Population growth, rapid urbanization, meeting water and energy needs, biological conservation and climate change — these are some of the most difficult challenges now facing the world.
Finding innovative solutions to these problems — and others — is the Spatial Sciences Institute (SSI), which this fall launched a Bachelor of Science degree in geodesign at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. The new major trains students in design, planning, geographic information science (GIS) and geospatial technologies. It also provides students with valuable skills that allow them to pursue professional careers and/or graduate study in one or more of these three fields and a variety of environmental areas.
Created by SSI Director John Wilson, the degree is a joint project among USC Dornsife, the USC School of Architecture and the USC Price School of Public Policy.
Wilson, professor of spatial sciences, sociology, civil and environmental engineering, computer science and architecture, is among the world’s leading scholars in spatial sciences.
“Geographers are good at describing how things got to be the way they are, but they do not too often extend themselves to think about what could be,” said Wilson, who originally trained as a geographer and is founding director of the 3-year-old institute.
“Architects and landscape architects focus on what could be and tend to pay less attention to what has been and what is now,” he added. “Geographers also tend to look at whole cities or regions, or the ways in which groups of cities are connected to one another, while architects often focus on individual parcels of land. And, of course, planning and planners are important because they provide the frameworks and protocols used by all of us to transform plans and ideas into tangible outcomes.”
It’s not hard to see why it is sometimes difficult to connect these three fields in terms of space and time. The new geodesign degree aims to bridge those gaps by incorporating architecture, geographic information science and planning into one program designed to be greater than the sum of its parts.
“My vision for this degree is that it will be a win-win-win situation for students in each of the three schools involved,” Wilson said. “Each of the three partners brings strengths that will need to be adopted by the other groups in the future.”
Many of the new classes will use a studio framework and iterative learning — a teaching philosophy Wilson borrowed from architecture and planning.
“We’re not going to be in a regular classroom with a talking head at the front and students sitting in rows of chairs,” he said. “Instead, we are adopting a contemporary framework with a lot more student-faculty interaction within a space that is conducive to that process.
“On the flip side, the Spatial Sciences Institute brings to planning and architecture the ability to assemble, organize and visualize lots of different data.”
To help students understand the relationship between form and function, one of the architecture studio classes, for example, will focus on Broadway, a historic street in the heart of downtown Los Angeles.
Eighty years ago, this bustling thoroughfare with its ornate movie palaces, upscale shops and mixed-use apartment living was the vibrant commercial center of life in LA. In recent decades, it has fallen into disrepair, deteriorating into a tawdry shadow of its former glory. And today Broadway is regaining some of its lost luster as movie theaters are restored and historic buildings are repurposed for lofts and condos, drawing a different population back to the area.
Geodesign students will have the opportunity to use resources from all three schools to undertake various projects, such as mapping the transformation of Broadway’s built environment over time or looking at how open space or transit investments can help to revitalize existing neighborhoods.
“We have also built a geoportal that gives access to LA County’s GIS data,” Wilson said, “so we have all of the county’s aerial imagery, their roadways, bicycle paths, parks, parcel data and many other valuable datasets like the census information, which includes population, employment, income, number of children, age distribution by census block group or census tract or ZIP code.”
The final capstone of the degree will be team-taught by faculty from each of the three schools. In addition, students will try to solve a real problem involving a real client.
The new major is already attracting national and international attention.
“It has taken 18 months to launch this degree,” Wilson said. “I see several other schools in the United States, Asia and Europe copying us by starting their own bachelor’s of science degrees in geodesign.”
To build interest in the degree, Wilson and Darren Ruddell, director of undergraduate studies at SSI, are organizing a local GIS Day event on the University Park Campus (UPC) on Nov. 20.
Students and faculty are invited to attend the 90-minute event, which will feature an information session with faculty members from the geodesign major, followed by a demonstration of geospatial technologies on the north side of Alumni Park in front of the Von Klein Smid Center featuring a weather balloon equipped with a camera that will be used to take aerial images of UPC. This method is an example of how GIS users obtain the most up-to-date information to develop a site survey, which can then be used for urban planning and design, including repurposing.
“We hope this will help students learn more about different programs we offer and how they might be relevant to what they are doing,” said Wilson, who stressed the growing global importance of GIS, now a $750 billion industry with millions of users.
“GIS is widely described as a fundamental infrastructure that supports modern life,” he said.
“When I first became interested in GIS, I went to a user conference in 1987 and there were about 125 people,” Wilson said. “Now there are 17,000. The best days for geographic information science and the accompanying geospatial technologies are definitely still ahead of us.”