Friday, March 18, 2011

Geographic Information Systems Mapping for a Sustainable Future

Mapping is such an important yet overlooked exercise. With Geographic Information Systems (GIS) mapping has the power to share many stories. We have done some in-depth mapping for clients that have informed our Land Capacity Analyses for Comprehensive Plans. Gone are the days for approximating buildable lands. You can get acreage down to the last square yard if you need to. However, the quality of the mapping depends greatly on the quality of data available. It may be costly too. It may take up to 2-3 days just to set up the data to the format in which it makes sense. After that, depending on the speed of your computer system, it may take up 2-3 hours or more to generate and map a query – for instance, how much land is within 1500 feet of the mean high tide and what uses make up that land? It is evident that few have really explored the power of maps to influence good city planning and design. For sustainable planning, we need to make sure that we understand and map all the forces that make up the city’s environmental framework. This goes for activities above ground that have the potential to affect environmental performance – within city limits as well as from surrounding jurisdictions. If I was working in a city at the bottom of the hill, I would definitely want to map the permeability of development further uphill. Every time that land gets paved over, my jurisdiction will be affected. Similarly, I would want to know about functions that are underground. What is happening to the water table? What are the limits to my aquifer? How can I safely infiltrate water to recharge the aquifer at the same rate as consumption? Similarly, I would want to account for social disparities in my community. Is poverty concentrated in my community? Do my community’s investment choices correspond to the location of impoverished areas? Are they persistently deprived of investment? It is easy enough to map public infrastructure and investment to generate a map for social equity. Google Earth Outreach does just that and more. Several great resources for mapping are the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), Federal Emergency Management Agency, (FEMA), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and private companies like Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI) and Google Earth. Nonprofits like the World Resource Institute and the World Wildlife Fund and smaller ones such as the Nutty Birdwatcher, like many others, provide a wealth of information on the natural world, bird migration paths, compromised ecosystems and others. Information has become so sophisticated now that one can click on a parcel can provide you with all the layers of information attached to that parcel. Earlier the cost of servers to process this magnitude of data was exorbitant. Now with cloud computing, this cost can be lowered significantly. Many mapping departments across the country are feeling the brunt of diminishing public funds. However, for a sustainable future, mapping is a critical source for data, decision-making and equity. City, county and State governments have an opportunity to streamline and inform good decision-making by investing in their data and mapping capabilities, can you afford not to if you are seeking a sustainable future?

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