Thursday, April 1, 2010

GeoPortal Technology and Creating Cognitive Spaces

I spend a lot of my time experimenting with GeoPortals, online planning fora that allow individuals to access, contribute, and exchange plans. Ideally, GeoPortals will serve as "public space[s] outside public chambers" (Beauregard 2003), that offer explicit opportunities for diverse groups to share plans. Lew Hopkins, Professor Emeritus at UIUC, explains that plans are "signals of intent," much like prices are "signals of value." Plans are not strategies, designs, visions, or agendas (although these are important components of plans) but rather information about intended actions.

The conventional American planning system suppresses and hides the diversity of plans that exist in a region. Everybody makes plans, and many plans have overlapping and contradictory objectives. Within any metropolitan area, there are multiple Planning (with a capital "P") agencies (i.e. city and state planning departments, university planning departments, councils of government (COGs), regional planning commissions, and utility planning agencies). There are also innumerable planning organizations; organizations that make plans. Real estate developers, non-profit organizations, schools, businesses, homeowners, block clubs, civic organizations, and individual property owners all have their own plans. It becomes especially important to consider plans when their objectives overlap and/or contradict. Very often, the plans of organizations with monied interests (i.e. real estate) receive the most attention from Planning organizations because their plans have relativley large, and short-term tax revenue repercussions (whether positive or negative). Municipalities try very hard to create "comprehensive" plans that incorporate all the signals of intent of a city, but given our current hierarhical planning structure, truly incorporating every plan is humanly impossible. No municipal planning office has the time, money, or intelligence to keep track of all the plans in a city (that's not to say that planners aren't intelligent themselves...). As a result, plans that are less "valueable," or too long-term are marginalized or unrecognized, and the plans regonized in "comprehensive" plans are limited to smaller plans made by the city.

I am hopeful that GeoPortal technology can remedy this reality. GeoPortals carve out a virtual space in which all plans can be recognized. In a recent conversation with a colleague (thank you, Anne Silvis), I learned of a local non-profit that would like to acquire an entire block of land to create a safe environment for a women's shelter. An ideal GeoPortal would allow this organization to signal their intents to acquire a specific block, allowing the city, surrounding land owners, and neighbors of their intentions. The plans of the organization would appear on a map that shows where and how their plans intersect with city plans or the plans of other property owners. This paves a path for further dialogue or (god forbid!) conflict where no discussion would have occurred before.This is not to say that their plans are guaranteed to come to fruition or that it is in the best interest of everyone to make their plans public (Kaza 2009), but the city can no longer plead ignorance to the plans of an organization who might have otherwise prevailed invisible. The system validates their intentions and validates diversity. In so doing, it begins to errode at the hierarcy that has resulted in marginalized populations and environmental degradation.


Beauregard, R. 2003. Democracy, Storytelling, and the Sustainable City. Ch. 3 in Eckstein, B and Throgmorton, J. (eds). Story and Sustainbility: Planning, Practice, and Possibility for American Cities. MIT Press.

Kaza, N. 2009. In What Circumstances Should Plans be Public. Journal of Planning Education and Research. 28 (4).

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