Modeling Better Cities for People: Interview with Shannon McElvaney

Shannon McElvaney is the Global Industry Manager of Community Development at Esri, a sponsor of the recent 50th International Making Cities Livable Conference. Shannon is also the author of GeoDesign: Case Studies in Urban and Regional Planning.

1. What is Esri, and how have Esri’s tools been applied to making cities more healthy and livable?

Esri is a geographic information system (GIS) technology company.  The interesting thing about Esri’s founder, Jack Dangermond, is he’s a landscape architect by training. He approached landscape architecture from Ian McHarg’s “design with nature” perspective, and he was in school when computers were new and thought things could be done easier with this technology. So GIS was essentially born out of landscape architecture.

Fast forward 40 years and here we are with the incredible speed of computers, the cloud, and computers you hold in your hand. GIS has leveraged these changes--it’s at the same time become much more powerful, and much more accessible. Not only that, but the applications of GIS have evolved as well.  And that’s what I was talking about in the book I wrote on geodesign.

What we render upon the earth is cultural and social. GIS was always about designing with nature in mind, making informed decisions based on geography, with the social landscape as a major component. Now with geodesign--which is the integration of geographic science into design--it’s possible to encode social values into rules and procedures and basically generate a landscape which exemplifies your cosmology of the world. So if you have a New Urbanist view of the world, you can design with that. If you have a form-based code, you can take what you want to represent and impact the landscape. Geodesign is a tool that allows you to test your assumptions, and it gives you a systematic methodology for geographic planning and decision making.



Everyone always does everything with the best intentions. Zoning rules were created done with the idea to protect human beings. In the end this concept has caused a huge problem of separated land use types. We couldn’t see that in the beginning. But what if we could? With geodesign tools and techniques, we can now model future alternative scenarios and do our best to prevent things like this from happening again.

Geodesign is really a new spin on an old idea. Since the first cities were built we’ve been designing with geography. Now we have technology that allows us to do it in a more programmatic, scientific way.

2. Many of the issues in making cities healthy and livable have to do with multiple overlapping characteristics of the built environment, such as wide sidewalks, and mixed use, and attractive facades, and traffic calmed streets, and trees in the street, and easy accessibility to a surrounding residential population, etc.  Do you think there are ways to map these overlapping issues?

I think the reason behind many bad designs is that people don't know enough--they don’t have all the information, and they don’t have the tools to adequately evaluate that information, so they don’t know the full impact of their design.

On the information front, a lot is changing.  Vehicles already exist that drive streets and take photographs (like Google Street View, for instance). Now there are more sophisticated machines that capture every item in in the landscape in 3D space. Then there are things like social media, real-times sensors, the open data movement…all of this information and more is being incorporated into GIS systems and it’s already impacting planning.

But having the information isn’t enough.  People also need to right tools to evaluate their designs against this information.  We can use GIS tools and geodesign techniques to model how the world works, applying the rules and procedures of the city with CityEngine, and then use GIS to visualize the future and evaluate impacts. It’s really quite amazing. The end goal, really, is to play with what the alternative futures might hold and with different scenarios and ask the stakeholders, is this acceptable to you? Is this what you intended? Everyone has a different view of the future; geodesign lets them test their views.

Of course, more information means more opportunities for people to collaborate and provide input.  In a group of people you find that they tend to agree 70% of the time--so you can at least let them run their scenario based on their values. If they don’t like it, which typically is the case, then you can go back and alter things. One example of this was Invision, Florida where they let people see the results of millions of people in suburbs sprawling across the state. Most people rejected this idea once they saw the outcome. Geodesign lets us have meaningful conversations across all party lines. The map provides a common framework that people can talk about so you can have a meaningful conversation instead of polarization.

If you tell people “if you design this intersection like this, you will kill x many of people”, and these statements are based on sound geographic science, they’ll understand more clearly the consequence of their design. So we need to give people the information and the tools they need to become aware of the consequences of their design decisions.

3. What do you see as the potential future development of Esri’s GIS mapping tools?

Well, the cloud is already playing a big role. More and more data is moving up to the cloud. There’s also something we’ve been calling pervasive data-- data will be widely accessible, and you will be easily able to do all kinds of calculations and do informed design because you have all of this data at your fingertips. Data like water and transportation, but also data about people. So as you’re designing, you’ll get immediate feedback on your design. And the web offers more opportunities for people to collaborate.

The other big trend is that mobile devices will continue to grow. Being able to do design work on tablets and smartphones, even just conceptual design, will become more common. You’ll have at your fingertips the information you need to design in collaboration with other people on a mapped interface in real time--you won’t have to go and search for information. This happened to me a lot when I worked at Masdar City in Abu Dhabi--missing information constrained our ability to design in real time.  I’m glad those days are behind me.

3D is the other big trend we’re embracing. People now expect 3D environments. I think gaming is a big driver for this. Immersive 3D environments will also continue to improve. Just like the 3D televisions, at some point we’ll be able to wear goggles and walk around 3D design. That already exists in some areas--we can view a city design in 3D goggles and walk around inside it, for example.

4. How does this compare with traffic modeling and other similar systems? Is there a difference in outcome?

What’s interesting about traffic modeling is that it’s based around the movement of the car. And so the speed at which we can get people from feeder streets to avenues and boulevards to a freeway, and how quickly we get them there, is the goal of that system. So basically in those models the value is the speed and movement of people, and there’s a cost associated with that. If it takes longer, it’s a negative return on investment. So you put these values in the model, and set the desired outcome.

Say that we value safety first and for us the death of even one child by car is unacceptable. The way we would design the roadways is like they have done in Europe and elsewhere: lower the speed limit to 20 miles an hour, put in roundabouts here, and put in other interventions that inhibit the flow of cars because we value the lives of people. That’s what we choose to value, and we design our streets based on those values. And by doing so we can reduce the death of people on the streets by half, or even lower. That’s our metric, saving lives, and that’s our value. You would produce a different type of feeling on the streets and environment, and people would say “it’s faster to ride my bike across town than drive so I will ride my bike.”

Or, we can now take all the traffic accidents in the country, map them out across the landscape, and then change the outcome based on various interventions like lowering speeds or adding roundabouts. It just depends on what you value when you create the model. It’s a real eye opener.

5. In addition to professionals in planning, urban design and public health, can GIS be easily used by others, even non-professional community members, to help make their neighborhoods more healthy and livable? What do you think are the implications for this?

This is an important aspect of modern GIS and geodesign. Let’s say we get a group together to design collaboratively--different folks with different backgrounds--and ask, what do you value in your landscape? People might say “I value a small town feel”, or “I like the friendliness of our town”. The challenge, really, is to take the statements of people who are not designers at all, to codify those values as rules, and design with those values in mind. There are studies that show people can recognize a person within so many feet on the street, and there are aspects of safety and enclosure that we know will represent those ideals of livable cities. Tree canopies of a certain height make it so that you have a sense of safety when you walk down a street, but they also help lead you down it and make you want to walk there because it’s more interesting. We can design a better city based on these values.



We have been doing this with favelas. We run models of the terrain and the buildings and show the design of millions of people spreading across the landscape in informal settlements. This will be a big issue in Mexico, South America, and Africa, even China. When people move to cities without a plan, you end up with unplanned growth. So that’s what we are trying to solve with our software tools.

It’s the little things, too--if we just start thinking a building is no longer just a building, and it’s a part of the neighborhood and the region, then we have to start thinking about cumulative impact. And that’s a behavioral change. I think a lot of this depends on governance, having good governance, good policies in place, and it’s also about changing behavior, which is really difficult. We almost have to change our culture to care more about these things. That’s the biggest challenge.

And finally, we have to design for people with nature. We’ve got a world now where humans are changing the entire globe and we have to radically change the way we think. A lot of people have written about this--the anthropocene--a new geologic epoch, the age of humans. We’re at this crucial point in time where we have to get really good at design that not just minimizes impacts today, but also design that is best for the future.