ArcWatch: GIS News, Views, and Insights

April 2012

A Conversation with Carl Steinitz

His Book, A Framework for Geodesign, to Be Published by Esri Press This Summer

Creating a good design takes organization. That's why Harvard University professor Carl Steinitz developed a robust conceptual framework or workflow for regional land-use design projects.

photo of Carl Steinitz
Carl Steinitz, author of A Framework for Geodesign

Steinitz spent more than 30 years teaching these design methods and strategies to his students at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. But this summer, his methodology will be available to a much wider audience when Esri Press publishes his new book, A Framework for Geodesign. The book, scheduled for publication in mid-July, will include nine case studies, each focusing on a different design method. Plans are also in the works for the publication of a Chinese edition.

During the recent GeoDesign Summit in Redlands, California, Esri president Jack Dangermond talked about the importance of linking information knowledge with the design process and tools and methods that "allow us to create sustainable designs and sustainable environments in the future."

"In Carl's book, we now begin to realize that geodesign is not just a concept," Dangermond said. "It can be thought of as a systematic process of measuring, modeling, interpreting, designing, evaluating, and making decisions."

Esri writer Carla Wheeler sat down with Steinitz for a few minutes during a break from the GeoDesign Summit to discuss A Framework for Geodesign.

Six questions to ask. Source: Carl Steinitz
Six questions to ask. Source: Carl Steinitz

Wheeler: How did the idea come about to do the book?

Steinitz: People have been after me for 20 years to write a book about structuring and organizing large what you now might call geodesign projects, which I've been working on since 1965. The framework that I, and others with whom I collaborate, have been using for 30 years was published first in 1990 in a paper called "A Framework for the Education of Landscape Architects and Other Design Professionals."

Wheeler: Did you call it a geodesign framework at that time?

Steinitz: No, not at all. I proposed it as a generic framework for design projects which required iteration, feedback, and collaboration. There are important design studies which I have always thought were larger than projects. And that's because of my education and doctoral work with Kevin Lynch (a professor of city planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology [MIT]). He believed you could design at the scales of cities and regions. I'm perfectly capable of designing smaller projects, and I have. But I don't think that the serious issues facing the world are the sum of local decisions. I just don't believe that. And so I think that looking at issues at the scale in which they operate and can be changed is important. And most of those issues, like air, water, and biodiversity, are not done at the one-acre scale. And they are design issues.

Wheeler: Are there certain issues you've been concerned with that you'd like to see your framework put to work on in order to solve design problems?

Steinitz: No. I think by now the framework has been used for many years by some people on all kinds of things—on development, conservation, and management, and at a range of scales. Jack [Dangermond] and I and others have conversed over the years about the need to have some basis for organization. But that's not a new idea or my idea. Other people have proposed frameworks over the years. There's a collection of them.

Wheeler: Because without organization, what happens?

Examples from my own case memory
Examples from my own case memory: places I have seen and drawn and concepts I have studied. Source: Carl Steinitz

Steinitz: Chaos, argument, or chance—and it's not terribly efficient, and it's not terribly effective. The framework is not a theory but a framework. It helps in organizing the process; it doesn't propose answers. It asks six questions, and, one by one, you have to work your way through and answer in relation to the problem. The questions are generic enough so that they fit different problems at different scales.

Wheeler: Let's quickly go over those six questions.

Steinitz: The noun you use in asking the questions may denote the scale or location or theme that you're working on. I'm going to use the word landscape, for example. How should we describe the landscape? How does the landscape work? Is the landscape working well? Those are the three fundamental questions about the present and the past.

How might the landscape be changed or altered? What differences might the changes cause? And finally, What should we do?/How should it be changed? Those are the six questions, but each one of those has sub questions. And you have to ask those at least three times during the course of any study or project. The first time you're going down the questions, and that's typical, because you start by saying, Where are we? Right? So those are the why questions. And that's scoping the project, figuring out why you're there in the first place, why you are worried about this issue or place or whatever. And the second pass is in the reverse sequence, the how questions. You start with, What do decision makers know? How will they judge whether they've got a good design? And it's the same questions, but you're not starting with data. I think it's a huge mistake to start with data.

Better science and more effort versus better public understanding.
Better science and more effort versus better public understanding. Source: Carl Steinitz

Wheeler: And do you think a lot of people do that?

Steinitz: I think almost all people do that. Almost all the design methods, almost all the geographers think, Let's start with the data and understand the data. Well, no. Let me digress. The painter John Constable was famous for painting landscapes with wonderful clouds. The clouds are complex patterns. And it was said of Constable that he said, "It's not I see, therefore, I understand. It's I understand, therefore, I see." So you can't start with data because you don't even know what data to collect unless you have a question and a framework for saying, Why do we need the data? So, you basically start in reverse. What do the decision makers need to know to be able to say, What should we do? What impacts, therefore, do we have to study? What designs do we have to create as options? Why should we make a design if things are working well? To know they're working well, I need to know how they work. To know how they work, I need data, and now I know what data I need.

Wheeler: So it's way farther along in the process.

Steinitz: Yes. And then you again work through the six questions when carrying out the study—the what, where, and when questions.

Wheeler: Do you often find that in the end there's a perfect design, or do you feel it's often just a compromise?

Steinitz: No, no, no. It's neither a compromise nor a perfect design. That's normal. I wrote a paper years ago called "The Trouble with a Strong Concept Fully Worked Out." In large projects, you know you don't know everything, and you know you don't control everything. So completeness never is a really important criterion because you know that it's changing as it happens. On a small project, sometimes the idea of completeness can be okay. But in the real world, change is a constant. It may not be perceived, but it's there. And, those are tough judgments, and I don't have perfect answers, that's for sure. But if somebody says, This is the perfect design, my next question will be, For whom and for how long?

A hypothesis regarding the relationship between geographical study area (size and scale) and change models.
A hypothesis regarding the relationship between geographical study area (size and scale) and change models. Source: Carl Steinitz

Wheeler: Tell me more about your new book.

Steinitz: The book is fundamentally about collaboration among four groups of people: The people of the place, design professionals, information technologists, and geographically or spatially oriented scientists. All four are necessary to that collaboration. Each brings something to it, and each contributes something to it. I don't believe there should ever be somebody called a geodesigner. And I don't believe the noun geodesign should be attached to the product. In other words, I'm not a geodesigner making a geodesign. I'm an architect or a hydrologist collaborating with planners and mayors and geographers to make a conservation plan for the great apes of Africa or a sewer plan for San Diego or a new master plan for Calgary or a building that has to have various characteristics managed technically.

So the product is what it is, and the professions are what they are. But geodesign provides a framework, tools, some ideas, and some methods for collaborating to get better designs of those kinds of things for the future.

Wheeler: How would you define geodesign?

Steinitz: My definition is, geodesign is changing geography by design. And the word design is both either a noun [and] a verb. In the book, I treat it mainly as a verb. By design means intentionally. [Herbert] Simon's definition is, "Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones." And that's a verb. It's a process.

Wheeler: Who would you like to see read A Framework for Geodesign? Will regular folks interested in design enjoy it?

Steinitz: I tend not to use jargon. It's colorful. It's diagrammatic. It's written in simple language. It's aimed at ordinary people; it's aimed at the people of the place. But it is primarily for design professionals and spatially oriented scientists and especially students of the design professions and sciences. I'm a teacher at heart. Most experienced people know what they're doing and want to keep doing it or improving it but not necessarily go back to basics. It's aimed at scientists and getting them to think about what design is. And it's aimed at information technologists who are producing the means toward the design solutions.

I'm hoping that all four buy it, borrow it—I don't care how they acquire it—read it, and, most importantly, use it well.

Carl Steinitz, Alexander and Victoria Wiley Professor of Landscape Architecture and Planning Emeritus, Graduate School of Design, Harvard University, has devoted much of his career to improving methods of landscape planning and design. Steinitz has organized and taught collaborative, multidisciplinary, semester-long studios and many one- to four-day workshops on large and complex landscape change problems for more than 40 years at Harvard and at many other universities.

His interests are reflected in his teaching and research on landscape change, methods of landscape analysis, visual quality assessment, and design methodologies. In 1984, he received the Outstanding Educator Award of the Council of Educators in Landscape Architecture; he also received the 1996 Distinguished Practitioner Award from the International Association for Landscape Ecology (USA). He has been honored as an outstanding teacher by Harvard University.

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