Environmental Planning & Design and GIS

If there is one area of environmental science in which GIS or Geographic Information Systems/Science is vital, it is Environmental Planning and Design. This is true whether we are looking at an urban or rural landscapes, both of which provide issues of their own with different sets of data and considerations. The role of an Environmental Planner or Environmental Designer is to make decisions based on geographic data; GIS makes available to full range of information in an easy to use database and map that can be manipulated by each issue and for various interested parties. An Environmental Planner will use it to plan and organise a transport network and examine its impact on the environment, manage natural habitats and study the impact that other elements of the landscape may have.

There are a growing number of options to study GIS in a framework of Environmental Planning and Design. As far as undergraduate study is concerned, you will find that most states have a university where GIS is an option; however there is no dedicated undergraduate programme because of the independent study project nature of the tool. It is advisable to take something like an Environmental Planning degree or equivalent and take GIS as a minor. Postgraduate study will be essential for Environmental Planning if not now, then certainly within a few years when employers will start to expect GIS knowledge.

Environmental Planners and Designers work with government policy on the management of the built and the natural landscape (1, p66); GIS presents and allows you to work more freely and quickly with the sort of geographic data you will be handling all the time. It is more suitable than any other form than digital cartography because it is concerned with the data extracted from the map rather than the features of an environment. GIS specialists are highly skilled with expert knowledge of the concepts of geographic data.

Read more on how to become a GIS specialist.

How Environmental Planners and Design Uses GIS

Environmental Planning and Design looks at the landscape as a machine made up of component parts, it does not look at single areas in isolation, but treats all independent and interdependent elements as part of a holistic framework for decision making. It is concerned with local, regional, national and international policy and how decisions taken in one place can impact the wider environment (2, p1). The information presented by Planners and Designers considers a number of factors. These can be but are not limited to:

  • Protection of the natural environment and integrated land use - including risk assessment of coastal erosion and flooding, two of the biggest factors for civic management to deal with today. As the effects of climate change have taken hold, we are at greater risk of greater frequency of these effects and there will be a need to plan an effective strategy (1, p516).
  • How the built environment should be managed and administered in light of growth of urban sprawl. As the economy changes, towns and cities can undergo rapid expansion or contraction (1, p66) requiring review of policy of infrastructure management. Urban planning never solely concerns itself with the town as a unit, but also considers the wider landscape impact (12, 958).
  • The two factors above do not exist in bubbles and decision taken about their management has the potential to impose impact on other elements of the landscape. When the decision was made to build the Aswan Dam in Egypt for example, it brought to an end a tradition of farming that had existed for thousands of years and had a permanent effect on the ecology (3). Yet it allowed the country to control the flow of water along the Nile and allow the country to survive drought in the 1970s and 1980s while their neighbours suffered.
  • The social and economic factors of any of the decisions above being taken. This is no better exemplified at present than Detroit's recent decision to open up its geographic data on how the city is managed - making that information available to anyone. Those who might need it, can use the information to plan their business strategy around demographics, crime statistics, transport network and other factors (4)

Whereas Environmental Engineers examine and enact the logistical side of dealing with our waste, pollution, transport network and road infrastructure - they are part of the process of management once the decisions have been taken and the infrastructure in place. Environmental Planners are involved at the beginning of the process (2, p2) but will overlap with Environmental Engineers in some cases as part of a long-term observation.

No country yet has a standard framework for managing the environment in this way (5, p346-7) and as such, GIS has not been fully integrated in decision making yet more and more private and public bodies are investing in the tool. Nevertheless, where it has been taken up it has become a vital method on which the biggest decisions are made, particular for concerns about water resource use and management (5, p347-350).

Example Case Studies

GIS and Sustainability Planning

The Upper San Pedro Basin has a population of around 114,000 people. It is a dry, arid region on the border between Arizona and Mexico and is said to present a number of challenges to the Environmental Planner (5, p350). This is one of the best examples of where several competing factors must play off against each other and make compromises for the good of the whole. Stakeholders include businesses who wish to utilise the resources, the people who live and work there who want to keep their jobs but also want a healthy environment, the authorities in charge of preserving the natural habitats and the water authorities concerned with a sustainable water supply. Sustainability is often the key to many of the applications for which GIS is used (7). It can provide up to date information that can be easily manipulated.

As desert / dry regions are environmentally fragile, in terms of the ecosystems as well as what can be reasonably achieved economically and socially in marginal environments, the area is subject to careful management policies. It sits on the border between two deserts that both have a variable climate and distinct ecologies that present problems to Environmental Planning (5, p351). It is also under the authority of two separate countries, making a delicate situation potentially difficult at times.

This area is a great case study for professionals in the field on proper management because over-pumping activities of the 20th century has led to an acknowledged loss of biodiversity (6) and was the cause of the first application of agreed international environmental law anywhere in the US (5, p351). The Pinal County was successfully sued for misusing the waterways in the area and today it has legal protection. It is also one of the first areas to have utilised GIS as a management tool to preserve the delicate ecology, to keep a watch on the various elements, businesses and authorities operating in the ecosystem while allowing conservation groups to protect and promote wildlife as the law dictates (6). A large number of migratory birds use the area seasonally. The US Army, the EPA and a number of other responsible agencies combined GIS data to build a full picture of the activities of the area, allowing for proper management and taking on the full range of factors that will be affected by and will affect the decision (8).

GIS and Urban Development Planning

Urban centres on their own can provide a multitude of problems: from resource allocation, crime statistics, employment levels, age demographics, traffic build up and relief, infrastructure - the list goes on an in terms of environmental planning, GIS is an essential tool to managing the changing ecology and topography of our urban centres.

Most urban development is driven by growth - growth of economy, growth of industry, growth of infrastructure which are all knock-on effects of population growth (9, p297). The urban and environmental planners of today use GIS as the most efficient system yet of keeping our roads as clear as possible and resources to where they need quick and efficient access. There must be a balance between promoting the needs of people while protecting the environment and it seems we cannot build our way out of congestion or resources and amenities stretched to their limit. No matter how small or large a community, the planners will need to use spatial data and work with maps (10, p2) to decide how to manage the landscape. By storing present information about the urban landscape, elements can be highlighted or disregarded, allowing decision makers to decide such important things as where new roads should go in order to best provide relief or access (11, p880). Example data they may look at include:

  • Land suitability. You will want to know which areas are prone to flooding (10, p12) or whether there are designated protected zones nearby. You may not want to put a new housing development there if records show it floods every decade or so, or the area is close to an environmentally sensitive site that may be damaged by development (9, p306).
  • Congestion - a road that is designed to relieve gridlock needs to built in the right place(s) to ensure maximum relief of the roads already at full capacity. Entry and exit junctions, the direction of the road and even which roads it is designed to relieve.
  • Transport planning - The same data will also be used to ensure maximum revenue by utilising the best routes available on the public transport network (10, p8). Which routes are underused and could do with cutting back the service? Which is oversubscribed and needs more capacity? Could we create a new route to remove potential bottlenecks?
  • Catchment area - this is especially important when planning public conveniences. A new shopping centre needs to be in a viable place to ensure maximum usage (12, p959-60). Access must be suitable to ensure maximum appeal, accessibility and use of existing land.

The Future of Environmental Planning

There will be a greater need for Environmental Planning as the human population gets bigger and we adapt to new legislation on conservation and climate change mitigation while promoting social prosperity and permit technological advance and economic growth. As we look to the sustainable technologies and renewable energy, there will be a massive planning process to decide where best to put wind turbines, dams, hydroelectric power plants and other sources of fuel (13) as well as to build the cities of the future constructed with sustainability in mind.

Related Degrees


  1. Longley, P.A., Goodchild, M.F., Maguire, D.J. & Rhind D.W. 2011: Geographic Information Systems & Science (Third Edition). Wiley: Hoboken, New Jersey
  2. https://www.planning.org/ncpm/education/pdf/kidsenvironmental.pdf (No longer available)
  3. http://sitemaker.umich.edu/sec004_gp5/the_aswan_dam_disadvantages
  4. http://www.modeldmedia.com/features/newgeographers031015.aspx
  5. http://www.epa.gov/esd/land-sci/agwa/pdf/pubs/hypesd.pdf
  6. http://www.biologicaldiversity.org/programs/public_lands/rivers/san_pedro_river/
  7. http://geospatialworld.net/Paper/Technology/ArticleView.aspx?aid=1214
  8. http://web.unbc.ca/~michael/courses/712/Rae%20et%20al%202007.pdf
  9. http://astro.temple.edu/~jmennis/Courses/GUS_0150/readings/Waddell02.pdf
  10. http://www.esri.com/library/brochures/pdfs/gis-sols-for-urban-planning.pdf
  11. http://www.geos.ed.ac.uk/~gisteac/gis_book_abridged/files/ch62.pdf
  12. http://www.geos.ed.ac.uk/~gisteac/gis_book_abridged/files/ch68.pdf
  13. http://www.gisday.com/resources/ebooks/renewable-energy.pdf

Matthew Mason

MG Mason has a BA in Archaeology and MA in Landscape Archaeology, both from the University of Exeter. A personal interest in environmental science grew alongside his formal studies and eventually formed part of his post-graduate degree where he studied both natural and human changes to the environment of southwest England; his particular interests are in aerial photography. He has experience in GIS (digital mapping) but currently works as a freelance writer as the economic downturn means he has struggled to get relevant work. He presently lives in southwest England.