of any event. And the difficulty of mitigation. You need only look at New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. Extreme difficulty in evacuating large concentrated populations, with limited road access, difficulty with housing, crime, destruction of infrastructure, inaccessibility of infrastructure.

    It may be true that a more spread out infrastructure will be hit more frequently with weather events, but the damage will be far less severe with each event, much more manageable & affordable and mitigation will be far easier. The extreme example of this would be if the entire US population was spread out uniformly over the entire land area. Then more people would be hit by weather events – but NOT terrorist, War, social unrest/riots type events. But the damage being small and isolated, would scarcely even make the news shows and would not break any government budget.

    And there is a whole lot more to infrastructure than a simplistic measure of quantity per person. There are much more important factors, such as efficient corridors, accessibility, ease & expense of maintenance, vulnerability to earthquake/flooding/sabotage/terrorism/war.

    In my view the linear city architecture is the optimal solution to maximize quality of life, while providing the most robust and cost effective infrastructure and minimizing the effects of disasters – natural or otherwise.

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  11. 11. dwbd 1:07 pm 01/27/2013

    If you want to see a severe indictment of the UN’s Green Agenda policy of cramming people into urban areas in tiny apartments, owned by the super-rich, just watch the movie Brazil:

    imdb.com/title/tt0088846/?ref_=sr_1

    People crammed into cities, the infrastructure constantly failing, terrorism a regular event, a draconian police state to try to control widespread social unrest with brutal methods, including torture. The main character eventually finds peace in an imaginary beat-up old trailer parked out in the desolate wilderness.

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  12. 12. Joseph C Moore, Cpo USN Ret 1:11 pm 01/30/2013

    “how well they’re weather the next big storm.” ??? Didn’t you proofread the article?

    Link to this

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