How geodesign is helping communities in Ireland design their future

Godesign in Ireland

In the last two decades, the concept of geodesign has emerged, mainly in terms of environmental and participatory planning and design. This is often supported by digital technologies to address complex spatial issues from an interdisciplinary point of view1. (If properly implemented) the geodesign approach leads to an inclusive and transparent decision-making process.

Geodesign is gaining increasing international attention and recognition… Searching the term in ‘Google Trends’ shows its popularity in the last 12 months. This confirms that research is being carried out on both sides of the Atlantic with the Geodesign Summit being held each year in the USA and the GeoBIM event held in The Netherlands. The search also shows that research is being carried out in Italy at the University of Cagliari and similarly in Brazil at the Federal University of Minas Gerais. The unexpected first place in the search is Ukraine where early this year a start-up called geodesign was set up … And it seems they have invested a lot in marketing!

Google trends “geodesign”

In 2018 a research consortium of more than 140 academic institutions worldwide was created. The International Geodesign Collaboration (IGC) aims to understand how this new planning and design methodology of geodesign can be applied to better address the UN’s SDG’s and in different contexts around the world. The IGC meetings are hosted every year by ESRI in California. Each partner involved in the collaboration such as universities, independent researchers, businesses and local authorities present their local planning study conducted using the geodesign workflow as proposed by Carl Steinitz in his framework2.University College Dublin is a member of the IGC and developed a geodesign workshop on the future of Ballymount in South County Dublin. The project was part of a semester-long course at the School of Architecture Planning & Environmental Policy coordinated by Prof. Elisabeth Shotton, Prof. Alan Mee and Prof. Liana Ricci. The students collectively worked on the analysis of the site, then grouped in different teams to develop future alternatives for Ballymount. Finally, the students took the various outputs of the geodesign exercise and used these to carry out individual research projects.

University College Dublin project presented at IGC 2018

Geodesign workshops normally take place in the form of a two-day intensive and collaborative planning workshop in a multimedia lab with PCs and a large display screen. However, in the past months many geodesign workshops have moved online in response to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. In June 2020, the IGC core group carried out a successful series of workshops on the geodesign workflow using GeodesignHub software and Zoom to fully test  an online geodesign studio. The experimental teaching initiative involved about 90 experienced and early career academic educators from 5 continents. Based on a train-the-trainer concept, the initiative aimed at promoting the use of geodesign and digital tools in teaching practices worldwide and develop planners who can work as part of a team dealing with global challenges.

In the current circumstances, there is even more of a need for local communities to be involved with the planning process using online tools.

IGC online workshop June 2020

In Ireland local authorities’ public consultations have had to adapt to Covid-19 restrictions. Many typical forms of consultation (e.g., face-to-face meetings, local exhibitions, etc.) are now either impossible or very difficult. In response, geodesign and online tools are being used to support interactive community consultation events in relation to the complex processes of preparing local area development plans. Between August and September 2020, I observed some of these online sessions to understand better how to manage a completely online geodesign workshop.

Two workshops, one with state agencies  and one with the local community, were held as part of the preparation process for the Sustainability Plan for the Waterville  in the Co. Kerry. Stakeholders and residents had the opportunity to draw ideas for the local plan. Each workshop comprised a one-hour orientation session and, one week later, two geodesign sessions of two hours each. The works were led by Dr Hrishi Ballal, creator of the GeodesignHub platform and consultants Paul O’Raw and Dr Brendan O’Keeffe.

Considering the relatively short time available during the workshops, the Geoforage survey was fundamental to collecting initial ideas. The survey allows participants to mark an area on a map and make suggestions about its future use.  During the first session, the facilitators explained how to use the Geoforage survey and invited participants to complete the survey before the next session. The web-based software GeodesignHub was used in the next two sessions to support participants to achieve a consensus to agree a future plan for the area. GeodesignHub software was specifically designed to use the geodesign framework to enable dynamic interactive and collaborative design.

Community groups, voluntary organisations and interested individuals were invited to participate in the local community planning workshop (around 20 people attended). The workshop was advertised in the local press and on social media. In parallel with the workshop with the local community, a similar workshop was developed for state agencies, business interests and local development organisations. The outputs of both workshops are currently being used by the consultants to prepare draft actions for the plan.

Waterville project in Geoforage
Discussion sessions on some of the proposals during the Waterville workshops

Another recent example of a successful online consultation involved the community of Milltown, Co. Kerry, with the goal of collaboratively shaping the town’s development over the next six years. A draft plan with 32 proposals for the rezoning of the area (more than 200 ideas were initially collected using Geoforage) has been drawn up following a three-session geodesign workshop. People in Milltown and the surrounding areas were able to vote online and identify their preferences on the draft plan and thus establishing a broader consensus.

Discussion session on some of the proposals at the Milltown workshop

There are certainly some important differences between face-to-face and online workshops, nevertheless, geodesign online tools (e.g., Geoforage and GeodesignHub) provide a way to effectively engage with communities including during virtual meetings. There can be less space for critical reflection with online engagement but using online tools can clearly focus virtual discussions on solving potential conflicts of interest between stakeholders. Which is no small achievement!!

Following the recent online positive experiences with geodesign for Irish coastal management, CCAT are currently exploring the possibility to develop a geodesign study with project partner Fingal County Council and stakeholders in local coastal communities in Fingal. We firmly believe that the Geodesign method matched with digital technology is a powerful instrument which should be part of any local authorities’ toolbox!

1 – Lee, D. J., Dias, E., & Scholten, H. J. (2014). Geodesign by Integrating Design and Geospatial Sciences. Springer

2 – Steinitz, C. (2012). A framework for geodesign: Changing geography by design. Esri Press

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