Architectural Record BE - Building Enclosure

Off the Map

Geographic information systems put data in the hands of designers, relief agencies, and policy-makers, helping them plot recovery efforts, anticipate the effects of climate change, and create more livable urban environments.
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From Architectural Record and Greensource
Russell Fortmeyer
Continuing Education

Learning Objectives - After this course, you should be able to:

  1. Discuss how geographic information systems (GIS) can be used as a disaster-response planning tool and to help anticipate the effects of climate change.
  2. Explain how designers are deploying GIS to study urban infrastructure needs and how GIS can be used to gain a better understanding of the relationship between development density and demands on the electrical grid, transportation networks, and water and sewer systems.
  3. Describe how GIS can help identify sites with renewable energy potential.
  4. Describe the limitations of GIS.


1 GBCI CE Hour

After the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami devastated the coast along Sendai, Japan, a special team at the software company Esri quickly jumped into action. Working out of Esri’s global headquarters in Redlands, California, this group of engineers and technical support staff began putting together maps and data sets to form a geographic information system (GIS) tool that would ultimately assist the Japanese government and relief agencies in the cleanup and restoration of devastated cities and countryside.

Eric Wittner, a solutions engineer with Esri’s geodesign services group, helped develop the pro bono project. In part, Esri relied on data provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) describing debris generation following Hurricane Katrina in 2005. FEMA’s data provided a link between typical construction types, like a wood-frame, single-family house or a multistory commercial building, and the expected amount of debris each would generate if destroyed by a natural disaster. Using satellite imagery from before and after the Japanese earthquake, and working with their Esri counterparts in Japan, Wittner and his colleagues developed the tool so they could quickly estimate the amount of debris and the variety of building types in a given location. Another layer cross-referenced these quantities with available capacity in nearby landfills and included information about road quality and access for the trucks carrying the debris away.

Other partners, such as Honda Motor Company and Pioneer Electronics, eventually joined Esri, forming an emergency mapping team. Using Esri’s ArcGIS software—the lingua franca of the GIS industry—the group created visualizations that could easily be understood by people with non-GIS backgrounds. Team members identified which areas along Japan’s northeast coast had been affected by the earthquake, the tsunami, or the nuclear emergency, explains Wittner. They then quantified the waste and classified it by material types, so that timber could be burned, concrete could be removed to docks and transported by ships to be dumped at sea, and radioactive debris could be moved to the “hot zone” around the destroyed power plant. With an additional map, the group assessed sites’ suitability for temporary housing, comparing slopes, soil types, vegetation, and distances to other cities, among other overlays.

GIS is not only a tool for responding to natural disasters. Architects, engineers, urban planners, and policy makers use GIS software to design new cities, understand the impact of new development on increasingly strained infrastructure and ecosystems, anticipate the effects of climate change, or identify existing sites for developing urban parks. Only limited computing power and interoperability stand in the way.

Illustration by Paul Farrington


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Originally published in Architectural Record and Greensource