How should GIS boost your planning capabilities and enhance your projects?

On Wednesday December 6, 2023, the Diagonal team hosted its first online event. It was an informal online conversation focussing on key issues. We discussed the role of GIS in planning practice, and the opportunities for geospatial tools to support a more digital and innovative system.

We were lucky to have an excellent panel hosted by our own planner, Veronica Barbaro:

  • Adam Sheppard: University of Birmingham
  • Gala Camacho: Diagonal
  • Frances Summers: University of Gloucestershire. Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole Council
  • Lucy Styles: Aberdeenshire Council

It was a short session but we covered a lot of ground. Catch up on the full session here.

Initially we looked at the current landscape, definitions and understanding of GIS amongst the planning community, and blockers to effective use. Then we moved to the future - how GIS could be used, how the role of the planner is changing, and future opportunities brought about by AI and considerations around that.

What follows is a summary of the discussion:

The panel started by focusing on benefits for planners of embracing GIS more and crucially its role in making complex information easier to share with communities: visualising it in a way that anyone can understand it.

However, GIS is in a different place in the private and public sectors. For LAs, where resources are stretched, capacity to use GIS to its full potential is lost, with practitioners only able to scrape the surface of what visualisation tools can do. A knock on of smaller budgets is also that often only the more basic and less intuitive tools are available, or tools are not being used as intended - neither scenario is necessarily conducive to enabling progress and innovation.

As one panellist noted a lot of GIS tools are generalist tools (that want to be ‘anything in a box’) and as a working community we then apply these to a fairly specific discipline: this has a direct impact on planning practice and how decisions are made. Tools end up dictating planning work rather than the other way around. We end up measuring things that are easy to measure and missing out as there is value in tools that are more open ended.

We also discussed a current skills shortage. Panellist noted that University planning schools do their best to ensure students are familiar with GIS tools and are confident in using them with GIS specific modules and assessments, tending to be integral to undergraduate courses. The panel did reflect that it is more difficult to give GIS the same level of attention in postgraduate degrees, though the role of universities is really to provide insight, orientation, and instil sufficient confidence in students for them to want to pursue further learning.

This is important as the profession is changing, and with it so are skills requirements and focus. There are opportunities in the new landscape. Becoming a ‘digital planner’ is now a realistic career prospect. This means that increasingly, there will be a broader range of interest, competency and reliance on GIS tools amongst planners.

We explored definitions. One panellist noted that the term GIS needs to be broken down. To some people it’s a map on a pdf, to some people it’s heavy computation. And GIS is currently very much used for data gathering, but we forget about its potential to speed up data analysis.

The good news that emerges from these discussions is that GIS tools provide the opportunity to take into account datasets that would not usually be considered in planning practice, providing more depth and richness to planning strategies. They can support the drive to bring public health at the heart of the planning policy agenda; they can expand evidence gathering to include the health and cultural economies, and to explore how policy changes can impact certain demographics.

As we know, artificial Intelligence is rapidly gaining traction in many sectors. A significant challenge planners must reckon with is how to build and maintain trust with communities when incorporating AI. We don’t yet fully understand how AI tools will impact planning. As new models are incorporated across different use cases: communities need to have an opportunity to feedback into model assumptions, to ensure their lived experience is not omitted from planning decisions.

This discussion led us on to government responsibility in the wider landscape and the importance of trust and trustworthiness. The panel spoke about the onus on the government to regulate the technology industry. Tech providers who offer proptech/plantech software should have a responsibility to enhance trust between communities and planners. Proptech/plantech should be built responsibly, by diverse teams, who have undergone the requisite checks and meet appropriate standards.

Our next panel

We are planning more events for 2024. We always appreciate feedback, and ideas for new sessions. If there’s anything you’d like to discuss at our next panel please email


December 2023