Role of GIS in Urban Planning

What is GIS?

A Geographic Information System (GIS) is a system that utilizes software and hardware to create, analyse, manipulate data along with location information and display the output on a map. GIS indexes and combines descriptive information with geographic coordinates to provide a foundation for mapping and analysis that is used in almost every industry. GIS is the intersection of location and data, which helps users understand trends, patterns, relationships in geographic context. This leads to efficient management and better decision making.

How is GIS used?

An increasing number of organizations are using GIS to make maps that communicate, analyse and share information, in turn solving complex problems around the world. Such information is often in the form of raster data (pixel values) or vector data (point/line/polygon) as shown in the picture

Geographic Information represented with a combination of point, line and polygon vectors

Geographic Information represented with a combination of point, line and polygon vectors / Source – author

It has permeated almost every sphere of our lives today without most of us realizing. The technology applies geographic science with tools for understanding and collaboration in order to gain actionable location intelligence from all types of data. It is being used to:

  • Identify issues – Use GIS to illuminate geography-driven barriers.
  • Change Detection – With the help of Machine Learning models.
  • Track events – GIS delivers real-time situational awareness on natural forces.
  • Forecasting – Using GIS to forecast spatial growth, project traffic, etc.
  • Set priorities – GIS helps to set order of importance based on spatial analysis.
  • Identify patterns – GIS gives insight into data that might be missed in a textual form.

What is the role of GIS in Urban Planning?

Urban planners analyse a city and in turn, are responsible for deciding and designing land use, creating plans for future improvements and growth etc. Growth of these cities shoot up the demand for infrastructure, like water, power, public utilities, rail-road etc., which must be planned in scalable and sustainable manner. Existing utilization of resources, combined with population information can be compiled in GIS and displayed on a map. It can be used as the base layer while projection models run on top.

Modern urban planning started taking place in the 18th century due to issues like widespread diseases, disasters, medieval layouts and overcrowded fortifications. Planners understood that settling people away from polluting environments would improve health of the residents. This led to the inception of zoning ordinances: that separated residential areas from industrial and business districts. Fortunately for city planners today, Computer Aided Design has advanced in a way that can help. Geographic Information System (GIS) has become an invaluable tool for urban managers.

In the context of urban planning, GIS provides the ability to better understand a city’s current needs, and then design to fulfil those needs. Users gain a detailed perspective on land and infrastructure by capturing/procuring data from Radar, Lidar sensors and imagery from drones and satellites. Such tools can be adapted to collect information from small villages as well as dense metropolitan areas.

Some common applications of uses of GIS in Urban Planning include (but not limited to) the following:

  • Mapping population growth, forecasting followed by development regulation activities at various scales.
  • Provision of physical and social infrastructure.
  • E-Governance and Municipal services.
  • Impact studies for traffic, environment etc.
  • Preservation of sensitive areas, historic sites etc.
  • Identifying vulnerabilities, real-time updates on emergency preparedness and response.

Why Urban Planners need GIS technology?

Our living spaces are constantly expanding and evolving, and planners must be prepared to adapt. By implementing methods and tools from GIS, planners can streamline their work and discover valuable perspective on urgent challenges. Extensive, near real-time, up-to-date 3-dimensional geospatial data offers visibility into a city’s current needs and spatial limitations.

There are numerous applications of GIS in urban planning, with the potential to make a significant impact on the growth of communities and the lives of residents. With the help of these findings, city officials can set long-term strategies for the use of land and other resources. GIS equips city planners and managers with deep data visibility. It helps them in keeping track of temporal changes, evaluating the viability of proposed projects, evaluating how these proposals will sit with the existing infrastructure and predict the environmental impact. Outputs can be queried before being displayed according to the needs of respective stakeholders, showing them what on-ground changes would look like in a simulated environment.

For city planning and allied sectors, GIS provides tools to accurately map out anything from a small plot to metropolitan regions. Let’s dive deeper on how this mapping of the existing infrastructure and resources today -will turn into digital twins of the cities of tomorrow.

1. Resource Inventory

One of the most important steps in a project is compiling all the relevant data in one place. GIS provides the ability to integrate information from multiple formats and present it in a way that the user can view, manipulate and analyse in order to achieve desired output. This information could be sourced from active and passive remote sensors and cameras. Such devices can be mounted on satellites, manned or unmanned aerial vehicles like airplanes/drones, on-ground equipment, or submarines in case of ocean and deep-sea studies. Cameras are used to capture photographs, while sensors use microwave and infrared radiation to capture information about different surfaces such as vegetation, soil, crops, tree cover etc. along with elevation data.

All features, natural or man-made, within the study area are digitized in the form of either points, lines or polygons and then stacked in different layers in GIS. The main advantage of this system over traditional Computer Aided Design (CAD) software is the location aspect. Each data point in the system can be assigned its unique geographic coordinates, a simple but significant step in ensuring the spatial accuracy of data.

2. Existing Situation Analysis

After compiling the data from various licensed and open-source datasets, city planners can use query functions within GIS to analyse the existing situation of the study area. Intended features can be queried out either by manually selecting, or by sorting through the attribute table of that feature. Common types of storage for a feature are shapefiles, feature classes, layer groups etc.

Depending on the project requirements, analysis can range from simple query selections, geometric operations like unions and intersections, to complex network and spatial analysis. This data and analysis can then be utilized to influence important decisions for the future.

3. Modelling and Projection

Analysis of existing data leads to development of different future models and scenarios. In the domain of Urban Planning, projection of future population and economic growth play a crucial role. Spatial distribution data of the population makes it possible to estimate a wide range of impacts of various development activities. Based on the predicted impact of these activities, viable options are formulated. Merits and de-merits for each option helps the planners in making an informed decision regarding all future developments.

4. Plan Implementation

Although, the final decision regarding the optimal planning intervention is mostly a political process, city planners and managers can still provide all the technical inputs required using multi-criteria decision analysis with GIS.

During the plan implementation process, GIS helps in real-time monitoring and evaluation of the project on predefined parameters. Layers in the system can be programmed to update either at regular intervals or as and when the information is collected. All relevant progress can be tracked via one single dashboard which leads to resource efficiency of the project.

Author Bio: Navay Gulati is an Urban and Regional Planner from University of Petroleum and Energy Studies, Dehradun. He is currently working as a geospatial consultant and involved in multiple state and central government projects.

  • Environmental Systems Research Institute
  • Unearth Labs
  • European Geophysics Union General Assembly (2014). The benefits of GIS to land use planning
  • SAO/NASA Astrophysics Data System, Harvard University


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