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'Think Globally, Act Regionally' with GIS

May 5, 2006

Photo of Richard LeGatesMaps and spatial analysis are not just for geographers and geeks anymore, Professor of Urban Studies Richard LeGates asserts.

His new textbook, "Think Globally, Act Regionally: GIS and Data Visualization for Social Science and Public Policy Research" (ESRI Press), is proof that Geographic Information Systems (GIS) can be a key tool in urban studies, urban planning and other social sciences.

The textbook is part of a project to introduce GIS -- which uses computer-generated maps to make comparisons and projections -- into urban studies and urban planning programs nationwide. The Space, Culture, and Urban Policy Project is funded by a three-year, $432,000 grant from the National Science Foundation.

Image of the front cover of "Think Globally, Act Regionally"Led by LeGates and Associate Professor of Urban Studies Ayse Pamuk, the project aims to teach undergraduate students how to use GIS for research in urban studies, urban planning, public policy and other social sciences. Pamuk is writing a companion text, "Mapping Global Cities: GIS Methods in Urban Analysis," scheduled for publication this summer. LeGates and Pamuk created materials intended to motivate students across the country who may drop out or change majors when intimidated by required courses in research methods and data analysis.

"Beginning students can learn to do very powerful things with new or existing spatial data," said LeGates, a regional planning expert who has taught at SF State since 1970. "In urban studies, adding a spatial dimension can be very, very powerful" and have a profound influence on public policy decisions.

The use of GIS can help determine everything from which farmland, endangered plants or animals to preserve, to where public transportation, day-care centers and health clinics should be located.

LeGates' textbook, which is accompanied by a CD-ROM, includes exercises with an urban focus -- using data about urbanization, conflicts between the built and natural environment, and spatial equity. "Think Globally, Act Regionally" concludes with a case study on how Metro -- a planning and governance body in the Portland, Ore., metropolitan area -- has utilized GIS in its regional planning processes.

SF State students helped develop and test the instructional materials in the book. LeGates, an attorney and urban planner, and Pamuk, a planner who is an authority on housing and urban policy analysis, use the materials in their classes.

LeGates, Pamuk, Assistant Professor of Geography XiaoHang Liu and Barry Nickel, associate director of SF State's Institute for Geographic Information Science, have trained social science faculty members from more than 30 other universities -- including Stanford, Dartmouth, University of Cincinnati and University of California, Davis -- on how to incorporate GIS and spatial thinking into their teaching.

LeGates was inspired to learn GIS about eight years ago after being impressed by the work of one of his students. He recalled a student who created an eye-opening map illustrating the concentrations of San Francisco's homeless population in relation to public transit and child-care centers.

"I was blown away," LeGates said. "I felt like I had to catch up with my student."

-- Matt Itelson


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Last modified May 8, 2006 by University Communications