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Designing for Equity: A Guide to GIS Principles

Grace Corsi

This article is the first in a four-part series that dives into how Geographic Information Systems, familiarly known as GIS, can be used to design for equity. Read to the end for a set of conversation starter questions clients can ask their designers.

Good, bad, or neutral, buildings have impacts beyond their walls. A building and its site are part of a much broader network of systems, interactions, conditions, and feedback loops. GIS is a spatial analysis tool that has been used for decades. By approaching it differently – with an equity lens – it can help designers, planners, and our clients find data-driven answers to big-picture questions like “What will add the most value in this place?” or “How can my project help create a more equitable community?

Equity work is deeply informed by intersectionality: the truth that race, gender, sexuality, and more intersect to form our experience of the world. Just as a single experience isn’t sufficient in describing an individual’s situation, a single data set isn’t sufficient in uncovering how a particular building or space can have the greatest positive impact. GIS is an ideal tool for equity-based design decision making because it layers multiple data points to map the relationships between data. The real value and benefit of GIS is that rather than looking at a single data library in a spreadsheet, it illustrates how different systems intersect to create present conditions.

Five Keys for Linking GIS to Equity Outcomes

Historically, the architectural design industry has used GIS primarily as a record keeper. Now, we are at the forefront of an emerging practice that uses its power as a decision-making aid. Five principles have emerged to guide explorations into GIS for improved equity.

  1. Make invisible assumptions visible through data. GIS gives visibility to our intuitive sense of place by showing data that explains our experiences. For example, people in a neighborhood could express that they have been “left out” of historic investment. GIS can show evidence of that exclusion by visualizing the neighborhood’s limited access to resources and social determinants of health. With GIS, observations that could be discounted or politicized as opinions or anecdotal can be confirmed in a way that makes them less possible to ignore. Identifying inequities is the first step in creating more equitable outcomes.
  2. Support community-based problem solving with data as a public resource. Part of equity is ensuring that people have agency in the decisions that impact their lives. GIS should be used as one part of an inclusive design process that directly involves people who will be impacted – not as a substitution for involvement. By publishing GIS data in a visually and virtually accessible way, we put data directly into communities’ hands as a public resource. Open-source GIS mapping improves public accountability and transparency. If you’re a constituent in a school district, in a county planning for its future, in a neighborhood with a building project going through public process, you can see the data, interact with it, formulate informed questions, and understand why design solutions are being considered.
  3. Evolve from a broken building mindset to a whole community mindset. Most designers have been trained to approach facilities planning with a worst first mentality, where buildings and building systems are analyzed and prioritized for improvement without considering broader impacts on people and communities. GIS encourages an approach that blends facilities planning with urban planning. We expand the analysis and priority process into the communities around buildings, asking which resources are needed, and calculating how we can use buildings as a vehicle for social and communal change.
  4. Relate social and racial equity to environmental resilience. At its core, equity is about resources. In the built environment, ecological resources such as green space, natural light, and clean air impact individual’s and communities’ health and prosperity. At the same time, environmental burdens such as pollution of , water, and land, as well as and increasing vulnerability to natural disasters related to climate change disproportionately impact communities of color and low income communities. Mapping environmental data sets as part of every project’s analysis is critical to equity outcomes.
  5. Commit to using the data to improve design decisions. Many equity actions fall into the trap of being well intentioned, but ultimately performative. Performative actions superficially seem to support equity, but in reality do not improve the systems that oppress nor the outcomes for those who are oppressed. In design and planning, assembling and looking at the data is not enough. Ensuring our work in this area isn’t performative takes commitment to acting on the data. What design solution directly addresses the intersections or inequities we uncovered?

Starting a Conversation

Interested in achieving equity outcomes on a design or planning project with GIS? Here are a few questions you can ask designers to start the conversation:

  • “How can data mapping help us find out what will add the most value for the people in this place?”
  • “What role does our project or site play in the broader community?”
  • “How does ecology relate to human activity on my site and in the surrounding community?”
  • “How can my project be a resource to a more equitable community?”
  • “How will you use the data we map to inform and guide your proposed design solutions?”

Keep learning in part two, where we reveal what kinds of data sets and GIS tools are important for equity outcomes and add a few more questions to your conversation starter set.

Learn more about ’s commitment to equity inside our walls, in our industry, and in our design work.

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Grace Corsi
Connect with me to start a conversation ➔ Grace Corsi, Planning Leader

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