Honolulu Uses Geodesign

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Honolulu Uses Geodesign to Build Case for Rail Corridor

As reported in ArcNews, Spring 2013

The City and County of Honolulu applied geodesign concepts,
that is, the incorporation of geographic knowledge into the design process, to
more effectively analyze, compare, and visualize different scenarios for
the key communities affected by the proposed development
of a rail transit system.

In Honolulu, the islanders can boast they do travel slowly through their paradise, but maybe not so peacefully on their roadways, since Honolulu has claimed the top spot as the worst US city for traffic. Compounding the problem, citizens have moved to suburban areas in search of affordable housing, creating urban sprawl, which increases traffic demand when traveling to urban centers for work.

For Honolulu, the effects of urban sprawl go beyond increased traffic demand and have negative impacts, such as environmental pollution, natural habitat reduction, loss of agricultural land, and even decline in human health and well-being.

In an effort to help alleviate some of the traffic pressure on its roadways, the City and County of Honolulu have approved and begun construction of an elevated rail system connecting East Kapolei to Ala Moana Center. Not only will the new railway change the way citizens and tourists will travel through Honolulu, but the planning and development surrounding the rail corridor will be redefined through what is known as transit-oriented development (TOD).


To tell the story of TOD, the City and County of Honolulu turned to GIS as a primary tool within the process. The city GIS department embraced and applied the concept of geodesign—that is, incorporating geographic knowledge into design—to more effectively analyze, compare, and visualize different scenarios of TOD for the key communities affected by the new development.

To build the case for TOD, the GIS team needed to support the planners' goals to share with the public who would have safe access to rail; how changes to the zoning would visually redefine their community; and how the TOD would positively affect the community and region, preventing future urban sprawl.

The team identified three core models that would be needed for the TOD geodesign process: walkability, urban growth, and densification models. As with any new GIS project undertaking, the GIS department first determined data resources needed to support the analysis and whether these datasets were available or needed to be developed.

Most of the core data, such as roads, zoning, and buildings, was available in the rich geodatabase that Honolulu has been developing for years. Since visualization is a key component of geodesign and a powerful tool for persuasive planning support, a 3D model of the physical environment would be needed for the transit corridor.


However, the model was not complete and needed to be enhanced in areas, since more than 3,000 buildings were without textures and some were mere footprints. The team used Esri CityEngine to improve the model by creating 3D geometry and applying textures based on a custom set of rules. Honolulu wanted to simulate the true look and feel of the city and accomplished this by collecting photos of real facades that were used to create a custom set of textures. These textures were applied based on the rules, instantly painting the remaining buildings.

Rules were further applied to create 3D geometries by converting simple building footprints into complex structures with textures. The last component was the addition of the proposed evaluated rail, which was added from the existing engineering drawings, completing the 3D urban model of Honolulu.

CityEngine was used to generate the proposed build-out of the future with TOD. The 3D model showed urban growth concentration around stations with low- to medium-density buildings and ample undeveloped land. The same models were run against the existing zoning with no TOD, resulting in a sea of houses, showing a stark comparison of Honolulu's landscape in the future as urban sprawl.


An incentive of geodesign for planners is to equip them with analytic outcomes that could be used to persuade the stakeholders and public that TOD will have a positive impact on the community. Honolulu approached the community engagement with unique visualization technologies and simple web views of the various TOD scenarios.

Page Editor: 

Principal Authors: Esri staff



Esri staff, 3D Modeling Shows Off Elevated Rail System Landscape, ArcNews, Esri, Spring 2013. Content available at Esri Publications.