A Geodesign Approach to Environmental Design Education


This paper examines the outcomes of a geodesign approach to training undergraduates and graduate students in environmental design and related professions including architecture, landscape architecture and planning. The focus of this paper is on the role of geodesign in generalist training, not specific geodesign degrees. This paper is organized in three parts. First, it describes a conceptual framework for geodesign that seats it within a context of theory and practice. Second, we present a case study of the University of Colorado geodesign program, including, at the time under review in this case, undergraduate and masters programs in architecture, landscape architecture and planning. Third, we reflect back both on the conceptual framework and the experience of the University of Colorado.

Research Topic and Objectives

We are particularly interested in geodesign as a strategy to help students address pressing urban and landscape problems such as climate change, sustainability and environmental quality and justice. Many of these problems can be represented, described and analyzed using geographical information. Geography provides an integrative framework for concepts such as overlay of environmental information (McHarg, 1992; Steiner, 2008); morphological measurement (Jacobson, 2011); and Steinitz’s (2012) method that combines design scenarios with impact assessment. Moreover, geodesign is rooted in use of digital technologies that integrate information about social and natural systems as a basis for modeling, analysis and communication of design and plan effects. Finally geodesign training tends to cross disciplinary boundaries and thus is distinguished from traditional design education focusing on single career paths (Paradis, Treml, & Manone, 2013; Tulloch, 2013). This characteristic of geodesign harkens back to an older design tradition. Classical and renaissance design theorists, for example, Hippocrates, Alberti and Vitruvius, wrote about the placement and configuration of buildings with respect to human health and the effects of air, water, and place. Many other scholars and designers over the past century or so have written about the interdependence of social and natural systems (e.g., Marsh, Olmsted, Eliot, Geddes, Mumford, MacKaye, and McHarg) (Palazzo & Steiner 2011).

Research Population

The geodesign effort at Colorado has been underway for five years. Significant bodies of evaluation materials have been generated over this period including before and after surveys of student knowledge, surveys of student engagement and interest, faculty interviews and student work products. In this research we developed an instrument with which to evaluate final class projects and assess learning outcomes of beginning and advanced studios, special topics classes and geodesign modules. While a number of geodesign programs are underway relatively little has been written about geodesign pedagogy. This paper explores issues and opportunities in geodesign education based on the University of Colorado case.

Research Design and Methods

Our case study relies primarily on assessment of final projects generated by students, and secondarily on interviews and review of other information. This is also a participant research project. For disclosure we point out that the authors of this article led much of the curriculum development described in this paper, one of the authors as a program administrator. We developed a rubric with which to assess student products. This measured work products in 12 dimensions: Inventory, Findings, Data Processing, Responsiveness, Analysis, Multi-disciplinarity, Performance Metrics, Justice, Communication, Clarity, Participation and Engagement. These address the distinctive characteristics of geodesign discussed previously (iterative modeling, performance assessment and accounting, use of high resolution data, community engagement and mixed spatial methods) as well as general outcomes related to integration of spatial analysis into the design process. The instrument is also intended to address the context of general environmental design education encompassing architecture, planning, landscape architecture and design studies. While we do not specifically address professional association outcome requirements we constructed our instrument so that it is both rooted in the spatial sciences and linked broadly to the pedagogy of the four fields. The co-authors on this article individually evaluated final projects and conducted test sampling to ensure consistency across evaluations. We tabulated the scores by effectiveness category.

In addition, we conducted interviews with instructors who participated in the delivery of these four geodesign courses. These interviews addressed general questions regarding course design, process and outcomes. Finally, a significant body of evaluation materials has been generated over this period including before and after surveys of student knowledge; surveys of student engagement and interest; instructor evaluations; student course reviews; and evaluations of final student work. We used these interviews and other evaluation materials to establish background and context for the project.


In the courses we reviewed that are specifically targeted to geodesign, both undergraduates and graduates performed reasonably well on outcome criteria. Among planning and landscape graduate students, this finding is not surprising because geodesign strongly complements other parts of their program. The success of design-oriented undergraduates is more surprising, however. Based on comments in interviews and other information gleaned through the project, there are several explanations for their success (beyond quality of teaching). First, the undergraduates had acquired a strong cross-disciplinary background and sensibility during their course of study at ENVD. This was useful to them in their geodesign courses. Second, they have acquired strong, general physical design skills at ENVD, which supports them in development of geodesign projects. Third, many current undergraduates may enter a program such as ENVD with elements of a capacity for geodesign. They are knowledgeable about general mapping practices and volunteered data collection as a result of commonplace use of Google maps and social media, and this knowledge may translate readily to improved performance in a geodesign course.

This research also suggests several issues with delivery of geodesign training that are the focus of the balance of this section. First, use of performance measures is weak across many of the courses as a method for evaluating the effect of design on social goals such as sustainability, climate change adaptation and urban livability (e.g., indicators of energy efficiency). Instructors commented in interviews on the difficulty in training students in application of performance measures. These difficulties may reflect the intrinsic complexities of indicator systems, including the technical and conceptual problems involved in building a consistent set of formal measures and the difficulties in reaching or assuming social agreement about values, objectives, and targets. It is far easier to critique performance measures than build them. Nonetheless, building student knowledge and skill in application of performance measures seems important because such measures have become a fundamental tool of policy and organizational management. Use of performance measures was strongest in the two studios where it was emphasized as a primary output. This experience suggests that achieving strong student outputs with performance measures requires concerted attention and priority in the curriculum.


  • Brian Muller, PhD (CO-PI)
  • Travis Flohr (CO-PI)



  • N/A


  • Client

    University of Colorado

  • Skills

    • Geodesign
    • Pedagogy
    • Pedagogical Evaluation
    • Descriptive Statistics
    • Interview