History of Geodesign

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

The Activity of 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.

Tribal Settlement
Tribal Settlement

Deciding where to locate a tribal settlement, choosing materials to use to construct shelters, developing a strategy for hunting wild animals, deciding where to plant crops, or laying out the plans for defending a settlement from intruders are all geodesign related activities.

That is, the successful determination (design) of each of these aspects of tribal life depends on having adequate knowledge of the relevant geographic conditions and the ability to work with those conditions by respecting the constraints and having the ability to take advantage of the opportunities suggested by those conditions.

The corollary is also true, that what and how we design has the power to condition or change the context of our surroundings, that is, to change the nature of our geographic space. In fact, any design-related activity that depends on or in some way changes the context of our surroundings can be considered geodesign.

Frank Lloyd Wright and Fallingwater

Frank Lloyd Wright
Frank Lloyd Wright

Frank Lloyd Wright (1867–1959) invoked the idea of geodesign (though he did not use the term) when he formalized the idea of organic architecture, that is, making buildings and nature one by, for instance, by bringing the outdoors in (e.g., through the use of corner windows) and moving the indoors out (e.g., through the use of sliding glass doors).

When Wright was asked by Edgar Kaufmann Sr. to design a small vacation home on Bear Run in rural southwestern Pennsylvania (the home later known as Fallingwater), he had been without a commission for months. He postponed working on the design to a point where many of his disciples began to wonder if he was beyond his prime and perhaps not up to the challenge.

Frank Lloyd Wright
Frank Lloyd Wright

That was just about the time Kaufmann called Wright to ask how he was coming along with the design and to tell Wright that he was on his way to Taliesin, Wright’s studio near Spring Green, Wisconsin. Wright responded by saying he was expecting Kaufmann’s visit and encouraged Kaufmann to come at his earliest convenience, which turned out to be about three hours.

Wright, who was 64 at the time, then hung up the phone and went to work on the design, his students and staff sharpening pencils as Wright feverishly worked at his drafting table, laying out the design of the house, including floor plans, elevations, sections, and a quick perspective. The basic concept was fully completed by the time Kaufmann arrived later that afternoon (Toker 2005).

Frank Lloyd Wright's Falling Water
Frank Lloyd Wright's Falling Water

The question to ask ourselves is, "Was Wright doing geodesign?" The answer can be "yes" or "no", depending on how you define geodesign.

Those subscribing to a broad definition of geodesign (for example, as design in geographic space) would most probably say "yes" ... recognizing that Wright had the site’s geography fully in mind while he was doing the design, giving consideration to topography, the location of the stream and waterfall, the placement of boulders that provided the foundation for the house, views to and from thehouse, as well as other site-related environmental conditions such as the use of solar access for heating the house in the winter and cold air flow along the stream for cooling the house in the summer. Given this broader point of view, one could definitely say that Wright was doing geodesign.

For those adhering to a narrower, perhaps more contemporary, point of view (for example, one dependent on the use of map layers and digital technology) would most likely answer "no'.

Those involved with the predominate interpretation of geodesign, as applied to the preparation of land use plans, most particularly with respect to the development of regional plans, would most likey align themselves, at least operationally, with the "no" group.  

Those looking to future applicatiions of geodesign, including the possible application of geodesign to a much broader spectrum of problems (such as, those related to the resolution territorial conflicts, or how best to manage global resources, etc.) would most likely align themselves with the "yes" group.

The interesting aspect of Wright's work is that he formalized the fact, with his idea of organic architecture, that the site (the geography of place) was important and needed to be considered as an integral part of the overall design process.

Richard Neutra and Survival Through Design

Richard Neutra
Richard Neutra

Richard Neutra (1892–1970), an Austrian architect who had worked with Wright in the mid 1920s, later wrote Survival through Design, one of the pivotal books on the importance of designing with nature (Neutra 1954). In it, he advocated a holistic approach to design, giving full attention to the needs of his client while at the same time emphasizing the importance of the site (the geography of place), its natural conditions, and its surroundings.

Neutra’s book predated the environmental movement by 20 years and in many ways contributed to the formation of the Environmental Protection Act of 1970, the same year Neutra died. Ironically he passed just a week before the first Earth Day celebration of Sunday, April 22, 1970, something that would have gladdened his heart.

Warren Manning and overlay mapping

Warren Manning
Warren Manning

Warren H. Manning (1860 –1938) worked for Frederick Law Olmsted as a horticulturalist before establishing his own landscape architecture practice. By about 1910, electricity had become widespread, and light tables (drawing tables with translucent glass tops illuminated from below) were invented, initially to simplify the tracing of drawings. In 1912, Manning made a study that used map overlays as an analysis method, much as is done today. By using overlays on a light table, he made a landscape plan for the entire country, which was published in Landscape Architecture in June 1923 (Steinitz 2012).



Manning's Landscape Plan for the United States
Manning's Landscape Plan for the United States


Ian McHarg and Design With Nature

Ian McHarg
Ian McHarg

Ian McHarg (1920 –2001), Scotsman, landscape architect, and educator, is without a doubt, though he never used the term, one of the principal founders of geodesign. His 1969 book Design With Nature not only expresses the value of designing with nature (primarily as related to the fields of landscape architecture and regional planning) but also sets forth a geo-based technique (which was most probably based on Manning’s work), viewing and overlaying thematic layers of geographic information to assess the best (or worst) location for a particular land use (McHarg 1969).


McHarg's Design With Nature
McHarg's Design With Nature

McHarg was also one of the first to advocate a multidisciplinary approach to environmental planning, which until that time had been dominated by narrow views and singular values. Supported by a series of grants while leading the landscape architecture program at the University of Pennsylvania, he was able to assemble a team of scientists and experts from a wide variety of disciplines in the physical, biological, and social sciences (McHarg 1996).

While McHarg’s technique was completely graphical (non-digital), his book gave birth to a whole new way of thinking about regional planning and design. It not only laid out a clear procedure for assessing the geographic context of a site or region but also presented that procedure with a clarity that quickly led to the digital representation of geographic information (as thematic layers) and assessment strategies (e.g., using weighted overlay techniques), which, in time, contributed to the conceptual development of GIS.

Carl Steinitz and A Framework for Geodesign

It is interesting to note that while McHarg was at the University of Pennsylvania promoting his graphical overlay technique and receiving considerable attention for his book, a substantial body of knowledge related to environmental planning (geodesign) was being quietly developed and accumulated by Carl Steinitz and his colleagues at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.

Carl Steinitz
Carl Steinitz

Carl Steinitz (1938–), working with his colleagues and students over a period of approximately 30 years, developed a complete framework (conceptual structure, design strategies, and procedural techniques) for doing geodesign as applied to regional landscape studies. The Steinitz Framework for Geodesign (Steinitz 2012), previously called A Framework for Landscape Planning (Steinitz 1995), advocates the use of six models to describe the overall planning (geodesign) process:

The first three models comprise the assessment process, looking at existing conditions within a geographic context. The second three models comprise the intervention process, looking at how that context might be changed, the potential consequences of those changes, and whether the context should be changed.

The Steinitz Framework for Geodesign
The Steinitz Framework for Geodesign


The fourth model, the Change Model, provides the specific framework for developing and creating proposed changes (design scenarios) that are predicated on the science- and value-based information contained in the Representation Models and assessed against that same information in the Impact Models, which is the essence of the underlying concept of geodesign, that is, to design within the context of geograhc information.

Steinitz’s new book, A Framework for Geodesign, published by Esri Press, delineates the conceptual framework for doing geodesign and will surely become one of the standard references for both practitioners and academics for years to come.

Howard Fisher and SYMAP


While Steinitz’s foundational work was, and still is, technology independent, much of what he and his students were doing at Harvard was supplemented by the work that was going on at the Laboratory for Computer Graphics and Spatial Analysis, also at Harvard.

Howard Fisher (1903–1979) founded the Laboratory for Computer Graphics in1965, which later became more broadly known as the Laboratory for Computer Graphics and Spatial Analysis.

Fisher developed the SYMAP program, which was one of the first computer mapping programs to become widely popular with planners.

The lab he founded became responsible for the further development of SYMAP, which predated and ultimately led to the development of GIS (Chrisman 2006).

Michael Goodchild and GI-Science

Michael Goodchild
Michael Goodchild

Michael Goodchild (1944–), a British- American geographer, and his associates and counterparts from around the world (too many to reference here) worked over a period of 30 years to develop the science of GIS. Goodchild founded the National Center for Geographic Information and Analysis (NCGIA) in 1988 and served as its director for 20 years. NCGIA became the breeding ground for research and the development of educational materials supporting the science of GIS.

Goodchild, along with David Maguire and David Rind, wrote Geographical Information Systems: Principles and Applications (Goodchild 1991), which at the time of its publication was consider by many to be the bible of geographic information science. They later wrote, with the addition of Paul Longley, Geography Information Systems and Science (Longley 2001), which today serves as one of the standard textbooks on geographic information science.

Jack Dangermond and ESRI

Jack Dangermond
Jack Dangermond

Jack Dangermond (1945–), president and founder of Esri, was one of Steinitz’s students at Harvard. He was studying landscape architecture but was also keenly interested in the work at the Laboratory for Computer Graphics and Spatial Analysis. After graduating in 1970, he used SYMAP to start his company, which is now the world’s leader in GIS technology.

Jack Dangermond is also one of the principal advocates for geodesign and serves with his company to support the emergence of geodesign. His sponsorship of Esri's annual Geodesign Summit serves as the focal point for those active in the cultivation and dissemination of the geodesign agenda in education, government and industry.

One of Dangermond’s longtime dreams has been to use the science developed by Goodchild and others, coupled with the design framework developed by Steinitz and his associates at Harvard, with computer technology to represent geography (geospatial information) as a platform for doing design, the idea of digital geodesign and the central theme of this website.

Emergence of the Term

Given this sequence, it is easy to see that the activity of geodesign (as opposed to the term geodesign) has been around for quite some time, one could argue since the beginning of mankind. As a consequence, one might ask, “What’s the big deal?”

In many respects, there is no “big deal.” The idea of geodesign is not new. The big deal comes not from the fact that geodesign is new but rather from the formalization of the ideas surrounding geodesign, such as those initiated by McHarg and later developed by Steinitz, and how those ideas, coupled with the work of Fisher, Dangermond, and others, now give us the power to use GIS as a framework for doing geodesign in digital geographic space.

Early use of the term

The term geodesign, unlike the activity of geodesign, is relatively new. Klaus Kunzmann provides an early reference to geodesign in his paper, “Geodesign: Chance oder Gefahr?” (1993). He used the term to refer to spatial scenarios. Since then, a small number of geo-related businesses have used geodesign as part of their name.

Contemporary use of the term

In approximately 2005, Dangermond and a few others were observing a demo at Esri showing how users could sketch land-use plans in GIS using an extension Esri was developing for ArcGIS® called ArcSketch™. One of the members of the development team was sketching in points, lines and polygons, all defined and rendered to represent various types of land use, when the team leader turned to Jack and said, ‘See, Jack, now you can design in geographic space.’ Without hesitation, Jack said, ‘Geodesign!’” (Miller 2011).

Esri's ArcSketch
Esri's ArcSketch

The term stuck and soon became the moniker for Esri’s agenda for supporting the needs of designers working in a geospatial environment. More broadly, it has also become the moniker for a whole new wave of thinking regarding the use of GIS as geographic framework for design.

Creating The Future

The future of geodesign depends on the collective understanding of the importance of design, an overall understanding of geodesign and what it means to design in the context of geographic space, a clear understanding of the nature of design, how designers work, and a concerted commitment to develop design-centric (designer-friendly) technologies and workflows supporting all aspects of the design/geodesign process.

This leads to four challenges:

(1)  Develop a comprehensive understanding of geodesign

While this website attempts to lay the groundwork for the development of a shared understanding of geodesign, it is neither comprehensive not does it in any way represent a conensus. At best, it serves as a catalyst for further discussion and understanding.

As such, the authors and contributors to this website hope it will stimulate conversation pertaining to the broader subject of geodesign, particularly for those in academia. The challenge is to carry this conversation forward and to work together to translate respective understandings of what is meant by geodesign and, in so doing, develop a share vision for this nacent field.

(2)  Develop geodesign-centric technologies

Perhaps the greatest challenge resides in the capacity of the software development community to absorb and assimilate the unique characteristics (needs) of geodesign and the somewhat idiosyncratic nature of the designer.

The programmer’s challenge is to create digital frameworks and functionality that truly facilitate the design/geodesign process. This is no small challenge, especially when one considers the designer’s desire for zero impedance. The idea of writing design-centric software that is so easy to use that the use of that software is unnoticeable lies beyond the imagination of most programmers, notwithstanding the possible exception of those responsible for the development of Apple’s iPhone® or iPad®.

(3)  Apply those technologies to a variety of problems

The success of this work to instantiate geodesign as a credible way of thinking, as an advantageous way to do geospatial design, or as a way to design in geographic space will come from the repeated application of what is now known about geodesign using the tools that are now available (however limited they may be for the moment) to real-world problems.

Applying knowledge will help designers learn what works, what doesn’t, and what needs to be done to improve the capability to design in the context of geographic space and, in so doing, having the power to leverage the science and values geo-referenced to that space.

The dissemination of this learning through these varied applications will serve to enhance the capacity to improve the quality of work and the vitality of those served by the work.

(4)  Establish geodesign in practice and academia

This challenges all of us to move beyond the geodesign catchphrase and associated rhetoric to establish a discipline of substance, including values, semantic clarity, and clearly defined processes that can be taught within the context of the various curricula offered by academic institutions and instantiated in professions.

While geodesign may or may not become a singular profession, such as architecture or landscape architecture (many argue that it should not), it will surely (or perhaps, hopefully) find its way into the way people design the various entities that affect lives and, in some cases, the very life of the planet.

And finally, regarding the future of geodesign, it is as Abraham Lincoln, Buckminster Fuller, Alan Kay, and Peter Drucker all said,

“The best way to predict the future is to create it.”

Page Editor:

Principal Author(s): Bill Miller



Chrisman, N. Charting the Unknown: How computer mapping at Harvard became GIS, Esri Press, 2006.

Goodchild, M., D. Maguire, and D. Rhind. Geographic Information Systems: Principles and Applications (2 Vol.), Longman, 1991.

Longley, P., M. Goodchild, D. Maguire, and D. Rhind. Geographic InformationSystems and Science. John Wiley & Sons, 2001.

McHarg, I. Design with Nature, Doubleday & Co., 1969.

Miller, W. R. "Introducing Geodesign: The Concept", an Esri whitepaper, Esri, 2012. Contents available at LinkedIn.

Neurta, R. Survival Through Design, Oxford University Press, 1954.

Steinitz, C. "A Framework for Landacape Planning Practice and Education", Process Architecture, no. 127, 1995.

Steinitz, C. A Framework for Geodesign, Esri Press, 2012.

Toker, F. Fallingwater Rising. Alfred A. Knopf, 2005.


Drucker, P. “The best way to predict the future is to create it."


Fuller, B. “The best way to predict the future us to design it."


Kay, A. “The best way to predict the future is to invent it."


Lincoln, A. “The best way to predict your future is to create it."