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Summer 2004
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A Retrospective Look at the Need for a Multipurpose Cadastre

By David J. Cowen and William J. Craig

  click to enlarge
Showing how a modern multipurpose cadastre can operate, the street numbers are displayed for each parcel, the boundaries of which are constructed from legal descriptions of the property. (Data courtesy Richland County, SC)

The 1980 National Research Council (NRC) study, "Need for a Multipurpose Cadastre," represented a landmark in the history of the automation of land records systems in the United States.

At the national policy level the report boldly asserted that parcel of property ownership should be the fundamental building block for an integrated system of land information. It was recommended that this land information system should support a wide range of decision making elements, including land conveyance, equitable taxation, resource management, and environmental planning.

The report also stated that the creation and maintenance of the cadastre can only be done at the local government level. The federal government's responsibility was to foster integration of these local data sets through a set of consistent standards, funding programs, and coordination with each state.

The early vision for a multipurpose land records system painted a picture of the benefits of a coordinated multipurpose cadastre and laid out a blueprint for how the nation could position itself to reap those benefits. The report specified the following components of a multipurpose cadastre:

  • A reference frame consisting of a geodetic network
  • A series of current, accurate large-scale maps
  • A cadastral overlay delineating all cadastral parcels
  • A unique identifying number assigned to each parcel that is used as a common index to all land records in information systems
  • A series of land data files, each including a parcel identifier for purposes of information retrieval and linking with information in other data files

These early land management visionaries believed that the benefits of a multipurpose cadastre justified a substantial, proactive involvement by the federal government to establish and fund a three-tiered organizational hierarchy. For example, they recommended that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) proceed with its plans to position the network of Public Land Survey monuments that mark the corners of sections and quarter sections on federal land and to integrate it with the national geodetic control network.

The NRC's land management foundational vision was prophetic in its assessment of the current and future technological environment. The report projects the following:

    "Current technology is adequate in most cases for the surveying, mapping, data collecting, filing, and dissemination of information. Improved surveying and mapping instruments and techniques will probably reduce the cost of some of the mapping required. Advancement in computer applications, communication networks, and copying processes promise more efficient use of the multipurpose cadastre."

The report concluded, "The major obstacles in the development of a multipurpose cadastre are the organizational and institutional requirements."

Ten years after this report was written, the Office of Management and Budget established the Federal Geographic Data Committee (FGDC). At approximately the same time, the Federal Geodetic Control Committee published Multipurpose Land Information Systems: The Guidebook.

In 1994, President Clinton signed Executive Order 12906, which endorsed the concept of the National Spatial Data Infrastructure (NSDI) and directed FGDC to establish many of the items recommended by the NRC panel such as a geospatial data clearinghouse and consistent standards.

Cadastre is considered one of the seven NSDI framework layers (along with elevation bathymetry, hypsography, geodetic control, transportation, governmental units, and orthoimagery). A cadastral subcommittee composed of 39 government representatives produced a 114-page document entitled "The Cadastral Data Content Standard for the National Spatial Data Infrastructure."

Comparing NRC's 1980 document and FGDC's 1994 document shows how NRC grossly underestimated how difficult standards setting issues would be. On the other hand, its recommendation that BLM take a lead role in the cadastre system was followed, and BLM built the Geographic Coordinate Database and the National Integrated Land System.

In retrospect, since NRC's 1980 report, the United States has made only moderate progress toward the implementation of those foundational recommendations.

Current Federal Milieu

Several current federal initiatives could benefit greatly from the vision of the nationwide multipurpose cadastre described in 1980. A modern day version encompassed these same needs under the concept of a high-resolution extended spatial data framework in the 2001 NRC Mapping Science Committee report, "National Spatial Data Infrastructure Partnership Programs: Rethinking the Focus."

  click to enlarge
Comparison of the Census Bureau TIGER road file and the parcel-level data for a section of Richland County, South Carolina. Note that several parcel centroids can fall into the wrong census block.

A good example of how such a framework would assist the federal government is the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) billion-dollar Flood Map Modernization Project. According to FEMA, landownership is one of eight layers of spatial data required to produce a digital flood map. The overlay of the FEMA Flood Insurance Rate Maps with detailed parcel-level data, including ownership, would provide the basic foundation for a spatial decision support system that assesses risk and aids managers in responding to disasters.

Another federal requirement for a high-resolution extended spatial data framework is in the area of "critical infrastructure," which has been defined as the infrastructure necessary for maintaining a society or conducting a war. This critical infrastructure contains a series of Minimum Essential Data Sets that includes 17 elements such as economic activities and utilities. To meet this need, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, formerly the National Imagery and Mapping Agency, and the U.S. Geological Survey jointly initiated the 133 Urban Areas Project, which aims to identify the highest priority location to collect high-resolution, accurate, and extensively attributed base data. Clearly these efforts would be facilitated by the existence of a multipurpose cadastre.

In response to the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, awareness has increased about the country's need to improve its ability to respond to emergency situations. The FGDC has called for nationwide geospatial data compatibility for E-911 operations. The backbone of every local 911 system is an accurate set of addresses and street centerlines. This critical lifesaving application cries out for a national multipurpose cadastre based on a truly integrated series of local, state, and national spatial data infrastructures.

In a perfect world these resources would coalesce and a unified system would be built on the three-tier model outlined in the 1980 report. Ideally, the heart of the system would be the routine property record maintenance and street update programs operated by local governments. These transactions would be assembled at the state level and forwarded to the United States Census Bureau.

The most recent versions of street centerlines and address ranges (TIGER) would be available through The National Map and accessed through the Geospatial One-Stop Portal. The Census Bureau's current TIGER modernization effort is a $200 million program that will establish a point-level representation of every residential dwelling.

To accommodate the GPS capture of these residential properties, it is anticipated that the positional accuracy of the TIGER street centerlines should be improved to at least 7.6 meters. To build this improved system, the bureau is surveying 3,232 U.S. counties with the goal of assembling the best available set of street centerlines.

The bureau's difficulty to assemble these local files due to some counties' restricted access to this system highlights the institutional obstacles identified by the 1980 NRC cadastre panel. For many counties with a GIS-based multipurpose cadastre, the Census Bureau's needs are small so the counties have already shipped their data to the bureau. However, many counties with similar data have licensing restrictions that prevent them from providing the data to the bureau. For these counties, federal taxpayers are funding the Census Bureau to create street centerlines that duplicate, and are probably inferior to, data that already exists.

Although the improved street centerlines for the 2010 TIGER system will become a key part of The National Map, the point-level representation of residential buildings will be restricted for use only by the Census Bureau and will not become part of a national 911 system envisioned by the FGDC.


Many of the principles and organizational concepts laid out in NRC's 1980 report on the need for a multipurpose cadastre would help address some of the nation's most critical geospatial needs. Indeed, success has occurred in terms of the creation of standards and technology to support the creation of a multipurpose cadastre, but there has been no unified federal program to make it a reality. Furthermore, programs such as TIGER modernization demonstrate the complex entanglement of legal and financial obstacles that the United States faces when creating geospatial data.

The good news is that interest in a national cadastre appears to be growing. The Western Governors' Association has investigated this issue in two forums and made recommendations for its implementation. The National States Geographic Information Council sees this as critical to public safety and homeland security with more than half the states signing letters of support.

In a similar manner, the Urban and Regional Information Systems Association is promoting the concept of national programs with local implementation that would move toward a national cadastre.

In locales across the country, experiments are underway that could inform discussions about how to define and support land information systems that serve many purposes. They provide documentation of what is possible. These elements need to be pulled together to refocus the vision of a nationwide, multipurpose cadastre and to develop a strategy for achieving it.

This article was extracted from a special issue of Surveying and Land Information Science, Vol. 63, No. 4, edited by Grenville Barnes (on cadastral development and issues in the United States).

For more information, contact David J. Cowen, chair and Carolina distinguished professor of geography, University of South Carolina (e-mail:, or William J. Craig, associate director, Center for Urban and Regional Affairs, University of Minnesota (e-mail:

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