Penn State's Geodesign Studio Project Supports Student Growth and Community Development
Offered entirely online and designed for working professionals, Penn State University's geodesign graduate degree and certificate programs help empower the next generation of environmental and urban design experts around the world. Geodesign is a process that leverages the analytical power of geographic information system (GIS) technology for a dynamic approach to designing and planning land-based projects that are environmentally, economically, and socially sustainable. Students in the program hail from a variety of academic disciplines and levels of GIS understanding. The goal is that by the end of their three-year studies, students will have become creative problem-solvers who understand and can orchestrate the process of geodesign.
Each year, this robust program offers students the opportunity to gain hands-on experience at studios in two different settings: urban and rural. The urban design studio presents challenges and complexities common to revitalizing a city. Fall 2020 brought together a blended cohort of graduate and undergraduate students to collaborate over 14 weeks on a citywide revitalization project for the City of Utica, New York. The project emerged as a unique opportunity due to plans for the city to build a new hospital.
"Our scenario with Utica was to understand the ripples throughout the community," says James Sipes, lecturer in geodesign, Penn State Department of Landscape Architecture . "We knew where the hospital location was, and we wanted to know what kind of effects [that would] have throughout the community. How can we look at the broader picture and opportunities for community growth that this might bring?"
Sipes adds that he and colleague Dan Meehan, Penn State geodesign program manager, believed it was vital that students not only interact with innovative technology but also think about urban design and planning differently to better use it.
Rethinking the Urban Fabric
• Students from Penn State University's online geodesign program participated in a studio project focused on revitalizing the city of Utica, New York.
• Students used ArcGIS technology and support from Esri staff in designing and planning projects that are environmentally, economically, and socially sustainable.
• The studio project provided hands-on technical experience and the opportunity to present recommendations for the city to implement after the completion of its new hospital.
Sipes and Meehan formatted the class projects around the International Geodesign Collaboration (IGC) framework. Using this format allows students to study three design scenarios over time for the City of Utica. These scenarios include the early adopter, the late-adopter, and the current business-as-usual trajectory. When these scenarios are visualized, the cumulative impact of implementing planning strategies sooner rather than later is highlighted. Students are also asked to estimate the impact on the United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals in order to frame the problems or challenges they chose to study.
"The goal in using the IGC format was to have students look at those scenarios; see that they proposed X, Y, [and] Z; and then tell us if what they proposed either positively or negatively affected the sustainability goals," Meehan says. "The key point wasn't to have students reach every goal but to see how the changes they were proposing would impact different levels of sustainability."
With students taking a multifaceted approach to city planning, visualization will be a key factor in their ability to see interconnected challenges and better inform their methods to resolving them. GIS—specifically, ArcGIS Urban—proved to be the needed technology.
"ArcGIS Urban was at the core of what we were doing primarily because it's one of the few tools we know of that [would allow] us to put in so many different variables, assumptions, and different complexities at that scale and allow us to visualize the impacts," Sipes says.
Over the course, students used several tools including ArcGIS CityEngine, ArcGIS Urban, ArcGIS GeoPlanner, ArcGIS Online, and ArcGIS StoryMaps. For some students, the tools presented a learning curve. However, Esri staff provided multiple training sessions as well as tech support.
Graham Mills, who is pursuing a bachelor's degree in landscape architecture at Penn State, says that the GIS technology and support from Esri staff helped him learn the workflows and get the skills and expertise needed for his career.
"The opportunity to workshop with Esri solutions staff was invaluable, to show us how they're using these tools, which of course went above and beyond what we had imagined in our small class and pushed us to strive for more with our individual projects," Mill says. "I think everyone benefited from seeing the possibilities of these tools. The only limitation was our unique concepts and initiative."
Applying City Planning Concepts through a Geodesign Lens
The first half of the project focused on where the hospital would be located: the city's U-District, an area of downtown for small businesses and entertainment. This project helped students familiarize themselves with course concepts and tools on a small scale. The students' analysis included existing and potential business options, ideas to revitalize the historical character of downtown Utica, and opportunities to attract new residents.
"We went from this smaller-sized project to [saying], 'OK, now that you have reimagined what would happen there, now apply that to an entire city.' So they had to stop and think about the things they had learned in that first project and apply it on a larger scale," Sipes says. "We wanted them to think big about how to change the entire city but think in a methodical way on how we can get there."
Part of the research that the students conducted included understanding key stakeholders, which is a central tenant of the geodesign approach. As a class, the students came up with five groups of stakeholders: government, residents, business owners, hospital affiliates, and developers. Acting as stakeholder group representatives, the students researched the needs and goals of each specific group. From there, they outlined a series of key topics: improving health and wellness with community gardens and agricultural farms, upgrading streets to be more pedestrian friendly, working with new zoning plans and parcels, and more. One project featured a tree-planting initiative that would focus on vacant land and parking lots to add greenery, enhance air quality, and improve wellness across the city.
"One of the things students did well was that they stopped thinking about singular issues and began to think about multiple issues and overlapping benefits or impacts," Sipes continues.
At the end of the course, students used ArcGIS Urban to present 3D visualizations and massing models of all the buildings in Utica. They were able to model zoning changes, propose transportation networks and bike lanes, and map areas for parks and gardens. Students presented their findings to geodesign experts and Utica city staff, using ArcGIS StoryMaps to deliver information in a graphical and easy-to-understand format. Student work is also viewable for further learning purposes via the Penn State studio design hub. Through all their efforts, students gained significant technical skills and a new way of understanding and applying geodesign.
"As a student who is used to small-scale, site-specific designs, moving toward a city-scale project was a huge challenge," says Sara Schwartz, who is pursuing a master's degree in landscape architecture and a geodesign certificate at Penn State. "Overall, these digital tools and their features and storytelling capabilities enhanced my work and experience."
Looking to the future, Meehan and Sipes hope the geodesign framework becomes more widely used. Geodesign empowers analysis for data-driven decision-making and inspires people to change the way they think about digital problem-solving for addressing ever-changing complex issues in the world.