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  • The City from Thirty Thousand FeetEmbodiment, Creativity, and the Use of Geographic Information Systems as Urban Planning Tools
  • Shannon Jackson (bio)

For some time, and in ever increasing numbers, governments and other kinds of organizations involved in urban planning have been using a multifaceted computer application known as a geographic information system (GIS). A GIS is, essentially, a software tool that stores, manipulates, and displays data in a sort of cartographic sandwich; it layers information into a map. Thus, for example, one can use a GIS to relate various types of demographic or socioeconomic or other data—say, for example, incidence of poverty, number of registered voters, and measured levels of certain environmental pollutants—to a standard geospatial data set of points, lines, and bounded areas—such as a city map.

When it first appeared, many "saw GIS as a tool which could extend the range of geographical analysis by incorporating larger data sets and allowing geographers to ask questions about spatial relationships that were unrestricted by the number of variables or processing power."1 Hopes for just how far GIS could ultimately extend that range of analysis have run high: in the words of Michael Goodchild, for example, chair of the Executive Committee of the National Center for Geographic Information and Analysis, "A GIS ought to be able to accommodate all ways of describing the world, from maps and images to stories, pictures, and sketches."2 In a short time, GIS has become incorporated into almost every aspect of urban planning, across the globe. Demand for basic courses has increased dramatically; [End Page 325] academic departments at the University of Missouri–Kansas City, where some of this research was conducted, for example, now compete to control the required courses associated with the Advanced Certificate Program in GIS. The sheer enthusiasm GIS fosters, and the conviction that it can remedy urban problems by replacing more embodied forms of spatial data collection and dissemination, is the central focus of this article.

Enough experience with GIS has built up that we can begin to document how it affects the way we understand and talk about spatial knowledge in an urban context. The widespread use of these tools also allows us to include digital mapping in broader debates over the impact of digital technology on the embodied and mediated experiences traditionally associated with the democratic public sphere. It has long been argued that reasoned debate among private individuals is the ideal means of defining and defending the needs of the public. In a world where communication is increasingly mediated by technology and the boundaries separating the private and public spheres become increasingly blurred, questions abound regarding the impact of tools such as GIS on the public sphere. This article is an exploration of some of the ways GIS affects key agents shaping the communicative domain of urban planning.

In 1997, an economist from the University of Missouri—Kansas City (UMKC) bumped into a community activist with the Kansas City Neighborhood Alliance (KCNA) at a local neighborhood association meeting.3 The two began to chat about the spreading use of GIS among property appraisers, crime analysts, and geographers. Both were professionally focused on urban problems associated with code violations, economic stratification, and blight, and they began to exchange ideas about potential applications of GIS to those issues.

This serendipitous encounter set the university on a new course as a technical broker, generating and facilitating a flow of digital data among community development corporations (CDCs), neighborhood associations, and the city. Faculty in the UMKC economics and sociology departments and KCNA coordinated on a variety of grants that resulted in the creation of the Center for Economic Information (CEI), housed on the [End Page 326] UMKC campus. The CEI launched a website, titled CityScope, which integrates data sets such as the coded results of an extensive housing conditions survey completed in 2000, census and crime statistics, and real estate data from the Multiple Listing Service. All of this information remains available through the CityScope site,

As the university developed and expanded its role as technical broker, some neighborhood associations began to imagine ways they could use the data being generated...


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pp. 325-346
Launched on MUSE
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