We are not training students to be GIS analysts; we are an urban planning curriculum. We want people to go out and change the world through urban planning. For us it’s about understanding the tools to do that and GIS is one of the many important tools so we put it at the center of our curriculum.
GIS Literacy at the Core of Georgetown University's Graduate Program
Georgetown University offers a master's degree in Urban & Regional Planning, with geographic information system (GIS) technology at the core of its curriculum. The focus on GIS literacy empowers students with a data-enabled and place-based approach to urban problem-solving and develops market-relevant skills that will prepare them to respond rapidly to the unprecedented societal challenges urban planners face.
In the next 40 years, the United States' population is expected to expand by 80 million people, mostly concentrated in metropolitan cities. As the population grows, so will the need for interdisciplinary innovators and planners who can creatively tackle urban development challenges.
One educational institution is meeting this global challenge with a curriculum designed to empower the next generation of urban planners to create livable and sustainable neighborhoods, cities, and regions. Georgetown University, the oldest university in Washington, DC, offers a master's degree in Urban & Regional Planning, with geographic information system (GIS) technology at the core of its curriculum.
Since its formation in 2013, the urban planning master's program integrates geospatial analysis into all facets of the curriculum. The focus on GIS literacy empowers students with a data-enabled and place-based approach to urban problem-solving and develops market-relevant skills that will prepare them to respond rapidly to the unprecedented societal challenges urban planners face, such as climate change, social equity, and public health issues.
"In starting the program, it was inconceivable that we wouldn't embrace GIS when it has directly and dramatically shaped urban planning practices here in Washington, DC, over the last 20 years," says Uwe Brandes, professor of the practice and faculty director for Georgetown University's Urban & Regional Planning Program. "We are training urban planners to go out and positively change the trajectory of local communities, and this is an essential tool for them to become truly impactful professionals."
Building a Foundational Tool Set with a GIS-Integrated Curriculum
Over the years, urban planning best practices have evolved in response to contemporary disruptions in social, economic, and environmental factors, so Brandes and his faculty designed the program to leverage GIS technology to embrace today's most profound disruption: the digital revolution. "The responsibilities we have as a program is to train our students to be effective in the workforce," says Brandes. "It is clear that GIS is a skill set the marketplace values and increasingly requires. I can't imagine the future of professional planning practice without strategically leveraging geospatial data."
The Georgetown program integrates the use of GIS throughout the curriculum with spatial analysis exercises and modules. Each of these modules serves to motivate students to incorporate spatial analysis in diverse subjects and provides students with the opportunity to iteratively acquire geospatial knowledge and hone their skills. Students can also enhance their GIS skill set by taking dedicated GIS classes as electives. Over the course of the program, students are introduced to ArcGIS CityEngine, ArcGIS Online, ArcGIS Pro, ArcGIS StoryMaps, and ArcGIS Urban. Program instructors have worked with Esri to develop course lectures and small group tutorials for students outside of the classroom.
"Students enter the program with a variety of backgrounds and interests. In shaping the way in which GIS is expressed in the curriculum, we believe it is important to establish multiple points of entry into the world of geospatial research, whereby each student can leverage their own passions and goals to unlock their own creativity in harnessing GIS tools," adds Joshua Murphy, faculty member and lead GIS instructor in the program. "Students are so excited to leverage GIS as an applied tool to advance their own ideas."
The program requires that students use GIS as an analytical research tool in their final capstone project in which they conceptualize an academic research or practice-oriented urban planning project that they are required to present and defend to a committee of faculty and urban planning professionals. In one thesis, a student analyzed the bicycle infrastructure of Washington, DC, to find areas of improvement for safety and mobility. The student rode and recorded the length of every bike lane in the city. Using ArcGIS to map his research results, he concluded that the bike lanes were spatially biased to benefit economically privileged communities.
"The bike lanes project was extraordinary, not because the student employed spatial analysis, but because he generated his own primary data, which in this case was a GIS layer that the city had not recently updated," Brandes says. "By using the Esri tools, at first he was able to do something very simple, which is to document the relationship between all the bike lanes and transit stations in the city. But his spatial analysis was profound; he discovered a bias in the system of systems and crafted a place-based urban planning strategy to remedy it."
Applying GIS Literacy and Spatial Analysis Tools for Equitable Urban Planning
In learning any new trade, the ability to successfully apply the concepts and technologies is key. The program's urban planning studio course provides students with a guided hands-on experience while expanding their GIS understanding and application skills. The studio course lets students apply their knowledge in a meaningful way and gain industry experience by focusing on an urban development problem in partnership with outside entities. For example, students in the summer 2020 studio partnered with the Capital Trails Coalition and mapped strategies to make the Washington region the best metropolitan area for biking in the country. Their research, The 6 Spokes: Making DC a World Class Bike Region, was presented using ArcGIS StoryMaps and showcased ridership data, current bike lane research, and student recommendations.
"We live in this extraordinary time where there's so much changing with respect to data, and that overlaps onto all kinds of changing ideas and considerations with respect to urban policy in cities," says Paul Bernard, program faculty and studio instructor at Georgetown University. "With the studio, what we have done is that we've married those two ideas in an exciting way."
In the spring 2021 studio, students were asked to reconceptualize urban development in DC's Friendship Heights neighborhood in response to the District of Columbia's new comprehensive plan, which mandates the development of affordable housing in high land value neighborhoods. Students worked with the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) to map accessibility to transit and create a strategy to redevelop obsolete retail uses into a new high-density, mixed-income neighborhood. Students drafted strategies on how to incorporate smaller, locally owned businesses into the district while dramatically increasing affordable housing options in this wealthy neighborhood, which currently has none.
Students researched the neighborhood and organized themselves into subcommittees representing community stakeholders to ensure that indicators like residential density, job types, and access were analyzed. Using ArcGIS Urban, students visualized the metrics they collected and modeled their suggestions. "There are several objective functions that the students had to consider, like what was in the best interest of the transit authority, the current real estate market, sustainability, and how to make the neighborhood equitable and affordable," Bernard says. "With ArcGIS Urban, students can handle all of those layers of complexity at one time."
As an instructor, Bernard feels incorporating GIS technologies in the classroom helps students connect disparate data into one place, enabling them to see urban planning from a democratized perspective.
"With the studio, we are trying to achieve several goals; one is ensuring students learn the urban planning disciplines and are thinking from a planner's perspective so that they are competitive and employable," Bernard says. "But there is also the second piece of the behind-the-scenes work, where they must engage and convince community members in the strengths of their ideas. And this tool has afforded us an ability to share that information visually and analytically. From a planning perspective, this is how to have a dialogue with a community and be more inclusive with folks who aren't as technically competent in the arcane terms of the urban planning profession."
ArcGIS technology can also grant access to community members to generate real-time feedback. Ted Randell, a master's candidate at Georgetown University, hopes that the technology can help reach new communities to help shape future urban planning projects. "When I think about the future, I envision community members being able to walk up to a new development, see a digital rendering of it, and next to it is a QR Code that can be scanned with a phone," says Randell. "With the scan, they can scroll through the designs on their phone or laptop and, in real time, give feedback. Planning is truly a community activity. It's not just done by a few people."
Students completed the Friendship Heights studio in May 2021 and presented their findings to WMATA and community leaders as an ArcGIS StoryMaps story.
GIS Literacy and the Future of Urban Planning Practice
In turning to the future, program instructors plan to continue to evolve the program to meet changing needs. For example, Bernard hopes that future studios involve students from the university's business and public policy schools to further increase interdisciplinary teamwork for real community impact. "Ultimately, urban planners are going to have to start working smarter and more collaboratively because the multistakeholder strength of communities is what makes urban development happen," Bernard says. "And I think from a pedagogical perspective, the urban planning studios are dealing with real-world issues, and the GIS technology provides students with the needed credibility to seek feedback from peers and external stakeholders in order to learn how to make an impact."
Student research fellow Izzy Youngs says this is just the beginning of the interdisciplinary use of GIS at Georgetown University.
"Georgetown has a strong history of civic engagement and public service, and I think that positions the university to have a unique approach in applying GIS in an interdisciplinary way," Youngs says. "In urban planning, we are making decisions that need to be evidence based. And I see the role of ArcGIS technology not only helping people make those evidence-based decisions but providing the power of democratized decision-making. My advice to future students is that they think about urban planning practices not as just an intellectual or a design exercise but as a public service."