Rob Goodspeed, PhD student here at MIT, discusses his research of Geographic Information System (GIS) based planning support tools for land use planning.
|Ben Lack||How did you get interested in this space and why are you doing what you’re doing?|
|Rob Goodspeed||My background is in two areas; developing internet websites and generally trying to use technology to promote community and urban planning. I’m interested in ways that technology can contribute to democracy and be used to solve urban problems. Sustainability is one of the problems that we in planning have been wrestling with. I consider sustainability to be what is called in the planning literature a wicked problem. That means it requires integrating technical expert knowledge, considering values and preferences, and coordinating collective choices.|
|Ben Lack||Talk to me a little bit about the research that you’re doing now. What types of projects are you working on?|
|Rob Goodspeed||I’m a 4th year PhD student here at MIT. I’m studying Urban Studies and Planning. My dissertation research is looking at Geographic Information System (GIS) based planning support tools for land use planning.
I’m doing case studies of professionals and communities that are using cutting edge tools in the practice. Then, I’m trying to figure out what impact they have on the process and to what extent they are useful as a learning educational and decision support tool. My research intersects with the sustainability broadly, and also how urban growth affects things like the distance traveled and energy consumed.
In addition, I am collaborating with some German researchers to study how residential electricity data can be used to encourage conservation. Due to the Green Button initiative and developments in the energy sector, there will be more and more energy data available. So what we’re trying to do is create some prototypes and tests on how and on what ways that energy data could be shared to encourage people to get either develop knowledge about their residential electrical energy use is what we’re focusing on or to encourage them to change their behavior. That can be short-term behavior or longer term behaviors like insulation retrofits and replacing appliances.
The third is what actually we will talk about at the conference. One of the other panelists was involved in creating a tool called beautiful streets that enables people to look at streets in their city and vote for their favorite. It’s been deployed in Philadelphia and Denver.
Every time you visit the site, you see 2 different streets using Google Streets View Imagery and then you pick the one that you prefer. They created the tool in Philadelphia and they had over a hundred thousand votes. So, the experiment is, how can we do a very broad survey about what type of city people actually prefer? What is sustainable, in a holistic sense?
I think that it’s interesting that it’s just kind of our sort of thing in our field. Traditionally, we planners when we’re considering street design have done small surveys and meetings, maybe 40 people people at a time. With the internet we’ll jump from 30 people to over 6,000 in this project. I used geographic data that’s available and statistical analysis to see why people voted for certain streets. The preliminary results are really interesting. According to this survey, what people say they prefer is very different than what our regulations are that control urban growth.. And so, of course, there are a lot of issues about who took the survey and what were they asked about. I really am excited about that project because it’s a prototype of what could be done and just a lot of possible future uses in the field.
|Ben Lack||I’m curious to get your thoughts on the Urban Planning that you obviously want to go out over the last couple of years, these sustainability things that you’ve been talking more and more and tried to incorporate more and more. Can I get your sense as a whole about how well does the Urban Planning community really have raised sustainability and energy concepts and ideas and or were again and what parts of the challenge did the industry currently have to make that adoption happen faster?|
|Rob Goodspeed||It’s an interesting question. To give you a sense of our field’s perspective on the issue, there’s a well known article about sustainability and planning. It argues that there’s three dimensions, there is environmental sustainability, economic sustainability, and also social sustainability. The article talks about the conflicts between each of these types of sustainability. I think the approach of our to consider the issue in a very holistic way.
We’re constantly aware that to pursue any specific goal you often have trade-offs or conflict with other goals. The field is slowly integrating certain aspects of sustainability: energy sustainability especially on transportation and to certain extent residential energy, as well as considering climate change adaptation and mitigation.
Planners have a lot of creative ideas but they need the cooperation of the community on which we work. And landing regulations are controlled at the local level almost all the way across the country. Because of that, we are uniquely linked to the political climate in the US and in the local community. So for that reason, you see in certain places very, very innovative planning on these areas. In many communities, ideas that are known to be very effective to achieve sustainability goals are currently off the table.
Here in Cambridge, we know that our housing stocks is quite old and energy inefficient. However, city leaders are not consider a law requiring landlords upgrade their units, only voluntary measures.
|Ben Lack||To push back, you need community to be able to buy in the political leaders actually get around them. So, how does your field, incorporates research to get the community to buy in?|
|Rob Goodspeed||There’s actually some really inspiring and interesting cases where communities go through a process of education and end up making quite unexpected changes.
There’s an example called Envision Utah. The Salt Lake City region is growing they ran a regional visioning process were they have civic leaders from across region come together and look at the data about how the city was growing and consider what choices they have. Do they want to keep growing the same pattern they were which is largely auto-dependent, or do they want to make changes and try to shift the pattern? This general technique has been used widely for regional planning, and is called scenario planning. What the planners often do is develop descriptions of what possible scenarios are possible in the future. This includes possible trends, as well as the impact of decisions about policy and regulations. Scenario planning is one example of an approach to foster a discussion about hard choices about the future.
My research is looking at how GIS tools can play a role in a process like that. In my cases my question is, does the interactivity, the additional data, the interactive map really contribute something to the process.
I think this is just a little suggestion of how change happens. It’s not easy work but I also think the convention wisdom on any side of a political argument is somewhat wrong and what happens in the local levels is we can get into the details. It’s not an ideological discussion anymore, and it becomes a practical one. That’s why I’m optimistic about focusing on creating pragmatic solutions that work at the local level.