Growing up on a farm meant I spent very little time in cities. I felt more at home when surrounded by green than grey. As a kid, I saw cities as noisy, bright, busy and quite frankly, confusing. I always thought to myself why would anyone want to live in them? However, when I grew up, I moved to a city to take advantage of the opportunities it provided. I am not alone. More than 50 percent of the world’s population lives in cities and this number will rise. Cities are hubs of productivity, innovation and vast human capital; but once you live in them you begin to see that they are like any other ecosystem: complex and fragile, whose balance can be easily disturbed. With many cities rapidly growing and evolving, how do you manage this increasing complexity without destroying the ecosystem?
Geographical Information System (GIS) techniques have proven successful in mapping, analyzing and managing natural ecosystems. It is now time to make use of the same technology to manage, model and design our expanding global system of cities. GIS consists of a proven set of tools that can provide information to leaders at the local and national level to facilitate evidence-driven decision making. It allows us to move beyond 2D paper maps and incorporate everything that lies below, above and around a city to create a 3D digital representation of the city’s ecosystem. By integrating this information into the planning process, it will hopefully lead to harmonized planning across sectors. For example, integrated transport and land use planning and development will allow for economic, social and environmental benefits. More sectors can then be incorporated, with this integration not only happening within the city limits but including the urban periphery, where a lot of urban expansion is currently occurring. This holistic view will allow planners to make cities more livable.
Maps are a great way of visualizing data and they are also great for telling stories. Story maps combine maps with multimedia content to inform, educate, entertain and inspire people about a given topic. This tool could be utilized to help engage citizens of a city about the issues that surround them. An engaged citizenry is vital to making sure that a city utilizes the collective intelligence of its human capital to produce the best possible design – a design that not only makes sense to the planners but also to the people who are part of the ecosystem.
With the encouraging rise of open source mapping platforms and new technologies increasing the ability to harness crowd-sourced data, there is no excuse for not getting involved in the debate about the environment in which we live.