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The Challenge with Planning is a Location Challenge

Leveraging data and location analytics is paramount in supporting cities to make more informed decisions on achieving housing targets and goals. Visualizing and communicating data analytics helps to analyze future risks and impacts of climate change, promoting resilient urban planning approaches that encourage biodiversity, walkability, and the general livability of future communities. 

In Canada, the convergence of population growth, immigration, and a housing shortage presents a critical dilemma for city planners, impacting both large and small urban centers. In major cities where population density is pronounced, housing affordability remains a persistent issue. Simultaneously, an increase in rental rates adds to the strain on people’s cost of living expenses.  

To address immediate housing challenges, city planners are exploring short-term solutions such as expedited approval processes and repurposing underutilized spaces. However, it's crucial to implement these measures with careful consideration to ensure they align with, rather than undermine, long-term city planning goals. A holistic and collaborative approach emphasizes the need for coordination between policymakers, urban planners, infrastructure management planners, environmental experts, and community stakeholders. 

Such an approach should incorporate urban design that identifies infill opportunities to sustain the increasing population and housing density, so long as it is mindful of the impacts on the environment. By identifying suitable infill locations, city planners can optimize land use, mitigate environmental impact, and ensure efficient utilization of existing infrastructure. 

Commercial technology such as a geographic information system (GIS) helps planners answer these questions quickly. In a recent research project for a city in eastern Canada, our teams have found that rezoning, outmigration, and renaturalization of a flood-prone area zoned for residential and commercial development would be a suitable alternative to continued development and maintenance in this at-risk area. Simultaneously, through proposed rezoning of an underutilized commercial area to mixed use, these displaced jobs and residential opportunities could be accommodated along with many more. Furthermore, this upzoning would increase land value overall and tax revenue potential, thereby offsetting costs of infrastructure enhancements such as stormwater management infrastructure in the form of bioswales to intercept additional runoff generated from impermeable surfaces, like widened roads and sidewalks. Arriving at this recommendation took only one month. 

Fundamentally, applying a GIS approach to integrated planning provides a unique data-centric process to achieving the goals we have outlined above. A GIS organizes planning data so that information management can occur – it provides a unique opportunity to integrate how information is captured, managed, visualized, analyzed, and shared. We think of it as an ideal framework to create a scale model of the real world – a digital twin – where each layer of information is mapped and integrated by their location. In doing so, a GIS gives a common operating view of multiple data sources that are unified by geography, which ultimately drives better decision making.  

Why use a geographic framework? 

A GIS is an excellent framework for planning, risk assessment, and collaboration for the following reasons: 

  • 80% of data has a spatial component and 65% of people are visual thinkers  

  • A GIS provides the ability to understand complexities in data using spatial relationships 

  • It allows anyone to leverage location as an inherent data integrator since it is the common denominator for all assets 

  • The mapping can be accessed online and in real-time as a superior visualization capability over charts, tables, and PDFs 

  • Multiple municipal departments including planning and utilities already have a GIS—integrating the data promotes data transparency and collaboration, and streamlines reporting to other government agencies 

Representative layers of information within a specific land area

While urban planning takes into consideration the impacts of zoning on population density including daytime population and traffic impacts, the overall effect of planning to infrastructure below the ground can be profound. When it comes to water assets and water servicing, serious consideration must be given to the need for analysis: What is the existing infrastructure below? Does the current water network have the correct pressure to support fire safety? Is there a need to improve existing infrastructure, i.e. remove combined sewer overflows? Are there other significant utilities that require coordination for the project in mind? 

Further, development partners will need to consider: Will impermeable surface runoff worsen the current development area? What is the overall cost of infrastructure changes to the intended project? Which scenario of the proposed project produces the least risks?   

Example model incorporating multiple layers of information to determine impacts  

Planning holistically with layers of information 

A GIS treats each variable as a layer of information, providing a holistic approach to planning. The ability to introduce models increases the analytical capabilities for multiple scenarios, while the visualization capabilities allow stakeholders to clearly understand the impacts of proposed changes.  

Consider the value of simply communicating project statuses like what Toronto INview is doing. It overlays programs from Transportation Services, Water, Economic Development, Parks, and more, into a GIS so that project stakeholders, private developers, and the public can access the latest in what’s happening in any given area in the City. Additionally, partners can utilize their own data and integrate planning information onto the common platform as a means to collaborate.