How Seattle Used GIS to Store its Data

Communities nationwide have identified geographic information systems (GIS) as a foundational platform in building comprehensive smart community strategies. Having a location-centered view of your community is crucial to meeting residents’ needs, whether you’re deciding how to design a new stretch of roadway or where to place public parks.

Smart communities are forward-thinking. They use the resources they have — or acquire new ones — to plan for neighborhoods that are more livable and inclusive for current and future generations. With the use of GIS, Seattle has become a leading smart community.

Historically, designing and planning such a community involved only a loose connection to the overall population. But now, communities are increasingly considering human movement, sentiment and demographics to inform design. Failing to do so puts residents at a great disadvantage, whether it’s the inability to find adequate housing, efficiently travel around the community or access medical services nearby. Communities could find themselves at an economic disadvantage as well. Overall, smart approaches bridge the divide between what is taking place technologically and how communities build for the future. When communities learn and adapt through real-time data, they deliver intelligent infrastructure design that supports urban mobility, resiliency and sustainability. This is critical because the decisions made today will affect communities for generations to come.


With the boom of Amazon, Microsoft and the many internet and health care companies that call Seattle home, the city has added 105,000 new residents since 2010 and is the decade’s fastest growing U.S. city. Seattle is in the process of updating its 20-year comprehensive plan, which will assess the city’s capacity to accommodate that growth. By law, King County is one of several in the state that must determine if they have adequate amounts of residential, commercial and industrial lands to meet the growth needs. In previous years, planners would use an Access database before plotting that data on a map.


Seattle recently implemented a new building permit system and invested in 3D capabilities to visualize the whole city alongside zoning requirements using ArcGIS Urban software. “For the first time, we are going to use GIS and 3D capabilities to refine our analysis but [also] share it out to the public and to our decision-makers,” said Jennifer Pettyjohn, a Senior Planner for the city.

“We have quite a large land use code that is a lot of legalese,” Pettyjohn said. The city’s zoning rules and land-use code are complicated. If printed out, they would create a stack of paper at least 10 inches high. The classifications of zoning codes have all been coded into ArcGIS Urban to improve understanding. The goal is to use the technology to understand where Seattle is now in terms of land use and accommodations for projected growth and to create different scenarios to consider how best to support future residents.


“We have had a lot of growth, [and] we expect a lot of growth,” Pettyjohn said. “What that means is our planning decisions have to be more transparent. We have to demonstrate that we can look at many different scenarios of how we plan to accommodate the growth.”

For example, there’s a need to understand the impact of new development and what happens to people and jobs when buildings and neighborhoods transform. The impact of gentrification and whether it factors into the growing homelessness problem are of particular concern. Seattle plans to share its technical and methodological advancements with its regional peers to help them compose their buildable lands report. Internally, GIS enables the city to better store its data and provides a single system of record. Not only that, but now planners and developers can turn that data into visualizations.

“I’ve been doing this for 30 years,” Pettyjohn said. “I can’t believe that I can put out a 3D model on the internet. It’s pretty exciting.”

This article is an excerpt from our recent report, “Smart Communities: Delivering Intelligent Community Design With GIS.” Download the full report here.


Leave a Comment

Leave a comment

Leave a Reply