June 2008 // Volume 46 // Number 3 // Research in Brief // 3RIB6

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Back to the Future Part 1: Surveying Geospatial Technology Needs of Georgia Land Use Planners

Land use and land cover changes are having a dramatic impact on natural resources across the country. Modeling and visualization tools can help citizens, planners, and decision-makers understand the extent of these impacts. Georgia planning officials were surveyed to determine their land use/land cover issues, capacities, and needs with respect to use of these tools. Opportunities exist for Extension administrators, state specialists, and county/municipality agents to work with the planning community to develop and deliver tools to assist with educating citizens and decision-makers about the impact of land use/land cover on natural resources.

Krista L. Merry
Research Coordinator
Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources

Pete Bettinger
Associate Professor
Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources

William G. Hubbard
Southern Regional Extension Forester, College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences

University of Georgia
Athens, Georgia


In light of ever-expanding human demands on the land base, it is imperative that policymakers, landowners, and the general public understand current land cover trends along with their potential impacts on ecological systems and natural resources. Extension education is one avenue that can be used to provide landowners, managers, and policy makers with the knowledge necessary to inform their decisions (ECOP, 2004). New geospatial information technologies are providing a foundation for these types of educational programs. For example, satellite remote sensing has been used by community-based decision-makers to make use of large-scale measurements of land cover that were unthinkable just a few decades ago, and specialized Geographic Information Systems (GIS) software has made possible the analysis and visualization of these datasets by a host of communities.

A promising method for educating the public about land cover change and habitat fragmentation involves the use of computer simulation models to create "alternative futures" based on possible land use scenarios (Nassauer & Corry, 2004). Land use cannot be modeled appropriately without identifying patterns and trends in land use change. While land cover and land use are related, they are the result of different socioeconomic, biophysical, and ecological factors. Therefore, any referral to land cover change is attempting to define "land cover" as a function of "land use."

Each county Extension agent or land use planner may need a suite of education approaches to assist their clients. This set of tools seems to hold promise for situations where land cover change is important. Both planimetric maps (Franklin, Woodcock, & Warbington, 2000) and three-dimensional visualizations (Stoltman, Radeloff, & Mladenoff, 2004, Wilson, 2004) are useful for communicating information about land cover change. These formats are more familiar to non-technical audiences than more abstract tables and graphics, and can be delivered in both digital and hard-copy formats. However, for these types of visualizations to be effective, they must be presented in a manner that makes them readily accessible and easily interpretable.

In 2004, a team of researchers and Extension specialists proposed laying the foundation to develop a nationally focused education program that will apply geospatial technologies to develop scenarios of future landscape (land cover) change and disseminate the results of these scenarios as geospatial visualization products. In addition, the team sought to introduce communities to comprehensive planning tools, to increase the collaboration between Extension and the land conversion community, to serve as a clearinghouse for information on the changing landscape, and to create educational programs that integrate economic, ecological, and social dimensions of land cover change.

During Phase I of the project, an advisory team was assembled consisting of experts in Extension forestry, natural resources, forest ecology, geospatial technology, land use planning, community and economic development, and limited resource and minority outreach. Following the advice of this team, two needs assessment surveys were designed, one targeting planning professionals in Georgia and the other for Georgia County Extension professionals. The basic premise for the needs assessment was to determine how important this subject was to planners and agents now and in the future and how valuable they found different planning and educational tools to be. The results of these two surveys then could be used to develop products and programs to meet their needs and possibly others throughout the United States.


Our initial needs assessment consisted of a survey of planning professionals in Georgia counties and municipalities. The survey was designed to gain an understanding in several areas that could help researchers and Extension professionals alike, including information on:

  • The role of regional development centers in the planning process

  • The incorporation of natural resources in the land planning process

  • The familiarity of planners with geospatial technologies, including land cover modeling and GIS

  • The interest in such geospatial technologies

  • Which outreach methods (i.e., Web site, research center, hard copy maps and atlases) and programs were most desirable for use in the land planning process

  • The drivers of land cover change in Georgia

Contact information for Georgia planning professionals was acquired from the Georgia Department of Community Affairs Office of Planning and Quality Growth (2006a & 2006b), which has an online contact list of county and city planning officials <http://www.dca.state.ga.us/development/PlanningQualityGrowth/index.asp>. A link to the survey was sent out via email. Two weeks later a reminder email was sent to potential survey participants. An additional reminder was sent out two days prior to the close of the survey.

The needs assessment survey was created electronically using Survey Monkey <http://www.surveymonkey.com>. The participants were given a brief explanation of the project and informed of the goals of the needs assessment. Planners that chose to participate in the survey were asked to answer 24 questions (Appendix).

Results and Discussion

Response Rate

After accounting for undeliverable surveys, a total of 172 planning professionals were solicited to participate in the survey. Fifty-nine (34%) chose to participate. Of those respondents, 36% (n=20) identified themselves as county planning professionals, 47% (n=26) city, and 16% (n=9) responded as "other."

Changing Land Use Perspectives

Twenty-four percent of respondents identified their county as "urban," 33% as "rural," and 44% as "mixed." Participants were not provided with a definitions of "urban," "rural," and "mixed," which may have influenced the results of this question. When asked what the landscape of their county or municipality would look like in 5, 10, and 15 years, the majority of respondents envisioned their area to be a mix of urban and rural (Table 1). In addition, the majority of respondents, 64%, identified land cover change as currently being a problem in their county. Sixty percent of respondents identified land cover change as being a problem in 5 years, 64% in 10 years, and 69% in 15 years (Table 2).

Table 1.
Percentage of Responses by Land Use Type Currently and in 5, 10, and 15 Years

 UrbanRuralMixedI Don't Know
5 years25132513512700
10 years3719105522721
15 years462563412274

Table 2.
Percentage of Respondents by Land Use Being a Problem Currently and in 5, 10, and 15 Years

 YesNoI Don't Know
5 years6021341262
10 years6423228145
15 years6924145176

Use and Value of Regional Development Centers

In order to gauge the role of regional development centers (RDC) in the planning process, respondents were asked if they utilized these centers in their planning efforts. Approximately 72% of survey participants responded that they did use regional development centers as a tool in making planning decisions. When asked what role the regional development centers play in the planning process, the majority of respondents indicated that they use their RDC's in comprehensive planning and Development of Regional Impact (DRI's) planning. The Georgia Department of Community Affairs defines DRI's as "large scale developments that are likely to have effects outside of the local government jurisdiction in which they are located" <http://www.georgiaplanning.com/planners/dri/>. Such DRI's can include hospitals, residential projects, mines, and industrial development.

Natural Resource Management Aspects in the Planning Process

Seventy-six percent of participants responded that they did include natural resource management in their planning process. The majority of survey participants indicated that they incorporated water resource issues into their natural resource planning efforts. Such water resource issues include stormwater management, stream buffers, ground water recharge, and wetlands protection. Tree cover preservation, greenspace, and sensitive lands were also identified as natural resource issues that were often included in the planning process.

Geospatial Technologies in the Planning Process

In order to gain insight into the pervasiveness of GIS in Georgia, respondents were asked if their county/municipality had a GIS department. Fifty-nine percent answered that they did have a GIS department or GIS staff while 39% did not. In addition, 72% indicated that they did use GIS in their planning process.

Only 16% of respondents indicated that they utilized land cover change models in their planning process. In order to gain insight into which land cover change models have been used in Georgia counties and municipalities, planning professionals were asked which models, if any, have been used in their area. Those who responded did not provide much detail (i.e., names of specific land cover change models used) but instead reported that they used their comprehensive plan or "massaged" existing GIS data and output to identify potential areas of future land cover change in their area.

This indistinct response could be indicative of the wording of the question. While survey participants were provided with a definition of how the project investigators defined what was a land cover change model, the question may have needed to be worded more specifically to only include computer modeling platforms.

While only a small portion of planners currently use land cover models, 87% of respondents felt that land cover change projections would be of value to their planning efforts. Planners felt that these projections could be of value for several different reasons, including:

  • Providing a snapshot of the future landscape and help in the development of comprehensive plans for their area;

  • Providing assistance with the development of comprehensive plans for their area;

  • Testing of various possible zoning practices on future development in their area;

  • Providing information for making infrastructure decisions;

  • Providing assistance with conservation issues including identifying areas for greenspace designation, watershed protection, and parks and open space; and

  • Educating and informing citizenry on the outcome of zoning and planning decisions to their community.

Respondents were generally uncertain whether they would be willing to purchase projections developed with land cover change models. Sixty percent were not sure if they would be interested in purchasing model output, 25% would purchase land cover change projections, and 15% would not purchase projections. Approximately 78% were unsure as to the maximum their county/municipality would spend on projections.

When asked how far into the future projections would be of value, 40% of respondents felt that projections of 10 years into the future would be of the most value for their planning process. Forty-seven percent of respondents indicated that 5-year projection increments would be the most valuable for their planning needs. Thirty-six percent of respondents thought 2-year increments would be the most valuable.

Land Cover Tools for Education and Technical Assistance

When asked to rank which tools would be most useful in distributing model projections to their area, the majority of respondents "strongly liked" digital maps and/or GIS databases. Fifty-four percent of respondents were in favor of a Web site in which they could access land cover change projections (Table 3). A large percentage of respondents liked the idea of delivering these products via hard copy maps or atlases.

Table 3.
Percentage of Respondents by Potential Tools for Distributing Land Cover Change Projections

 Strongly DislikeDislikeLikeStrongly Like
Web-based access to maps210044115426
Digital Maps/ GIS database (computer files)000031156931
Printed hard copy maps for your county002177372110
Printed atlas for each county002110733563
Printed Statewide Atlas422813643042

Most respondents ranked a research center as the most valuable option for technical assistance programs (Table 4). Over half of the respondents were in favor of the creation of workshops and consulting packages to aid them in model projection implementation. Nearly half of the respondents also liked distance education as a potential outreach program. A little over half of the respondents, 57%, said they would support the development of a research center with a focus on creating land cover change projections for municipalities and counties statewide or nationwide.

Table 4.
Percentage of Respondents by Potential Technical Assistance Programs

 Strongly DislikeDislikeLikeStrongly Like
Research Center006370332311
Distance Education2136164922130
Consulting Packages423717522473

Perceived Drivers of Land Cover Change in Georgia

In general, respondents felt that the changing landscape was attributed to development pressures primarily due to shifts in demography, infrastructure issues, and changes in industry. Many respondents identified spill-over from rapidly growing counties like Gwinnett and the growth of the Atlanta Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) as drivers of land conversion in their area. A lack of infill development and increased impermeable parking were also identified as factors for land conversion. A lack of sewers to enable high-density development and developing areas being served by wells and septic tanks were also seen as reasons for land use conversion.

One respondent attributed development to a migration from urban areas into more rural areas, while other respondents identified people moving out of rural areas to more urban areas in order to be near employment centers. In addition, industry shifts, including rural farms changing from one form of agriculture to another as well as timber industry selling off timber land for private development, were reported to be causing land conversion in some Georgia counties and municipalities.


Georgia city and county planners clearly see land cover change to be of paramount concern today and in the future. Even those planners who today identify their counties as rural are expecting drastic change in just a few years. Tools such as the use of regional development centers, technical service/research centers, online Web mapping services, and professional development courses are designed to provide these planners with a suite of options to use at their disposal. Survey results show uncertainty in the ability of planners to gauge whether their organizations would be willing to purchase tools and products such as these. Budget, personnel, and time constraints probably limit the adoption of land cover change models in local planning offices.

Extension administrators, specialists, and agents should take note of these planning needs and find ways to work with the land-grant research community and others to develop responses. A second survey has been completed and sought to gauge land cover change concerns, capacities, and needs of Extension agents in these same Georgia counties (to appear in the August 2008 issue of the Journal of Extension). The results of that survey, in combination with these results, should provide a roadmap for what is needed to make better informed decisions with regard to land cover change.


Extension Committee on Organization & Policy (ECOP) - Forestry Task Force. (2004). Sustaining the nation's forest and rangeland resources for future generations. Agriculture and Extension Communications, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg.

Franklin, J., Woodcock, C. E., & Warbington, R. (2000). Multi-attribute vegetation maps of forest service lands in California supporting resource management decisions. Photogrammetric Engineering and Remote Sensing. 66: 1209-1217.

Georgia Department of Communtity Affairs. (2006a). Directory of County Planning Officials. Retrieved November 8, 2006, from http://www.dca.state.ga.us/development/PlanningQualityGrowth/programs/downloads/CountyPlanningOfficials.pdf

Georgia Department of Community Affairs. (2006b). Directory of City Planning Officials. Retrieved November 8, 2006, from http://www.dca.state.ga.us/development/PlanningQualityGrowth/programs/downloads/CityPlanningOfficials.pdf

Nassauer, J. I., & Corry, R. C. (2004). Using normative scenarios in landscape ecology. Landscape Ecology. 19: 343-356.

Stoltman, A. M., Radeloff, V. C. & Mladenoff, D. J. (2004). Forest visualization for management and planning in Wisconsin. Journal of Forestry. 102(4): 7-13.

Needs assessment questionnaire.

 Are you a planning professional for a Georgia county or city?55
 Do you consider your county currently "urban," "rural," or "mixed"?55
 How about in 5 years? 10 years? 15 years?55
 Is growth and land use / land cover change currently a problem in the county you serve?55
 If not, do you envision being a problem in 5 years? 10 years? or 15 years?38
II.Using GIS in your county / municipality 
 Does your county / municipality have a GIS department and / or GIS staff?54
 Does your county / municipality utilize GIS for making planning decisions?54
 Does your county / municipality utilize a regional development center as an aid in making planning decisions?54
 If yes, how?30
 Does your county / municipality incorporate natural resource management issues into your planning process?54
 If yes, how are natural resource management issues incorporated?35
III.Using land use / land cover change models in your county 
 Does your agency or department currently use land use / land cover change models to predict the future landscape of your area? 49
 What land use change models have been used?10
 Would projections of land use or land cover change be of value to your planning or extension effort?47
 If yes, please indicate how you would use them?33
 Would you be willing to purchase land use / land cover change projections for your county / municipality?48
 How much (maximum) might your county / municipality be will to pay for one land use or land cover change scenario projected into the future?45
 How far into the future would the projections be necessary to be of value?47
 What increment of years would be of value in these projections? 47
 Please rank these tools for their value in distributing land use or land cover change projections to your county / municipality: (strongly dislike, dislike, like, strongly like)48
  1. Web-based access to maps
  2. Digital map / GIS database (computer files)
  3. Printed hard copy maps for your county
  4. Printed atlas for each county
  5. Printed statewide atlas
 Please rank the following technical assistance programs for their value in educating land use / land cover change projections for your county / municipality: (strongly dislike, dislike, like, strongly like)47
  1. Research center
  2. Workshops
  3. Distance education
  4. Consulting packages
 What, in your opinion, are the drivers of land use change in your county / municipality (i.e., what is causing land use / land cover change in your county?)42
 Would you support the creation of a statewide or national research center to assist in the development of land cover projections for your county / municipality?47
 Please provide any comments of suggestions in the space below.11