Context and Concepts

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The purpose of this section is to introduce the idea of geodesign, its broader context, its history, what it means, and some of its implications, particularly for those working with geospatial data.

Additional information regarding the subject of geodesign, including the geodesign process, geodesign technology, and various geodesign case studies, is referenced throughout this website.

The Context for Geodesign

Every organization, large or small, public or private, does three things: it gets and manages information (data), analyzes or assesses that information with respect to some purpose (analysis), and (based on that information and those assessments) creates or re-creates goods and/or services (design). It is, in fact, the creation or re-creation of goods and/or services that gives most organizations their reasonfor being.

By and large, geographic information system (GIS) technology, as it’s known today, serves organizations quite well with respect to the need to acquire and manage geospatial information. GIS also offers organizations a wide rangeof geoprocessing functions for analyzing geospatial information. While this is beginning to change, present-day GIS still offers little functionality with respect to an organization’s need to create and/or re-create goods and services, that is, its need to do design … to do geodesign.

The History of Geodesign

The history of geodesign can be described as the emergence of geodesign as anactivity or as the emergence of the term geodesign.

The main idea underlying the concept of geodesign, namely that the context of our geographic space conditions what and how we design, that is, how we adjust and adapt to our surroundings, has been with us since the beginning of time. That is, the activity of geodesign has been with us since the beginning of time. The use of the term geodesign occured more recently.

For a more complete description of the emergence of geodesign, both as an activity and as a term, see:

Understanding geo, design and geodesign

The definition of geodesign is derived from two terms, geo and design. Both of these component terms are subject to a wide variety of interpretations. As such, they need to be clearly defined before attempting to define geodesign.

Understanding geo

The term geo can be simply defined as geographic space – space that is referenced to the surface of the earth (geo-referenced). In general, thinking of geographic space brings to mind a 2D geographic space (a flat map) or, for those who are a bit more advanced in their thinking, a 2.5D geographic space – that is, an undulating surface (a relief map).

This thinking could also be extended to include 3D geographic space, providing the ability to geo-reference what lies below, on and above the surface of the earth, including what exists inside and outside buildings, as well as 4D geographic space, giving the added ability to geo-reference time-dependent information and 5D information, referencing performance indicators or other spatially relevant variables.

These extended views of geographic space (moving from 2D to 3D to 4D to 5D), coupled with the idea that most data, at some level, is spatial and that all types of spatial data (physical, biological, social, cultural, economic, urban, etc.) can be geo-referenced, lead to an expanded view of what is typically envisioned, or imagined, when referring to the geo portion of geodesign. This expanded view is embodied in a new concept that is beginning to emerge within the geospatial community … that of geo-scape.

Geo-scape is the planet’s life zone, including everything that lies below, on, and above the surface of the earth that supports life. Geo-scape expands the view of what constitutes the content of geography as well as the dimensional extent of the geographic space used to reference that content. As a consequence, it also expands the domain of geo in geodesign to include everything that supports or inhibits life (Miller 2004).

Geo in geodesign thus refers to the full spectrum of the earth’s life support system and extends thinking to move from ...

  • Land ... to ... Land / Water / Air
  • Surface ... to ... Below, On, and Above the Surface
  • 2D / 2.5D ... to ... 2D / 2.5D / 3D / 4D / 5D
  • Rural ... to ... Rural and Urban
  • Outside Buildings ... to ... Outside and Inside Buildings
  • Objects ... to ... Objects, Events, Concepts, and Relationships

Each of these moves, or shifts in our thinking, represents a significant transformation in the way people think about geography, geodesign and the use of GIS.

Understanding design

The word design, the second component of geodesign, can be defined as either a noun or a verb. As a noun, design generally refers to some object or other entity. As a verb, it usually refers to a process or series of activities.

Herbert Simon, Nobel Laurette, indirectly defined design as a process, that is ...

"Every one designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones." (Simon 1996).

Expanding on this definiion, design can be more specifically defined as ... 

“Design is the thought process comprising the creation of an entity.” (Miller 2005).

Any entity can be designed or created with intent and purpose. The total thought process encompassing the creation of that entity – the process that gives it its form, be it physical, temporal, conceptual, or relational – is design.

Understanding the purpose of design

The ethic of design, that is, how a design (noun) is determined to be good or bad comes not from the definition but rather from the purpose of design, which at a fundamental level is always the same.

“The purpose of design is to facilitate life” (Miller 2006).

Simply put, if an entity (the thing being designed) facilitates life, then it is good; if it inhibits life, it is bad; and if it does neither, it is neutral. While this is a very simple ethic, or appears as such at first glance, one must constantly remember two things: what it means to facilitate and what is meant by life.

Understanding geodesign

Given the above definitions the terms geo and design can now be combined to form a definition of geodesign:

"Geodesign is the thought process comprising the creation of an entity in geographic space".


"The purpose of geodesign is to facilitate life in geographic space".

The essential aspect of this definition is the idea that design – the process of designing (creating or modifying) some portion or aspect of the environment, be it natural or man-made – occurs within the context of geographic space (where the location of the entity being created is referenced to a geographic coordinate system).

Michael Flaxman, one of the early advocates of geodesign, expands on this definition applied to the field of land use planning. He states:

"Geodesign is a design and planning method which tightly couples the creation of design proposals with impact simulations informed by geographic contexts." (Flaxman 2010)

Many people in the fields of urban and regional planning find this definition to be more useful with respect to their interest in land use planning.

The Importance of Geodesign

The referential link between the entity being designed and its geographic context provides the tangible basis for doing both science-based and value-based design. Additionally, it has the ability to provide operational linkages to a wide variety of domain-specific information and, in so doing, provides the multidisciplinary platform for doing integral design (holistic design).

Science-based design

Science-based design is the creation or modification of an entity within the context of scientific information (including scientific processes and relationships) such that the design of the entity is conditioned or informed by that science as it is being designed. Geodesign, through the use of a common geographic reference system, provides the ability to link geographic entities (those entities that are being designed) to scientific information, relevant to the creation, instantiation, or utilization of those entities.

Value-based design

Value-based design is the creation or modification of an entity within the context of social values (global, community, cultural, religious, etc.) such that the design of the entity is conditioned or informed by those values as it is being designed. As is the case with science-based design, geodesign provides the ability to link geographic entities (those entities that are being designed) to social values relevant to the creation, instantiation, or utilization of those entities, assuming those values are referenced to the same geographic reference system.

Integral Design

Geodesign not only provides the ability to link the entity being designed to relevant science- and value-based information, but also provides the framework for exploring issues from an interdisciplinary point of view and resolving conflicts between alternative value sets. In this sense, it can be seen as an integral framework for intelligent, holistic geospatial design.

Manage Complexity

While the ability to relate an entity to its geographic context can be performed in mental space, the quality and quantity of those relationships are limited to what the human mind can reasonably hold (remember) and manipulate.

Geodesign and use of geo-reference technologies give design teams the ability to handle complex design problems ... problems exceeding the normal capacity of any one individual, or ever a group of individuals, forced to rely on their minds free of any form of mental assistance. The advantage of the digital approach to geodesign, particularly when one is using GIS, is that it can handle a wide spectrum of complexity. More

The Nature of Geodesign

Geodesign usually involves the use of geographic information systems, some form of collaboration, at least some degree of abductive thinking, the possible use of geo-sketching tools, iteration and feedback and the creation and subsequent evaluation of multiple design alternatives.

Geographic information systems (GIS)

Ian McHarg, an early advocate of the use of geographic information, promoted the use of thematic map layers (e.g. slope, soils, vegetation, etc.) and overlying those layers on a light table to determine areas that were geographically suitable, or unsuitable, for a particular land use. The method was popularized in his book Design with Nature.

The problem with this approach, which McHarg advocated prior to the development of GIS, was that it was difficult to manually determine which areas were actually good as opposed to those that were bad. As the number of map layers went up the clarity of the presumed results went down.

GIS changes all this by giving planners the ability to represent, store, manipulate, and overlay the various thematic layers using digital technology. As such, GIS is currently used by most planners to both manage and utilize geographic information pertinent to the needs of their projects. One might even say that most land use planning projects could not be done without the use of GIS.

The problem with GIS is that it was first developed to represent and store geographic information. The analytically capabilities we now commonly associate with GIS came much later. In fact, much of the work since its initial development during the late 60s and until now, has been designed to extend its capabilities with respect to the storage and analysis of geographic information with little attention given to how it might be used as a design tool. This is now beginning to change.


Many professional designers are trained to view design as an art and, as a consequence, see themselves as the artist, as the designer, with others serving as the consumers of whatever it is they create. In truth, however, even to those imbued with the idea that design is a singular activity, most projects involve input from many disciplines, or experts, or specialists, and could not be accomplished without a high degree of design centered collaboration.

The ability to effectively collaborate, and the tools supporting that collaboration, particularly for larger, more complex projects, become the tools that can make or break the success of a project.

Abductive thinking

Abductive thinking is an extension of classical Aristotelian logic, moving beyond what can be logically induced (bottom-up thinking) and/or what can be logically deduced (top-down thinking) to what might be hypothesized, guessed, or imagined beyond what is logical (Peirce 1931-1958).

Abductive thinking, more commonly known to design professionals as design thinking or creative thinking (as in thinking out-of-the-box) lies at the core of the design process. The nature of design is all about this type of reasoning (or non-reasoning). It is about leaping beyond reason or beyond what might seem reasonable to unforeseen possibilities. As such, while many design decisions and design related actions are unpredictable, they can often lead to highly viable solutions.


Geo-sketching is the act of drawing, or sketching, a proposed land use plan while referencing geographic information relevant to the quality (goodness) of that plan. One can imagine a suitability map showing areas most suitable for a particular land use, such as commercial, and then laying a piece of tracing paper over that suistability map and then using that paper as the medium for drawing in the location and extent of the potential areas for commercial activity.

The person doing the drawing (geo-sketching) is thus informed (by the suitability map) as to which areas on the map are best suited for commercial land use.

Iteration and Feedback

Design is a highly iterative process. Given the fact that it is almost impossible to get something completely right with one's first thoughts. Iteration is thus used to explore an idea, obtain feedback, and then, based on that feedback, either validate that idea, or use it (the feedback) as the catalyst for the next exploration.

Iterations can occur rapidly, such as when one explores ideas related to the development of an initial concept, or more slowly with focused deliberation when teams of designers assess the performance of an entity during a scheduled review.

It is important to note that designers and design teams use iteration throughout all phases of entity development to explore, test, and validate their ideas and, in doing so, learn from the results of their explorations.

Alternate Designs

Given the explorative nature of one’s imagination, sketching what one imagines as it is being imagined becomes a highly iterative process with many false starts, revisions, do-overs and start-overs. Portions of one plan may become the seed for the creation of another plan. Parts of one plan might be combined with parts of another plan to form the basis for the creation of a new plan. One plan might be significantly different from another plan, or simply a variation of another plan.

All of this work leads, either directly or indirectly, to the creation of a number of specific planning alternatives (scenarios), each representing a relatively high degree of value with respect to what constitutes a desirable solution.

Section Editor:

Principal Author(s): Bill Miller



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Foster, Kelleann, "Geodesign parsed: Placing it within the rubric of recognized design theories", Landscape and Urban Planning, Volume 156, December 2016. Contents available at ScienceDirect.

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