Geodesign Education Takes Flight

Our world is experiencing a unique confluence of issues, innovations, and opportunities that is encouraging a hospitable academic atmosphere where geodesign can flourish as a platform for addressing the urgent environmental and community planning, conservation, and restoration needs of today and for the future.

The emerging field of geodesign can be characterized as the collaboration of science and design that takes into account the interconnectedness between humans and nature. Geodesign is a deceptively simple formula that brings together knowledge—in the form of both data and human expertise—and infuses it with design creativity for the purpose of revealing and evaluating alternative futures for a place. Geodesign is and will be an important agent for cultural change. Education is taking up the call to address how geographic and spatial information can be combined with design to address some of the most complex challenges facing the environment, including human habitats, and, indeed, the future of environmental care.

At the January 2013 Geodesign Summit hosted at Esri in Redlands, California, some core concepts were broached that can influence current and/or possible future curricula for geodesign educational programs or degrees. These key concepts indicate that geodesign has the following traits:

Geodesign education is taking flight, with several new programs and a few that will begin within the next year, and it is clear that these key concepts provide a foundation on which many of these programs have been or will be built. Additionally, many schools, mainly in landscape architecture or planning programs, offer geodesign classes, as well as classes not so named, that accomplish similar goals. Furthermore, it is highly likely that other programs are under development, and there are other signs of geodesign’s emerging impact on academia, such as recent university job openings with geodesign in the position description. Nevertheless, the intent of this article is to provide an overview of some universities with new degrees, certificates, and options that are specifically working to address these core curricular ideas and to help encourage ongoing dialog, worldwide, about geodesign education.

Seven programs in the United States responded to a short survey, the results of which illustrate an interesting variety of ways that programs are emerging (see table below). These schools are Northern Arizona University, Penn State, Philadelphia University, the University of Arizona, the University of Georgia, the University of Southern California, and the University of Wisconsin (UW-Madison and UW-Stevens Point).

A Diversity of Reasons to Start Programs

To begin with, there are a diversity of reasons why these programs got their start:

Commonalities in Geodesign Education

Though, as we shall see, the different schools have designed their programs to suit their own needs, the programs do have in common several important points. All the schools do the following:

A Variety of Formats for Geodesign Education

Despite these areas of overlap, these schools are embarking on geodesign education from a variety of approaches as evidenced in the results of the survey:

Academic “Home”

While all schools make a point to emphasize the integrated nature of their curricula, it is not a surprise that a program’s academic “home” provides insight regarding the curricular mix of GIS/science and design:

Studio-Based Experiences

Studio courses are unique educational environments rooted in problems-based learning (PBL). In PBL courses, students are presented with a problem and then become active participants—the content is not provided, but rather the students, either individually or in teams, discover and work with content they determine to be necessary to solve the problem. In PBL, the teacher operates more as a facilitator and mentor. The problems are typically open ended, and students learn through a guided, collaborative experience. All the programs surveyed mention the inclusion of studio-based experiences for their students; furthermore, the following are true:

Optional Classes That Complement Geodesign

As discussed above regarding the likelihood that geodesign programs will develop their own specialties and emphases, the schools surveyed listed an interesting array of related courses that are either required or available as options to geodesign students. These include landscape ecology, communications and professional skills, public policy and regulation, professional and cultural values and ethics, quantitative sociology, heritage conservation, public participation and dispute resolution, building information modeling/CityEngine and other 3D visualization tools, sustainable design methods, and global issues (biodiversity, climate change, etc.).

International Advances

Of course, this article cannot be all-inclusive nor list all schools with new or developing geodesign programs either in the United States or internationally. Outside the United States (e.g., in China, Germany, Japan, Portugal, the Netherlands, and Thailand), there are numerous programs that adhere to the definition of geodesign education but may not use the term geodesign in the name. Some of these programs are housed within departments of landscape architecture, geography, urban ecology, engineering, and civil engineering. It will be interesting to track the evolution of new programs and degrees worldwide.

About the Author

Kelleann Foster, RLA, ASLA, is associate professor of landscape architecture; lead faculty for Geodesign Programs; and interim director, Stuckeman School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture, Penn State University.

For more information, contact Kelleann Foster.

See also “Confluence of Trends and Issues Actuates a Path for Geodesign Education.”

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