Three-Tiered Approach for GIS Support at the Design School

Prepared for the Environmental Systems Research Institute
Educational Users Group Conference, August 2004
by Paul Cote
GIS Specialist, Harvard University Design School


From the beginnings of spatial computation in the 1960s to the present day, the Harvard University Graduate School of Design has been committed to exploring geographic information systems as a means of improving the decisions and creativity of planners, landscape architects, and urban designers. In 1993, the faculty renewed their commitment to support GIS in the mission of the school, creating a position for a full-time GIS Specialist. In the succeeding years our strategy has evolved and matured into a three-tiered approach: support for GIS in general courses studios and research; development of GIS-specific courses in the design curriculum; and support for informal self-education in the studio. This presentation will review our current approach to GIS support and the changes we expect in the coming years at the GSD and across Harvard University.

For an online version of this paper that is maintained and revised, see


The mission of the Harvard University Design School is to improve the understanding and design of the built environment. To that end, the Design School offers professional and post- professional degree programs in Architecture (200 students), Urban Planning and Design (60 students) and Landscape Architecture (60 students).

The curricula in each of these departments follow the studio tradition originally developed at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris in the 19th century. Each semester, students choose from among approximately 20 studios offered by the design faculty and visitng design professionals. Each studio takes on a particular design project and the students work individually or in teams to develop a design solution under supervision of the faculty member (known as the critic). Students spend as much as 75% of their time working in studio, but also must take other required and elective courses.

The physical layout of the GSD's building, George Gund Hall, was designed to augment the studio culture. With each student provided with a carrel on one of the 5 levels of the open, terraced studio area (known as The Trays.) These student spaces are networked so that among the traditional tools and information resources that students use in studio, practically all students bring in their personal computers, which they use to connnect to shared data resources and software applications, whose licenses are managed centrally.

A view of the GSD Studio Trays

A typical scene in the trays

The expectation of ubiquitous computing in the GSD studio has been the explict edict of the faculty and the GSD's Computer Resources Group since the mid 1980's. Rather than concentrating resources withn computing labs, the GSD's studio area is itself a giant laboratory for all sorts of work that has an ever-increasing computing component. While this approach may have been innovative and expensive in the 1980s, ubiquitous computing is undoubtedly becoming more common in other schools, as portable computers have decreased the prerequisite for dedicated space that workstations require.

Evolution of a GIS Support at the Design School

In terms of integration of design computing -- particularly the use of GIS -- in the academic environment, the GSD gas been a very early innovator. As a result, the use of GIS in the school may be more deeply imbedded in the cultiure at the GSD as compared with other schools and departments. To understand the importance of geography at the GSD, consider the fact that practically every GSD studio and thesis project begins and ends with the representation and analysis of a geographic site: before and after various design intervention scenarios. It may be because of this intense concentration of spatial iterest that the GSD was chosen as the site for the seminal Laboratory for Computer Graphics and Spatial Analysis (LCGSA) founded by Professor Howard Fisher and funded by the Ford Foundation in the mid 1960s.

For a summary of the Lab's involvement in the early development of GIS, see Jonathan Corson-Rikert's retrospective at and a forthcoming book by Nicholas Chrisman, soon to be published by ESRI Press. For the purposes of this paper it will suffice to mention that the Lab attracted students, faculty and other researchers including such luminaries as Jack Dangermond (founder of ESRI), Lawrie Jordan (founder of Erdas), C. Dana Tomlin and David Sinton (both pioneers of Map Algebra), Scott Morehouse (architect of ArcInfo and ArcGIS) and many other very influential scholars and entrepreneurs in the field.

From the inception of the Lab until the late 1980s the GSD was a hotbed of development for new data models, interfaces and applications of GIS. Of course, this atmosphere was a rich one, from the perspective of GIS, for students who elected to take one of Professor Setinitz's studios, or to participate in one of the Lab-related seminars or symposia. In the late 1980s, as the marketing of commercial GIS products increased, interest in software development at the GSD tapared off. In 1991 the last employee of the Lab, Jon Corson-Rikert, left the GSD. At that time, the institutional responsibility for developing and maintaining the capacity to use GIS in GSD courses and studios rested primarily with Professors Carl Steinitz and Stephen Ervin.

A design studio in the '60s. From laft: Carl Steinitz, Peter Rogers, and Jack Dangermond This photo is from The ESRI Timeline

GIS has been integrated in GSD design studios and research of Carl Steinitz and occaisionnally others each year since the DelMarVa studio in 1965. This is another subject that should fill a book. In the earlier days landscape architecture students would complain about having to learn to write fortran code for a Steinitz studio( Steinitz 1993.) Now that the interfaces for complex GIS data and procedures have become more accessible to students, its use by self-selected students in any GSD studio is increasing. Yet the use of GIS as an "organizing principal" is not much more common now than it was. We will return to this subject in the discussion of the first tier of GIS support, below.

Around the time of the dissolution of the LCGSA, the GSD's model of ubiquitous computing infrastructure was born. The faculty decided that support for spatial data and analysis should be part of the environment as opposed to being a solely a project of individual faculty members. In 1993 the position of GIS Specialist was created within the GSD's Computer Resources Group (CRG). As a staff member, the GIS specialist is dedicated to supporting GIS use throughout the school, as was once the mission of ther LCGSA. In 1996, Stephen Ervin was appointed director of the CRG. See for more information on the GSD's Computer Resources Group.

Three-Tiers of GIS Support

The three academic departments of the GSD: Architecture, Landscape Architecture, and Urban Planning and Design, each share a common mission -- improved understanding and design of the built environment. Regardless of department, each student and faculty member has a concern with representing and understanding geographical sites. Naturally this makes the GSD a place with a large appetite for spatial information -- a representation engine.

The mission of the GSD GIS specialist is to keep this engine tuned and running smoothly. Accomplishing this involves a balance three components, hereafter referred to as the three tiers of GIS support:

  • Tier 1: Diffusion of GIS in courses and studios having a content that is not GIS-specific.
  • Tier 2: GIS instruction through oourses specifically oriented toward scholarly use of GIS.
  • Tier 3: Support for self-directed use of GIS in the studio.

These three strategic efforts are discussed in detail in the remainder of this paper.

Tier 1: Diffusion of GIS in Courses and Studios without a GIS Focus

This tier of support is the interface between spatial tools and the business of the school -- the measure of the effectiveness of the GIS specialist. The primary mechanisms of tier-1 gis support involve evangalization about useful applications and important trends of GIS in the context of some subject. basic training in the fundamental skills of sifting information from spatial data, and wrangling of data for studio sites.

Tier 1 Opportunities in Courses

Currently, opportunities to evangelize and provide basic GIS training are presented regularly in several courses: Fundamentals of Compuuter Aided Design led by Professor Jeffrey Huang and Allen Sayegh; Techniques of Physical Plannning, coordinated by Professor Martin Zogran; and Professor Rick Peiser's course Real Estate Finance and Development.

Fundamentals of Computer Aided Design, required for all architecture students. In this course the GIS specialist is typically given one lecture to discuss and demonstrate some GIS applications related to the uses of spatial data for representing and exploring the context of places. Students are invited to the teaching lab to work through the basic GIS tutorial: ArcMap 101: Exploring Peoria, a tutorial dataset providing examples of some of the most useful data resources that are widely accessible for any place in the United States. The tutorial notes are intended to accompany an instructor-led hands-on demonstration. However there are plenty of references to on-line software documentation included in the notes so that students who do not attend the lab can teach themselves the basic techniquues of gleaning information from spatial data.

Students in the course, Real Estate Analysis are given an domain-specific introduction to basic GIS techniques through the tutorial, Harvesting GIS Data for Comparative Real Estate Analysis which provides a sample dataset that includes a table of comparable properties that the students have gathered themselves, and demonstrates the process of geocoding each property and then associating the student-collected site data with other contextualk information such as the demographics of the area and the proximity of the nearest elementary school. This is a required piece of each student's final project.

All students in the Master of Urban Planning program are required to take the course, Techniques of Physical Planning. This course covers a very wide array of analytical and presentation techniquues from graphical communication to site planning. This course spends several sessions working through the same introductory materials used in Fundamentals of CAD, with the addition of two additional lectures and labs covering Elements of Carotgraphic Style, a tutorial on Mapping with Census Data and advice for avoiding the most common problems facing beginning cartographers: Thematic mapping with Quantitative Data. In the site planning portion of the course, students are introcduced to Fundamental Raster GIS Procedures, as applied to a a pre-prepared database of the Arnold Arboretum, the site for their site planning exercises.

There is plenty of room for tier 1 support to grow at the GSD. We hope in the coming semesters to prepare demonstrations and tutorial materials for subjects such as Site Grading and Hydrological Analysis.

Assembly of GIS databases for Studios

As we discussed earlier, the use of GIS in studios by self- selected students is growing more common -- especially in sites in the U.S. where good data are fairly easy to obtain, but it is rare that studios explore the use of GIS as an organizing principle. Any design critic will tell you that the organizing principle for a studio should have something to do with the client's site and program. Notwithstanding this, it can be propitious to use GIS as a means of organizing the work of studio participants to reap advantages of better coordination, colaboratation and evaluation of work.

There are a couple of reasons for the infrequency of GIS-organized studios. The largest is the amount of time required for assembling a well-enough documented database to serve as an initial scenario for a given site. Since student assignment to studios happens by lottery the day before classes start, there is no guarsntee that students will have the GIS skills nececessary to serve as the base for a colaborative exercise. Furthermore, most studio instructors do not invest the time and resources to prepare a digital representation of the initial scenario, as you might expect a large design firm to do. We look forward to the day when collaborative operation on standardized electronic studio models is more the norm. Toward this end we will be providing as many resources to meet the expeted student self-help needs (Tier 3), and preparing a subset of students in the art of assembling well documented GIS databases (Tier 2.)

Tier 2: Formal GIS Education through GIS-Specific Courses

The activities of Tier-1 support provide a basic level of GIS understanding and facility among the majority of the students. These students are able to explore GIS data and make maps. The second tier of GIS support provides a deeper understanding of GIS through courses that are primarily focused on the techniques for handling and visualizing saptial data, procedures for creating new information using GIS, and an understanding of how information created with GIS should be documented, evaluated and shared in a scholarly manner. Opportunities to address these issues come in courses that focus on the use of GIS.

GIS in the Pre-Professional Landscape Architecture Program

Students in the Master of Landscape Architecture MLA-I program are required to demonstrate this deeper, more critical understanding of GIS. In their third term, these students take three required courses: a design studio dealing with the planning of a large site; a lecture course, Theories and Methods of Landscape Architecture taught by Professor Steinitz, and a half-term workshop course, Site Systems Representation I, led by the GIS Specialist All three of these courses focus on the same geographic site. The schedules are coordinated so that specific GIS skills required to solve problems in the studio or theory and methods are introduced beforehand in Site Systems Representation course.

The GIS specialist is responsible for creating a well documented dataset for the 4th semester studio site, and this permits the students to concentrate on analysis and evaluation rather than database assembly, since only a half semester is allocated to the GIS component of this three-course curriculum. The material for this course is predominantly drwan from the second, analytical half of Fundamentals of GIS. For a look at the syllabus for this course, and samples of student work, see

Full Semester Elective GIS Courses

For students who elect to achieve a thorough understanding of GIS, the GSD offers a full semester course, Fundamentals of Geographic Information Systems: Theory and Applications. In the first half of this course, students choose a place in the U.S. and assemble a GIS database for thier subject that includes contextual basemaps, census data, scanned georeferenced maps, digital elevetion models, landuse data and associated lookup tables. The students use these data to make maps that support written arguments. The midterm product is a CD contianing all of these data and maps that includes metadata suitible for sharing.

The second half of Fundamentals of GIS explores the fundamental procedures of relational databases, vector GIS, raster GIS and image processing. Students prepare a project using each type of GIS: posing a question, demonstrating a GIS procedure that results in new information to address this question, and evaluating of their new information.

The lectures in Fundamentals of GIS provide background on the societal context of GIS, including the history of the major forms of GIS, their current applications and future trends. Students are also given a briefing on the institutional concerns for developing GIS capabilities within a firm or agency. The laboratory exercises coverr a the techniques and issues of gathering and documenting data, for creating new information with raster, vector, and image processing techinques. All of the lecture and lab materials for this course can be found online at

The goal of Fundamentals of GIS is to prepare its students to be able to manage and work with spatial information models as professionnals and scholars. We hope that some of them will become the teaching assistants of next term who are ready to prepare studio datasets, as discussed with Tier-1, above. Unfortunately, too many students wait until their final term to take this course! This is why, next year we will make a special effort to attract Harvard undergrads to this course.

In the 2004/2005 academic year we plan to expand our GIS course offerings to address the particular needs of architects and urban designers and landscape architects working in urban areas. This course will use large-scale urban GIS data: building footprints, cadastral, and terrain data, and data from LIDAR surveys, to assemble three-dimensional representations of urban sites. Building broad-scale context models is a task that has traditionally consumed a large amount of time for GSD students. These context models are sometimes used collaboratively, as the greater context for "plug-ins" representing each student's intervention. In this course, we hope to demonsttrate how ESRI's Spatial Data Engine (SDE) server may be used to store and access these data. We will experiment with the CAD Client for usiing these data in AutoCAD, storage of 3d symbols. We also hope that the versioning capablilities of SDE may provide a means of collaborative building and re-use of models. Cross registrattion between students in this course and in the CADCAM course should lead to some experimentation with cutting urban models on the GSD's computer-numeric controlled router.

An urban model based on GIS data cut with a CNC router.

Tier 3: Support for Self-Directed use of GIS in the Studio

As the great mandolinist and father of Bluegrass music advised, the most effective way to get your kids into music is to tune up the instruments, leave them in the corner, [and get out of the way.] The greatest volume of GIS learning at The Design School occurs in an informal, self-directed way. To make the most of this process, the GIS specialist maintains a collection of often-requested data and documented procedures on-line to support informal GIS self-help. These resources are linked to the GSD web site at

Data resources available on the GSD's local area network include the ESRI Maps and Data DVD, a complete set of US Census data from 1970-2000, licensed from, Detailed planimetric and cadasdtral databases for the cities in the Boston metropolitan area and New York City, and detailed orthophotography for Chicago and Los Angeles. This compilation of data is a joint effort between the GIS specialist and his cohorts at the Harvard Map Collection. A vast amount of other data resources are available through Harvard's Geospatial Library, which is the subject of another talk at this conference.

GIS software and procedures are constantly evolving. This makes part of the work of students and practitioners a continual process of learning of new techniques. To support of this, the GSD GIS Manual includes all of the tutorials that are maintained for all of the Tier 1 and Tier 2 oppotunities discussed above. Even outside of their course context, these tutorial documents provide a topical structure that mirrors the procedures and data that design students are most likely to need. For example, the tutorial Why don't My Layers Line Up? -- Troubleshooting Coordinatye System Issues in ArcMap is a very popular page. Perhaps some people who rerad this will not only learn to assimilate data layers from ultiple sources. A few of them have even clicked from here to the lecture notes on projections, and learned a litle bit about geodesy, Mercator and John Snyder. These tutorials don't replace actual software documentation, which is referenced chapter and verse wherever explicit software details are needed.

Summary Remarks

Much of the division of the work of the GSD GIS specialist into three tiers is arbitrary -- it helps to break up the monotony of a description of what is happening today at the GSD. There are a number of threads that run through this that are worth looking at on their own.

First, the duties of the GIS Specialist fall somewhere between the traditional job descriptions for computer resources administrator, instructor, and librarian. This requires an entrepreneurial mindset and an ability to survive in bureaucratic grey-areas. At the GSD, this position carries a complimentary title of Lecturer in Urban Planning and Design, on account of the teaching responsibilities, but the requirements for supporting permanent infrastructure, and for serving other faculty as guest lecturer and data wrangler are beyond what should be expected of a tenure-track faculty member.

The second important tip for supporting GIS in an environment such as the GSD is that the teaching materials prepared for GIS-specific courses, such as Fundamentals of GIS are re-used in support the introductory presentations made in the courses of other instructors. The same material is posted in the The GSD GIS Manual to help students to learn techniques independently as needed.

A third point that must be stressed in this context: The Harvard Design School is a great place to learn about and use GIS, but it is not the place to go if this is your sole ambition. The school's programs are design oriented, and all applicants should have the primary aim of understanding and improving the built environment.

What is Happening at Harvard?

Harvard is a very decentralized university which abolished its geography department in 1948. The decisionmaking and resources of Harvard are divided among several "tubs" each one of them, according to the tradition of the President and Fellows, "sits on its own bottom." These pieces of the university, in descending order of maginitude are: The (undergraduate) College, overseen by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS), which also oversees the main core of Arts and Sciences graduate programs; the Graduate Schools of Law, Business, Medicine, Public Health, Education, Divinity, and Design. As we have come to expect in practically all enterprises, much of the processes and information of interest in these schools has an important spatial component.

In the past few years, GIS specialists have begun to crop up in places other than the GSD: Steven Melly, at the School of Public Health, and Hartmut Tcshauner in Anthropology (a department of FAS), Lucia Lovison at the Extension School, also has some role at the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences. The Harvard College Libraries is also active un the area of GIS. The Map Collection (part of the library system) employs two GIS specialists, Bonnie Burns and Patrick Florance and the Library Office of Information Systems, through its Library Digital Initiative, has built a Ground-Breaking web-based Harvard Geospatial Library system (HGL), which David Seigel, its architect and developer, will be presenting later at this conference. The HGL project has also provided a fulltime position for a spatial data catalogger, Mr. Tim Strawn. ANother library-related initiative, The China Historic Atlas hosted at the Harvard Yenching Institute, has on its staff, a full-time GIS Specialist, Lex Berman.

Over the past several years, some of aspects of Harvard's "Every tub on its own bottom." tradition have begun to be eroded. This process has been accelerated since the appointment of our new President, Larry Sommers. There are now many interfaculty initiatives, including the Center for the Environment, sponsored by the Provost's Office in order to make more of the University by doing a better job of connecting the dots. SInce GIS Day, 2002, the Provost has expressed an interest in investigating how Harvard might do a better job of dealing with spatial information and models. A faculty committee was formed to make recommendations, under the chairmanship of Professor Peter Bol of the East Asian Studies Department. The Provost has also sponsored a campus-wide GIS Users' Group. The most important outcome of this initiative, to date, has been the funding of two new positions in the College Libraries for a GIS Instructor to do outreach and a preson to help stoke the Geospatial Library with more data. We hope that the Provost's interest in connecting the diverse scholarly dots of the university through their common matrix of space, continues to acrue interest and momentum in the coming years.

Even prior to the Provost's active interest in GIS there were many spontaneous interfaculty activities related to GIS: Lucia Lovison has had her monthly GIS Colloquium Series active since 1998 -- this series provides a venue for the Harvard community, and others, to hear GIS-centric lectures by the many scholars at or visiting the university. Lucia has also been instrumental in arranging Howard Fisher Prize in Geographic Information Science, which honors the spitit of Howard Fisher, the founder of the Harvard Laboratory for Spatial Analysis and Computer Graphics, and inspires several undergraduates and graduate students to submit excellent papers each year documenting their spatial research in hopes of winning $2000. The Official curator of the Fisher prize is Stephen Ervin of the GSD. The core funding for this initiative has been provided by ESRI.

Providing easy access to GIS software accross the university is another early interfaculty initiative which has been the responsibility of the GSD's GIS specialist (your correspondent), since 1996. Our model of site license support is based on a centralized license server, which has access restricted to list of Harvard IP addresses. Software is distributed through a Harvard-only intranet site. These licenses are paid for by a consortium of large users, but access to the applications and licenses is available for free to all Harvard users. The core of our site license is ESRI software, but soon we also hope to be distributing Erdas Imagine and Safe Software's Feature Manipualtion Engine, through this same site license support mechanism.

Concluding Comment

The Harvard Graduate School of Design is no longer home to the high- level of research in GIS that it was in the days of the Laboratory for Spatial Analysis and Computer Graphics; however it is testimony of the value of this early work that the tools developed there have now permeated the work of faculty and students school-wide. As with any large organization, the diffusion of these new technology into mission-critical work does not happen spontaneously it takes evangalism, education and opportunities for self-help.