GIS, a technology that captures, stores, analyzes and visualizes spatial data, has become indispensable in the urban planning toolkit. While initially used for plotting “hard” data, the recent application of GIS in urban planning has extended even into citizen engagement! In this article, we explore the dynamic role of GIS in planning, its far-reaching benefits, and a variety of spheres where spatial data enables planners to create smarter, more sustainable, and inclusive cities.
But what makes GIS so powerful? Urban planning is all about spaces, and GIS combines geographical features with a wealth of information about these places to reveal patterns, relationships, and trends. That’s why GIS enables planners to truly understand the needs of the city. This technology goes beyond stacking maps on top of each other: it's a dynamic decision-making tool for urban planners.
Even if you don’t have GIS expertise, it’s still a useful concept to master. There are several tools that won’t require much knowledge to get the benefits of using GIS for town planning. Stay tuned!
Why is GIS Important in Urban Planning?
Because planning is about places! Whether you are trying to understand the current build-up of a certain area or prepare a proposal for the city’s future development, GIS is a perfect system to work in. You can analyze information about the city’s current state, land-use regulations, environmental issues, and residents’ attitudes in one single system. It allows for incorporating spatial data into their decision-making processes, resulting in more informed choices.
Whether it's determining suitable areas for development, optimizing transportation networks, or assessing environmental impacts, GIS is the key to unlocking actionable insights about spaces. So let’s break it down to four tangible benefits of GIS for urban planning.
1. Seamless data integration from various sources
GIS enables planners to integrate diverse data sources seamlessly into one location-based system. In urban planning, this means combining geographical data with socioeconomic, demographic, and environmental information, as well as engagement data you can get from citizen engagement platforms like Maptionnaire. Such integrations enable complex spatial analysis, helping planners make sense of urban dynamics.
For example, GIS can be used to analyze mobility patterns and identify areas for improvement based on a combination of mobile and fitness app data and citizen-sourced information about their movement and perceptions of the space. By overlaying these data sources, planners can devise targeted solutions, such as the creation of new walking routes and safety-oriented improvements to the space.
2. Easier communication & collaboration
No one can read spreadsheets with thousands of data rows or lengthy reports.
GIS helps planners solve this communication problem: GIS conveys complex spatial information through visual maps and graphics. Visual representations are more accessible and comprehensible to a wider audience, including non-experts.
What’s more, maps with layered information can be used to tell a story when communicating with residents about upcoming plans and asking for their feedback (Maptionnaire enables both within the same interface). This way, planning becomes more transparent and approachable.
A related benefit is that GIS can be accessed remotely, enabling planners to collaborate with colleagues, experts, and community members regardless of their physical location. Collaboration becomes more streamlined when the data is shared across the teams and is available in the same format.
3. More efficient decision-making
Decisions that planners make have far-reaching consequences for communities. Data and community-centricity must be at the heart of the decision-making process, and GIS excels in providing evidence-based insights. By combining various sources of data (especially citizen-sourced PPGIS), visualizing it on maps, and modeling the consequences of their decisions, planners can better understand the impact of their decisions.
Consider a scenario where a city works on a new housing development project. GIS can be used for the initial asset mapping and community needs assessment, as well as for modeling how this development might affect schools, healthcare facilities, and traffic flow. Planners can then make data-driven choices that benefit the community at large.
4. Enhance engagement and co-creation
Community involvement has become an essential process for urban planning throughout its stages: starting from data-collection to proposal evaluation to project maintenance feedback. However, the traditional methods planners use are far from being technologically advanced, systematic, and inclusive — a bunch of post-it notes and a transcription of a community meeting is all they get.
GIS enables planners to collect resident and stakeholder feedback, experiences, and ideas in a location-based format. This way, planners can treat engagement data as one of their GIS layers without spending days on data cleaning and formatting.
So how does it look in practice? Maptionnaire is one of the unique digital citizen engagement platforms that generates actual GIS data. Planners create digital map-based surveys and interactive pagers where they narrate the story and ask for targeted feedback from residents and stakeholders. Digital citizen engagement proves to involve more people than analog methods while getting the data in a GIS-backed format makes the engagement truly impactful.
For instance, Edinburgh uses Maptionnaire to gather public input on park designs. By visualizing potential layouts and amenities on interactive maps, residents can vote on their preferred options and suggest their own. Planners analyze this data within Maptionnaire or take it to any other GIS system — eventually, the redesigned park spaces better reflect community desires. This approach not only fosters transparency in decision-making but also ensures that residents' voices are heard. For more examples of Maptionnaire used for planning check these customer stories.
5 Examples of Using GIS in Urban Planning
Land use planning and management
GIS plays a pivotal role in land use planning and zoning. By exploring existing infrastructure, environmental constraints, and population density within the same interface, planners can make informed decisions about where to allocate resources for development.
Imagine a city aiming to balance commercial and residential areas. GIS can help planners analyze and visualize data, as well as probe their drafts to meet the needs of businesses and residents alike.
GIS in land-use planning:
- Showcasing spatial distribution of land use and zoning
- Determining future developments
- Analyzing land use trends and distribution
- Rural planning
Spatial planning, analysis & modeling
With GIS, planners can perform complex calculations and modeling. For example, they can analyze the accessibility of healthcare facilities to underserved communities or assess the impact of a new development on property values. GIS is also integral to managing and optimizing various systems, including traffic management, energy distribution, and waste management.
GIS in spatial planning:
- Analyzing urban spaces
- Modeling future scenarios
- Operating smart city systems
Infrastructure and transportation planning
GIS is indispensable in optimizing transportation and mobility networks. Especially in the context of net-zero goals, making transportation sustainable and beneficial for well-being comes as one of the solutions. Planners can use GIS to analyze traffic patterns, plan routes for public transportation, and identify areas prone to congestion, as well as include citizen-generated data to understand why certain mobility patterns take place and how residents relate to the current infrastructure.
For example, a city can use GIS to assess the impact of expanding the cycling infrastructure. By modeling potential bike routes and their impact on traffic flow and correlating them with citizen preferences, planners can promote sustainable transportation options while minimizing disruptions.
GIS for transportation planning:
- Asset management
- Planning and optimizing transportation routes
- Walkability studies
- Developing supporting infrastructure (for example, EV charging stations)
- Waste management
- Mobility and traffic analysis
- Improving accessibility
Environmental considerations are at the heart of modern urban planning. GIS aids planners in conducting environmental impact assessments, managing green spaces, and empowering resilience within the communities.
Suppose a city wants to protect its wetlands while allowing for responsible development. With GIS data at hand, planners can assess the ecological significance of these areas and balance conservation efforts with urban growth.
GIS in resilience planning:
- economic restoration
- assessing and improving conservation actions,
- mapping biodiversity
- analyzing and acting upon community feedback
Citizen engagement & communication
Bringing spatiality into digital citizen engagement enables planners not only to reach previously excluded groups but also to locate their experiences and ideas in a physical space.
GIS works as a link between the built environment and the experiences and ideas locals have about them. These experiences can be about their movement, routines, emotions, ideas, and perceptions — a kind of information that is essential for citizen-centric planning but won’t be included in sociodemographics.
Also, GIS helps share information: with Maptionnaire, for example, planners can show plans and development projects visually — in their spatial context — and ask residents and stakeholders for their feedback.
GIS for community engagement:
- Pre-planning data collection
- Walkability study
- Community mapping
- Perceived safety study
- Needs assessment
- Project feedback collection
- Public hearing
- Voting and budget allocation
The future of GIS in urban planning is even more exciting. The integration of AI will advance predictive modeling and, potentially, enable better real-time data gathering and analysis. However, GIS is not a silver bullet that alleviates data and communication problems that many governments and municipalities face — simply getting the right toolkit is not enough.
All in all, smart cities already rely heavily on GIS technologies, from planning and analysis to communicating with residents. As GIS continues to evolve, it will play an even more prominent role in shaping the built environment and our lives.