Faculty Profile

Ann-Margaret Esnard
July 1, 2004

Ann-Margaret Esnard has been a faculty member and director of the GIS Lab in the Department of City and Regional Planning at Cornell University since 1997. Esnard’s multidisciplinary background in Regional Planning (Ph.D.), Agronomy and Soils (M.S.) and Agricultural Engineering (B.Sc.) is tied together by a computer applications theme and a fundamental belief in appropriate technologies and techniques, as well as a holistic approach to improving natural, physical and social conditions in both urban and rural communities. She teaches introductory and applied GIS courses as well as land use and environmental planning courses. She has conducted research and published on topics that include GIS pedagogy, land use planning, spatial analysis and modeling of New York metropolitan urban expansion, vulnerability assessments of coastal and flood hazards, and quality of life during post-disaster periods.

Land Lines: How did you begin working with the Lincoln Institute?

Ann-Margaret Esnard: The Institute funded a research project that I worked on with my Cornell colleagues Rolf Pendall and William Goldsmith. It was titled The Thinning Metropolis: Land Use, Land Values and Population Decline in Mid-sized Cities in the U.S. Heartland. Using the Rochester, New York, metropolitan area as the study area, we examined the extent to which land values had dropped in the central city and adjacent districts compared with suburban locations, and the causal links to fiscal structures, property tax differentials and local, state and federal land use planning initiatives. Our working paper (Pendall, Goldsmith and Esnard 2001) presents the results of various types of GIS-based mapping and spatial analysis to show spatial variations in socioeconomic and land values. This research culminated in the Institute-sponsored “Thinning Cities” conference held at Cornell University in September 2000.

LL: What is your most recent project?

A-M E: This year I was the faculty coordinator for a new course, GIS for Land Development Analysis by Community-Based Organizations (CBOs), which was offered in Cambridge in March 2004. Participants from Florida, Maine, Massachusetts, New York and Oregon learned about several case studies on the application of GIS for initiating, opposing, monitoring and evaluating land use and land (re)development projects. Other topics included neighborhood indicators, online data and Web-GIS sources, and capacity building and implementation strategies. This course is a natural extension and link to some of my teaching and outreach activities with nonprofit organizations and CBOs that have focused on the creation and application of appropriate information technologies to increase awareness, planning and mitigation for environmental hazards, both natural and man-made.

Other course faculty represented the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative (DSNI) in Boston, which facilitated a tour of its Roxbury neighborhood; PolicyLink, a national nonprofit organization based in Oakland, California, and engaged in identifying innovative community-based practices and disseminating these ideas through research, communications, capacity building and advocacy; and ESRI (Environmental Systems Research Institute), based in Redlands, California, the creator of one of the most popular suites of GIS software products and related educational publications.

LL: How did you begin working with CBOs?

A-M E: About five years ago I was the instructor for a semester-long GIS application workshop at Cornell that entailed collaborating with the Community University Consortium for Regional Environmental Justice (CUCREJ), renamed Communities and Academics Partnering for the Environment (CAPE). My students and I worked directly with West Harlem Environmental Action, South Bronx Clean Air Coalition, Ironbound Community Corporation, Magnolia Tree Earth Center and Greater Newark Conservancy—all members of the consortium. The main goal of the workshop was to give students the opportunity to collaboratively investigate, design and construct online geographic information systems and other information technologies that would be useful to the environmental justice work of these organizations.

This partnership with the consortium and its CBOs was not accidental; CAPE’s vision of a community-based GIS took root at its inception in 1995. After failing to raise grant money from government agencies, foundations and corporations for a stand-alone research project, Michel Gelobter, the consortium’s former academic cochair (now affiliated with Redefining Progress in Oakland, California), approached me to collaborate on a course that bridges environmental justice and GIS and that embodies community-academic partnering ideals.

LL: Why should CBOs be active users of GIS?

A-M E: All the community groups we worked with in New York and New Jersey placed environmental justice in the broader context of community quality of life, identifying such facets as amenities (e.g., rivers, parks, open space), community facilities, environmental quality, housing, employment, schools, socioeconomic distributions, demographics, infrastructure, policy and land use regulations. GIS technology provides a platform for integrating and analyzing datasets representative of these various facets of community quality of life.

A related issue is how GIS can also be used as a platform for collaboration between policy makers (professionals and researchers) and CBOs to define land development analyses. To find useful answers, GIS projects should begin with the formulation of the question(s) by policy makers and policy shapers who are knowledgeable about the community, its history, other successful and failed land development initiatives, and sources of data and other information (spatial, nonspatial, quantitative and qualitative) that influence land development trends and patterns in communities. The bottom line is that familiarity with the community must extend beyond the computer and the desktop to include the real space, the real place and the inhabitants of that place.

LL: What are some examples of how CBOs have used GIS technology to benefit their communities?

A-M E: GIS applications vary in scope and scale from site-specific to community-wide analyses. Several well-documented examples include

  • tracking neighborhood change (physical, social, environmental and economic)
  • assessing alternatives for placing affordable housing
  • identifying development opportunities as part of community improvement projects
  • (re)evaluating policies and practices that result in disproportionate siting of locally unwanted land uses in minority neighborhoods
  • (re)developing vacant parcels and brownfields
  • developing greenfields
  • implementing transit and transportation projects as part of regional land use and economic development initiatives
  • assessing the distribution of land holdings by government agencies, individuals and land trusts.

PolicyLink’s publication Community Mapping (www.policylink.org/pdfs/Mapping.pdf) was developed as part of their Equitable Development Toolkit and is a great source for case studies.

LL: Is GIS information available to community groups and nonprofits at reasonable or no cost?

A-M E: Yes. Federal and state agencies have made great efforts to improve their Web-GIS interfaces so that local residents with little or no GIS knowledge can at least generate base maps of their communities. Data clearinghouses (such as the New York State Clearinghouse and MassGIS) also facilitate data sharing and access. However, many of these public-domain data are outdated and often lack local context and the rich detail necessary for community and neighborhood planning. Universities and other types of intermediary agencies also provide opportunities for centralization of data holdings and have analysts with GIS expertise to work with CBO staff or residents. I am not yet aware of a perfect model that suits all CBOs. Many of these data centers tend to be linked to special project initiatives related to affordable housing, neighborhood quality of life, environmental justice or other local concerns.

LL: What are some other challenges and obstacles that prevent CBOs from fully integrating GIS into their land (re)development decision making, planning and specific initiatives?

A-M E: Most of these challenges are not new, and they exist for many local governments as well. First is the issue of capacity building that allows CBOs to translate land development problems into appropriate processes to support analysis, such as the selection of appropriate datasets and methodologies and the interpretation of spatial analysis results. It is too often the simple way out to allow the “available data” to shape the questions that we ask, the process that we engage in and the land policies that we subsequently recommend. Furthermore, we need to remind ourselves that simply creating more clearinghouses or resource centers will not immediately help CBOs with policy analysis and decision making on land development decisions; they need other kinds of training and support services as well.

Second is the fact that GIS frameworks still do not allow for easy integration of “local knowledge” with formal data. Often it is the local knowledge of CBOs that is both unique and central to giving shape to their aspirations for their neighborhoods. Research on public participation with GIS can provide an opportunity to apply a participatory approach to system design and interface issues, data gathering and formatting, and may begin to address this difficulty in integrating different types of information.

Third is the dilemma of how CBOs can keep their community agenda while placing their project analyses in the broader context of regional development trends. This introduces elements of data analysis across varying definitions of community boundaries, multiple geographic scales and units of analysis that are realistically beyond the scope of local governments, far less CBOs.

LL: How has your work influenced your participation in Lincoln Institute programs?

A-M E: One of the most rewarding experiences of my academic career was the collaboration with progressive environmental justice grassroots organizations in New York City and New Jersey. It was different, it was new, and it helped me rethink the whole notion of tools, techniques, planning processes and policy issues. I learned a lot from those CBOs, and my affiliation with the Lincoln Institute for the new course on how CBOs can use GIS to enhance land development decisions has been greatly influenced by that experience. As part of the Institute’s broader series on CBOs, the GIS course makes an important statement by recognizing the new and changing roles of CBOs in land planning and policy making.


Pendall, R., W. W. Goldsmith, and A-M. Esnard. 2001. Thinning Rochester: Yesterday’s solutions, today’s urban sprawl. Working paper. Cambridge, MA: Lincoln Institute of Land Policy.


English, K.Z., and L.S. Feaster. 2003. Community geography: GIS in action. Redlands, CA: ESRI Press.

Esnard, A-M., M. Gelobter, and X. Morales. 2004. Environmental justice, GIS and pedagogy. Cartographica 38(3&4):53–61.

Knapp, C.L., and The Orton Family Foundation Community Mapping Program. 2003. Making community connections. Redlands, CA: ESRI Press.

MassGIS Web site (www.state.ma.us/mgis/).

New York State GIS Clearinghouse (www.nysgis.state.ny.us/).

PolicyLink. GIS as a community building tool: From analysis to equity (www.policylink.org/EquitableDevelopment/).