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GIS for Urban Planning

GIS for Urban Planning: Making Cities a Better Place to Live

GIS is commonly used in urban planning, in fact, it’s an essential tool of the trade. It gives urban planners the ability to assess and analyze the current spatial dynamics of the city, but also plan for the future based on predicted or modelled demographic changes. The visual nature of GIS provides a strong basis for communicating and presenting these proposed plans or local assessments to stakeholders. This can help in procuring necessary funding, or gaining approval or engagement on a project from local residents.

GIS is used for a broad range of applications from land use planning, to crime mapping, waste management, urban infrastructure planning, transport planning, and green infrastructure. 

Land Use Planning

Local municipalities will use GIS to decide on the optimal use of land. They can take into account factors like soil type, topography, and proximity to existing infrastructure and urban development sites all while looking at existing zoning and use. Soil type is important to consider because the drainage ability of the soil, or it’s suitability to hold structures may make the land unsuitable for some purposes. For example, if the hillsides are too steep, this area would be of high risk for landslides and therefore unsuitable for high density development.

Singapore is one of the most densely populated cities in the world. Land availability is in short supply, so urban planners have mastered the science of optimizing land use. They hope that by using GIS effectively to plan urban development they can continue to meet development and economic objectives without sacrificing quality of life for citizens. Singapore’s Urban Redevelopment Authority have been working with Esri’s City Engine for urban planning. It is a GIS tool for planning urban redevelopment in 3D, according to the requirements and regulations for that area. 

Typically, once a government has established land suitability for different development types, they will create a zoning map. Zoning maps are common in many cities around the world, and are often available online, so members of the public can see what zone a property they intent to buy falls into. This will affect their ability to develop the land and the types of construction possible. There are commonly future land use plans available published alongside zoning. Future land use indicates the future zoning expectations for an area that will help the community achieve its planned goals.

Flood Risk Management 

Managing flood risk falls within land use planning and zoning, however, flood management is big business. GIS is used to model a variety of flood scenarios and predicted flood heights, but it also guides zoning regulations on land. 

The UK government has produced detailed flood risk and flood zone maps that guide construction regulations. Modelling predictions for varying degrees of flood severity have been completed for every catchment area in the UK, and they can provide valuable guidelines for regulators and the public. For new construction to be approved, a landholder must complete a planning application which includes a flood risk assessment. This is designed to keep people and property out of harm’s way, now and into the future. Any proposed constructions that are in a flood risk zone will often have flooding compensations built into their plan. 

Crime Mapping and Management

By using GIS, city planners can gain an understanding of crime hotspots and dynamics throughout a city, helping them to better place and upgrade security infrastructure like surveillance cameras, lighting, and police. 

In Malaysia, the Safe City Program was established in 2004 and became an important part of the Government Transformation Program aim to reduce crime. By using their GIS web application, the Safe City Monitoring System, authorities were able to collate all the data to pinpoint crime hotspots. They are able to filter data to display crime hotspots at different times of the day and different types of crime reported. This meant they could establish the best areas for improved street lighting where they saw higher reports of crime at night time.

Waste Management

As a result of rapidly expanding populations, many cities around the world have had to reassess and optimize their solid waste management services. Inefficient waste management means greater environmental impacts and social consequences for residents. By using GIS, managers can establish everything from appropriate size of waste bins, placement of refuse bins, and optimal collection routes, patterns, and locations. All of this can also improve cost efficiency of waste services by minimizing fuel costs. 

In Jordan, due to the high influx of refugees coming from Syria, the city of Irbid has grown exponentially, putting immense strain on solid waste services. GIS modelling was used in this region to optimize routes for collection trucks, reducing costs and the number of missed bins, allowing the city to make the best use of the resources available.

Urban Infrastructure Planning

Urban infrastructure is a big deal, and always expensive. Optimizing delivery of these infrastructure projects is critical to minimizing costs. GIS gives service providers, like in the telecommunications industry, the ability to enhance network planning, deployment, maintenance and operations of networks, and even sales and marketing. Turkcell, a popular telecom provider in Turkey, have been able to use machine learning and GIS to plan for future demand on their networks. In a case study published by ESRI, Turkcell made use of spatial data like infrastructure assets, socioeconomic data and existing subscriber data in order to estimate the increase in subscriber rates in new areas. This means they can accurately time their investment and construction projects. Some organizations even utilize digital twins to help governments model cities and the environment’s impact. 

Transport Planning

GIS helps transportation planners make informed decisions on the most optimal routes for bus routes or bikes lanes, but also helps in forecasting increased or decreased demand. In response to an increased need to cut back on carbon emissions, there is more drive than ever to get people out of cars and onto bikes and shared public transport. One of the hindrances to using public transportation is often poor network coverage, and with changing demographics in our cities, public transit services need to adapt too. Many countries face a rapidly aging population and many of these elderly people are reliant on public transport. 

In Naples, Italy, a group of researchers looked at the accessibility of the public bus network to people aged 65 and up. In the study they used GIS to identify the bus network areas, bus stops, frequency of buses and the elevation in the area. This assumed that steeper streets are an impediment to the elderly.

When it comes to carbon neutral bicycle use, many cities are using GIS to develop safer, more attractive bike paths that can lead to an increase in bike use. In Izmir, Turkey researchers used a combination of data to identify potential new bike routes. They incorporated data like slope, distribution of workplaces and schools, parks, existing transportation hubs and spatial distribution of different age groups. The results of the work can then be utilized for the future expansion of existing bike paths, and the methodology can be reused by other cities.

Other Services – Noise Pollution

GIS has a wide range of applications in the management and improvement of city living, like addressing noise pollution. While noise pollution can seem less detrimental than environmental pollution, it has major impacts on a population in terms of mental and physical health. According to the 2022 UN Environment Program report, noise pollution will be one of the top environmental threats to urban inhabitants. 

GIS can help city management understand the dynamics of noise pollution in their cities throughout the day. A group of researchers in Turkey used GIS to map noise levels in the city of Safranbolu. They collected the data in different seasons, and at different times of day, and were able to create a heat map to show noise level variation throughout the city. They identified areas in the old town, and surrounding the university to be the main sources of high noise pollution, and suggested methods to reduce noise pollution in those areas. 

Future Planning and Modelling

Planning is the action of forward thinking to achieve a goal, but if you don’t know what the parameters are to consider the goal achieved, it gets hard. By using GIS technology to forecast and model demographic change or service demand, urban planners can more accurately develop the urban infrastructure required to sustainably support an urban population.

Lagos, Nigeria has one of the fastest growing urban populations in the world. The unplanned urban sprawl that is common here has a detrimental effect on social equality, public infrastructure and the environment. By accurately forecasting predicted population growth, urban planners can better provide for the needs of city residents. Using a combination of a logistic regression model and GIS analysis, researchers investigated the spatial factors influencing urban sprawl in Lagos. This can help them to prevent these settlements from developing. The more we understand about how cities look and grow, the easier it becomes to mediate that growth. 

In terms of future planning for cities, nothing could be a more monumental task than relocating a capital city. This is exactly what Indonesia intends to do to “future proof” their capital city. The site of the new capital has been selected based on soil suitability and coastline change, in order to avoid a repeat of the current problems facing Jakarta. The government is able to use GIS tools to analyze land suitability based on their requirements, but also to plan a blueprint of their new city to ensure it incorporates the necessary 70% green space as advertised. 

As the global population continues to increase, and there is an increased pressure on resources, optimizing our use of urban land will become crucial. Technology like GIS gives us the necessary tools to optimize our cities for the future.  

About the Author
I'm Daniel O'Donohue, the voice and creator behind The MapScaping Podcast ( A podcast for the geospatial community ). With a professional background as a geospatial specialist, I've spent years harnessing the power of spatial to unravel the complexities of our world, one layer at a time.