ArcNews Online

Spring 2010
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GIS Promotes Socially and Environmentally Sustainable Habitats

The UN's Global Urban Observatory


  • Observatory monitors urban indicators.
  • Policy makers use GIS to meet sustainable city objectives.
  • UN-HABITAT adds urban observatory to Good Practice list.

In the last half century, the human population has grown at a phenomenal rate, leaving many of the world's cities bursting at the seams and often without the resources to care for their residents. From 1950 to the close of the century, earth's human population doubled. The United Nations (UN) estimates that one-half the world's population (an estimated 6 billion people) lives in cities and predicts that by 2050, two-thirds of the world's population will live in cities. It also notes that 50 percent of these urban dwellers live in slum conditions with little access to shelter, water, sanitation, education, or health services.

  see enlargement
This map shows land use in Jeddah City, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Because sustainable urbanization is one of the most pressing challenges facing the global community in the 21st century, the United Nations launched the United Nations Human Settlements Programme UN-HABITAT. Its aim is to help policy makers and local communities find workable and lasting solutions for developing human settlements. UN-HABITAT promotes socially and environmentally sustainable towns and cities with the goal of providing adequate shelter for all.

UN-HABITAT is building a worldwide urban knowledge base via its Global Urban Observatory that will make it possible to monitor and evaluate urban conditions and trends. This global endeavor is supported by a network of local urban observatories, which are designated workshops that develop monitoring tools used for urban policy making. GIS is proving to be a useful technology for monitoring economic, social, and environmental development.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia's cosmopolitan city Jeddah Municipality launched Jeddah Urban Observatory (JUO) to provide information for planning and policy making. Esri Lebanon sal, Esri's distributor in Lebanon, designed a geospatial solution, built on ArcGIS, that improves the urban knowledge base by providing policy-oriented urban indicators, statistics, and other urban information.

Dr. Mohamad Abdulsalam, Jeddah Municipality's JUO chief supervisor and assistant to the deputy mayor for Environmental Affairs, notes, "The primary goal of building a GIS-based urban observatory is to use current data and ICT [information and communication technology] to effectively and efficiently disseminate among concerned decision makers and stakeholders information, knowledge, and expertise about a city's most current urban indicators, statistics, conditions, and profiles."

Staff can easily use JUO's GIS tools for spatial manipulation, simulation, and analysis and to display urban indicators. These indicators have spatial dimension. Indicators include variables of poverty, environmental degradation, provision of urban services, deterioration of existing infrastructure, access to secure land tenure, and adequate shelter. To date, JUO has generated 80 urban indicators and plans to define and generate 200 more.

The information technology infrastructure that supports JUO consists of two high-specification servers, 10 PCs, a local area network, and a high-speed DSL Internet connection. The GIS comprises ArcGIS Desktop and ArcGIS Server software. Through the use of Web-based GIS applications, JUO indicator data can be accessed and benchmarked at regional, national, and global levels. JUO has become the most important source of socioeconomic data in Jeddah.

GIS outputs help staff target need, monitor urban inequalities, assess the distribution of services, identify trends, and target resources for more effective allocation. For example, an adult illiteracy thematic map shows the percentage of male and female adults above the age of 15 who are illiterate. A transportation model displays various transport types within Jeddah's districts. A population density indicator map applies dots and graduated colors to show the population distribution across the city's districts. Although the GIS-based solution delivers advanced results, its tools are user-friendly, so it can be easily adopted by other Arab urban communities.

UN-HABITAT recognized Esri Lebanon's JUO project by adding the unique information and monitoring initiative to its Good Practice list for cities to assess, identify, and monitor urban conditions. The performance of JUO is being monitored by His Highness Prince of Makkah Region as well as by Jeddah's mayor and municipality officials. "Jeddah citizens are truly the main beneficiaries of the project," concludes Manal El Sayed, Esri Lebanon's GIS solutions manager, "as analysts and policy makers assess the extent of the city's problems and design the policies and interventions needed for achieving sustainable urban habitats."

More Information

For more information, contact Dr. Mohammed I. Abdulsalam, chief supervisor, JUO (e-mail:; visit Esri Lebanon at; or contact Salim Sawaya, Esri (e-mail:

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