Mapping the Future for our Cities

How Esri Canada uses geographic information system technology to build better communities.

Mapping the future of our cities - Douglas Oct/Nov 2022

Alex Miller, president of Esri Canada, describes the company’s mission as “digitizing the geography of the world.” That’s a big picture summary of what this Canadian leader in geographic information system (GIS) technology is all about. 

But turn the microscope on cities, and Dan Ruscheinski, Esri’s senior director of marketing and sales operations, says there’s a world of opportunity for how a city like Victoria can leverage the power of GIS to best plan for future growth, transportation and climate change mitigation.

“Every department, from public works to parks and recreation, is talking about things that have a physical location in the city,” Ruscheinski says from Esri’s Victoria office. “The opportunities for sharing information between departments and municipalities are huge, and I think a lot of them are doing that quite well already.”

However, he believes cities can do much more to leverage the power of GIS to reduce the sometimes “adversarial environment” that occurs when city planners, a NIMBY-minded public and developers butt heads over proposed developments.

Things can get super heated when a municipality faces the dual challenges of housing affordability and a lack of available real estate. According to Ruscheinski, when Toronto faced the prospect of housing an estimated 700,000 new residents by the year 2050, planners used GIS to identify six locations in the city where new housing could be layered on top of existing commercial and retail real estate that’s close to transit and other urban amenities.

He believes the Hillside Centre retrofit, which basically transformed an old shopping mall into a modern shopping mall, was a missed opportunity to do something similarly creative in Victoria and reimagine the property as a mixed retail-residential hub.

Looking forward, Ruscheinski views Rock Bay as the perfect opportunity to use GIS to create what he calls “digital twins” — multiple visions for developing these former industrial lands that incorporate public transportation, sea level rise, green space, building design and height, and countless other variables that can shape a progressive neighbourhood.

The same goes for the often debated resurrection of the E&N Railway.

“How could the E&N alleviate affordable housing problems by allowing nodes of development in a place like, for example, Cobble Hill?” Ruscheinski asks, adding that people living there could travel to and from their places of work in Greater Victoria by efficient commuter rail.

He feels strongly that digital twinning allows for much better public engagement than a stale rendering on cardboard at a public hearing.

“The public loves it because they get to see a few models of what a development could look like. Developers love it because it gives them clarity and certainty,” he says.

At the end of the day, it makes for a more progressive, future-forward city that can grow in a coherent and sustainable fashion.