Urban planning: Marrying GIS with cultural psychology

Urban planning: Marrying GIS with cultural psychology


From their combined experience and perspective, a psychologist, an urban planner and a GIS expert describe setting up urban and regional designs for GIS projects and the cultural-psychological approach to achieve a common multi-thematic and multi-cultural model

What is common between a safety campaign launched by Italy’s Viterbo Province and the Coastal GIS portal of the country’s Lazio Region to monitor erosion along the coastline and the Aniene River Linear Park project to safeguard the water corridor and set up a water-sensitive urban design?

The three projects are classic examples of urban and regional planning riding on GIS technology and cultural psychology to overcome present drawbacks and crises to improve communication and awareness at all levels. The Aniene River Linear Park, for instance, analyses the different human needs that resulted in the complex relations at the base of the formation of urban settlements near the riverine areas to discern the multiplicity of the components, and of the multidisciplinary approach of the stakeholder involved in its development.

Psychology and GIS can go together in telling us how people perceive and represent spaces around them and how they use perceptual information to guide their movements in those spaces.

We live in difficult times. The fast-changing global landscape and culture are likely to make people vulnerable and anxious as they attempt to cope with the increasing level of uncertainties.

The surest way to allay such fear is to apply modern technology, minimise waste, make each job more efficient through new skills.

But how do we go about that? How do we locate people, bring them together, teach them new skills, and make them understand they are not the only ones troubled in the world?

The answer lies in GIS portals, which, in addition to spatial and environmental data, can also take into consideration psychological aspects of the people.

There are different occasions to launch new web portals: from planning to road safety, and from coastal monitoring to utilities management. The technical personnel in charge of the new infrastructure usually get together using the best information technologies — equipped with the most recent standards — in order to achieve a real interchange of structured information among the various stakeholders. However, what cannot be purchased is the ability to overcome the cultural differences and the diverse background of the people involved.

Webportal of the Mediterranean Regions, an Interreg EU project

The main objective of a GIS portal and related information system that lies at its base is to support the planning phases, engineering knowledge, the management and the decision-support models with the related fields. To achieve this, there is a need to overcome existing difficulties in exchanging territorial information among various administrators and stakeholders.

Waterways are privileged contexts for urban and environmental regeneration policies everywhere in the world. Those policies provide for the creation or strengthening of new urban public spaces, regional and urban parks connected to soil conservation and water-sensitive designs. With the tools of cultural psychology, the Aniene River Valley Development Project seeks to define a new grid of understanding, using the idea that an awareness of various cultural needs, should to be incorporated into the planner”s vision.

Aniene is Tiber river”s last major tributary before Rome that contributes with a flow rate of 31% to the waters passing through the ancient city. The aim of the project is environmental rehabilitation of the riverine green corridor, which is achieved by combining soil conservation measures with enhancement of the places the river crosses.

The multidisciplinary approach reflects the great demand for spatial, ecological and cultural enrichment in order to encourage the use of river resources and create the relationship between protection and fruition. The goal is to realise a riverside park along the Aniene, allowing the widespread environmental regeneration and reconnecting territorial breakdowns such as the space left over after planning that can be used by several stakeholders with varying needs and expectations.

The goal is to enhance the common element — the river. In this way the river axis of the linear park becomes the spine of the project and is able to bring a better quality of life to the riverine communities. The project functions by searching for territorial sustainable development — the approach is geared to preserve quality and quantity of the local ancient heritage and natural resources, without compromising the ability of future generations to endure the same development.

The landscape is the result of complex phenomena, and the planning process requires a multidisciplinary approach involving a team of specialists from different disciplines such as sociology, architecture, urban design, biology, economics, politics and hydraulic engineering to achieve an integrated solution. The team group developed by different experts to understand the potential of each type of landscape is the best solution to balance various needs and unveil, safeguard, enhance and boost better environmental sustainability and human well being.

The GIS portal is a system of structured geospatial information organised according to various themes of interest, each based on a different technical sphere, collaborating together to form a new unified set of knowledge. It can also provide proposed models and tools for data integration, interpretation and decision support.

The system is composed of a geographic database of intelligent geographic features (points, lines, areas) linked to applications based on relational database that not only characterises and qualifies the information associated with the basic elements, but provides a working tool with model and quarry reports ready to use for different applications. A rich raster dataset is placed under the vector data. The website is now ready for anyone to gather data out of a single office and form a new set of information.

The GIS portal gives access to maps of detailed cartography. The main mapping frame provides a diversified geographic database ranging from different visualisation scales to a variety of themes. The services and the applications are also diversified according to target users. A person can remain within the GIS portal as a viewing platform, or gain from such new innovative techniques new knowledge to develop additional skills. In a new emerging economic situation, this approach provides tools for an individual to develop a powerful expertise, thus reducing financial resources and achieving better goals for himself and for the community.

To set up GIS portals, there is a need for collaboration to overcome different cultural and expertise barriers as well as the fragmentation of various technical languages. However, understanding the multiple perspective approach means overcoming the anxiety of the changes — of language, perspectives, technology, communication and in the organisational chart. This results in a vehicle for greater trust, gaining from the richness of varied approaches.

Once the urban development planning process begins, the activity of creating the related geographic information system to systematise the knowledge is underway. This phase is then analysed with the tools derived from cultural psychology. This way, one can develop an awareness of many of the complex aspects involved in the GIS project and gather the means for overcoming cultural barriers normally encountered in dealing with professionals with varied backgrounds.

Simply put, relational database is analysed against geographical data based on a more quantitative analysis approach versus a more spatial relation analysis of geographic elements.

As in psychology, different models are analysed and setting up a GIS system that involves the use of various models is reviewed through the eyes of a psychologist in order to have different cultural groups interacting together. Even the presentation of the visual interface is important.

Once the portal is set up, the private sector can act on themes such as tourism and recreation, to be implemented on the informational layers such as base maps and existing or planned land use, and create new commercial activities.

Today one can’t just go on the old way — the old way is gone and paper maps are history. It is being replaced by a new way of working and thinking which requires combining the efforts of people with different expertise and new skill sets. And nobody knows what this new data set and new system will lead us to tomorrow. The old system produced knowledge that made an individual professional master in his field; now we are getting to a network approach in which any individual needs the network of contacts and the support of others. The individual is still important and essential if he can pool in the information, develop and maintain his skill of multiple perspectives and incorporate the views of others for a more complex and comprehensive understanding of data.

With the tools of cultural psychology, it is possible to go a step forward; not only the system benefits from multiple perspectives of different problems, but the approach becomes more humane and multidisciplinary in both the making and use.

We have to reinvent ourselves. As President Barack Obama says, “Do not take the crisis as a drawback; take the crisis as an opportunity”.