Published on Sustainable Cities

How geospatial technology can help cities plan for a sustainable future

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In this video, representatives from the World Bank, GEF, and City of Johannesburg discuss the impact of geospatial tools on urban planning.

Many urban residents these days will find it hard to imagine a life without mobile apps that help us locate a restaurant, hail a cab, or find a subway station—usually in a matter of seconds. If geospatial technology and data already make our everyday lives this easier, imagine what they can do for our cities:  for example, geospatial data on land-use change and built-up land expansion can provide for more responsive urban planning, while information on traffic conditions, road networks, and solid waste sites can help optimize management and enhance the quality of urban living.
The “urban geo-data gap”
However, information and data that provide the latest big picture on urban land and services often fail to keep up with rapid population growth and land expansion. This is especially the case for cities in developing countries—home to the fastest growing urban and vulnerable populations.
To address this gap, the World Bank partnered with the Global Environment Facility (GEF) in establishing the Global Platform for Sustainable Cities (GPSC). The platform brings cutting-edge technology and knowledge to cities and helps translate this knowledge into practice and investment to promote integrated urban planning in about 30 partner cities across 11 countries, with broader, global efforts planned for the future.
In late September, GPSC brought together urban planners, policy makers, GIS experts, as well as scientist and development organizations for a meeting at the European Space Agency (ESA)’s Center for Earth Observation in Frascati, Italy. The mixed expertise and ESA’s demonstration of satellite technology for earth observation provided the opportunity for participants to see the power of geospatial technology in mapping and supporting some of the key urban services.

Better urban planning, enabled by geospatial tech 
A telling example of geospatial technology application is the Spatial Development Framework 2040 for Johannesburg, presented at the meeting by the city’s lead urban planner. Johannesburg has used geospatial data for analyzing inequality and poverty, job-housing mismatch, spatial disconnection, low walkability, and land-use defects. This data then informed city planning and helped officials prepare development scenario options for the future.
According to Herman Pienaar, Director of City Transformation and Spatial Planning in Johannesburg, the management of social, economic, and environmental challenges as a result of rapid urbanization is one of the major issues facing Johannesburg and other cities in South Africa. “Satellite technology and geospatial information help track our urban footprint and understand the impact of our interventions,” he told us at the meeting.
GPSC supports other cities in transferring and applying this knowledge into their own contexts. For example, in Dakar, Senegal, we are now working to enable the city to “leapfrog” by utilizing geospatial technology to better understand its expansion as well as the vulnerabilities caused by climate change.

At the World Bank, we are also collaborating with the ESA to raise awareness about the significant potential of satellite-based information for planning and building more sustainable cities in Brazil, India, Vietnam and other countries. The long-term goal is to make Earth Observation data a systematic and preferred source of information for all phases of urban development projects, according to Maurice Borgeaud, Head of the Science, Applications and Future Technologies Department in ESA's Directorate of Earth Observation Programs.
And yet, availability of geospatial data is only the first step. A much more challenging task is the integration of the data analysis from multiple sectors into one coherent urban planning process. As part of GPSC, we are currently developing a guidance document—“Urban Sustainability Framework”—to support cities in this effort. The framework, which we expect to release early 2017, will integrate geospatial data, multidimensional indicators, Sustainable Development Goals, and modeling tools to help city governments define their vision and identify priority action areas and investment strategies.
Are you an urban planner attending or following the Habitat III conference next week? Tell us in a comment what difficulties you have faced in terms of geospatial data availability? Could you suggest other applications of this data in the urban planning process?


Xueman Wang


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