Geoempowering Design

Geodesigning Our World with Nature and Technology

Kongjian Yu is the son of a Chinese farmer. He grew up on a commune and worked in the rice, wheat, and sugarcane fields with his father until he left for college at age 17. Today Yu, 50, is a well-respected, award-winning urban designer and landscape architect whose firm Turenscape often turns neglected land and polluted waterways into wetland parks filled with flowers and teeming with fish and birds.

Yu showed photographs of these lush parks during his keynote talk at the 2014 Geodesign Summit at Esri, where he advocated for a fresh way of thinking in landscape architecture and design: Use geodesign, which incorporates design, geography, and geospatial technology such as GIS, to help create an ecological infrastructure for communities.

This urban landscape, including the flowers, was generated using tools in Esri CityEngine.
This urban landscape, including the flowers, was generated using tools in Esri CityEngine.

An ecological infrastructure reflects the natural environment rather than something built out of concrete and steel. Many of Turenscape’s park projects in China let nature take its course. Rather than diverting storm water from a river during the rainy season with pipes or channels, it’s captured and filtered in ponds in a terraced wetland system. Areas that flooded historically are allowed to flood again. Nature takes hold, and reeds and flowers spring to life. Birds flock to these wetlands again, and so do the bird watchers, Yu said.

“Design for an ecological infrastructure to create an ideal relationship between man and nature,” said Yu. “It’s a new way to make a beautiful landscape.”

Geoempowering Design

Yu and a roster of other speakers gave presentations to almost 300 people from diverse fields, such as architecture, academia, urban design, ecology, health, banking, biology, mining, and marine sciences. Nearly half were new to the event, now in its fifth year. Geodesign Summit organizers believe that reflects a deepening interest in geodesign.

Emcee Thomas Fisher, dean of the College of Design at the University of Minnesota, said the definition of geodesign continues to be shaped but offered one of his favorites. “It’s a marriage of the incredible spatial power of GIS, geography, and design. It marries the data-rich analytical power of GIS with the creative synthesizing methods of design. GIS helps us understand what is and design what could be.”

Esri president Jack Dangermond spent about 30 minutes outlining why he thinks using geodesign—whether in urban planning or other fields—will be a linchpin in solving sustainability issues, including the changes that population growth is having on land use and the climate. “What is the counterbalance to these trends?” he asked. “I think it’s in this emerging world of geodesign. Collectively we need to create a better future.”

Dangermond said geographic information system (GIS) technology is essential as a foundational technique to geodesign. “GIS provides a platform for the integration of science, providing the practical means for geoempowering design.”

Kongjian Yu.
Kongjian Yu.

Esri staff gave the audience a short demo of the geodesign tools in Esri CityEngine, which creates 3D models of buildings and entire urban landscapes using procedural rules. Eric Wittner, the 3D technology evangelist at Esri, and the 3D team also previewed the 64-bit ArcGIS Pro, a desktop application with fast displays, 2D and 3D views, and powerful spatial analysis. ArcGIS Pro is slated for release later this year.

In the demo, the team showed how it was possible to use Pro to design a green rooftop garden. For example, they used tools in the application to add a glass fence to the perimeter of the roof, access for an elevator, shrubs, and a fountain. “This will be a new tool to do design and blend the 2D and 3D world,” Wittner said.

Esri technology evangelist Bern Szukalski demonstrated a new browser-based web app called Esri Landscape Planner that will be available soon in ArcGIS Marketplace. This ArcGIS Online powered app contains sketching and analysis tools and gives designers the ability to bring in landscape and demographic layers and imagery. The app also lets them collaborate together and edit designs.

Szukalski used the app’s tools to sketch a park and a proposed light-rail line in a town. “I think this will be an exciting piece of technology to add to your geodesign portfolio,” he said. “Landscape Planner helps put all the pieces together to create a true, open geodesign platform.”

Designing with Nature in Mind

Though technology was front and center at the summit, the idea of designing with nature in mind was omnipresent in the Esri auditorium.

Renowned biologist and natural sciences writer Janine Benyus took the stage to talk about biomimicry, a science in which nature provides a model for landscape and urban design. “I live in the Bitterroot Valley in western Montana,” she said showing pictures of the bucolic rural countryside. “It’s so healthy . . . when I walk back there, I see what we could be,” she said.

Benyus said much can be learned from nature about how to design for urban areas. “It’s nature as mentor,” said the author of the book Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature. “What would it take for a city to function as elegantly as a forest?”

She spoke about how plants and animals evolve and adapt to a changing and often harsh environment, using a 1,500-year-old tree with strong, deep roots and branches that are designed to shed as an example of the resiliency in nature. “That 1,500-year-old tree—it has seen many hurricanes,” she said. “Generosity is one of the standards of nature. How does nature create more and more opportunities for life?”

In a follow-up conversation with Dangermond and Fisher, Benyus said that metrics need to be collected in order to create ecological performance standards for designing sustainable cities. She also envisions the creation of an in-depth database or information portal that inventors, designers, and others involved in biomimicry could access to obtain scientific information about their areas of interest. Benyus said she looked forward to learning more GIS and the role it could play in developing and hosting a business information system.

“You’ve been searching for GIS for a long time,” said Dangermond.

The Art of Survival

Yu learned to use GIS two decades ago, and today his staff at Turenscape uses Esri ArcGIS software for topographic modeling and analysis.

Before he founded Turenscape in 1997 and became professor and dean of the College of Architecture and Landscape Architecture at Peking University, Yu attended Harvard University, where he earned a doctor of design at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. He also interned at Esri, working in the prototype lab.

Yu said geodesign using GIS technology is essential to the work of his company, which has completed 1,300 projects in 200 cities, including China Town Park in Boston. But he credits his early years working on the commune with a grounding in geography, topology, and soil. The words Tu Ren in Turenscape mean “earth man.”

The man did not really wander far from the farm.

“Many of these designs are inspired by my experience on the farm,” said Yu. “In the city, you don’t know how to grow rice. You don’t know how to work with dirt; you don’t know how to irrigate.”

He said he and Dangermond are sympatico when it comes to believing that geodesign will change the world for the better and that our survival will depend on it.

For example, geodesign played a role in cleaning up a once polluted waterway in Liupanshui City, China, and creating a biodiverse wetland park.

Turenscape used geodesign to develop the Shuicheng River and Minhu Wetland Park project. Concrete embankments along the river were removed, and natural vegetation was planted and allowed to thrive. Storm water is no longer diverted away from the river. Water no longer goes to waste. A once polluted waterway is fishable again. People stroll along walkways that wind around terraced ponds. Beautiful orange flowers flourish around the wetland’s perimeter.

“Now, it’s become a beautiful place,” Yu said. “People love it. The biodiversity has increased. It has now become a national wetland.”