Penn State geodesign graduate student Jesse Suders studied how the design of two new Olympic venues — an Aquatics Center and Vel

Designing a City within a City

When a city considers putting together a bid to someday host a future Olympic Games, dozens of entities and stakeholders get involved. When that city is Portland, Oregon, that means asking for input from Penn State geodesign students taking an online studio course — GEODZ 852 Geodesign Studio II: Urban/District-scale Challenges.

“It was serendipitous,” explained James Sipes, faculty member for the Penn State geodesign online master’s program and founding principal of Sand County Studios. “I was trying to find a project for my course, and someone mentioned that Portland was interested in hosting the Olympics at some point in the future.”

Sipes, who worked with the design firm EDAW (now AECOM) to retrofit Olympic facilities after the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games and helped with the conceptual environment planning for the 2012 London Olympics, appreciates the complexity required of basically creating a city within a city. After assigning his students from the previous semester the task of designing the area around the Atlanta Braves’ new baseball stadium, Sipes thought that taking the concept one step further and creating an entire complex of sports facilities would be a challenging experience with a real-world connection that would provide his students with a different problem-solving mindset.

“That is what is great about this course. It opens your mind and prepares you for different realities and circumstances,” said Ana Hampshire, a part-time student in the Master of Professional Studies in Geodesign program, who also works in the construction department of a commercial real estate development company in Houston, Texas. “My country of origin is Brazil, and we build/develop things in a different way over there.”

Given Hampshire’s familiarity with Rio de Janeiro, host city for the 2016 Summer Games, and its susceptibility to natural disasters, she was able to compare Rio to Portland, which was experiencing wildfires at the time of the project. By studying data and taking geospatial information into account, Sipes helps his students learn to design for the future.

“Resiliency is not only about preparing for disasters. It is about where Portland wants to go in the future, and a big part of that has to do with jobs, sustainability and smart growth,” noted Sipes, who explained that there are two ways the Olympics could affect the city. “A city can let the Olympics influence its infrastructure, the changes of which do not necessarily anticipate the future of the city, or a city can revitalize its infrastructure to then make an Olympics bid. The second option is better because it allows the city to become what it wants to be first.”

Throughout the course, students learned about tools and technologies developed to help mitigate the effects of such disasters and plan for the health and safety of residents. The Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI), a prominent GIS software company, volunteered time and support to work with Sipes’ studio developing custom templates and testing out new products focused on urban resiliency.

“ESRI values working with universities, students and researchers because we want to enable next-generation thinkers to leverage the tools we provide to solve environmentally sensitive issues,” said Geoff Taylor, 3-D solutions engineer at ESRI. “Penn State has set themselves apart by creating a geodesign program because there aren’t many groups conducting this level of geospatial urban analysis. We’re excited to continue our partnership with Penn State students and faculty, as such collaboration ensures a more innovative, sustainable and resilient future for everyone.”

At the outset of the semester, students conducted feasibility studies of Portland and then selected two venues to design for their individual studio projects from a list of 10 priority venues that required complex analysis on account of their size, visibility, cost and level of difficulty. The students then had to work together to integrate their ideas to then share within TERF, a virtual studio space that allows 3-D immersive collaboration. Cloud-based software designed by ESRI, such as GeoPlanner, helped narrow down design possibilities into feasible solutions. Then, the students created their environments in CityEngine, software used by Pixar and DreamWorks, as well as in the film “Independence Day,” to create the model cities.

Jesse Suders, a student in the program and a full-time GIS analyst in the Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, region, taught himself ESRI’s CityEngine modeling software, and used another online software platform, Geodesign Hub, in addition to GeoPlanner to complete his project. An avid cyclist, he selected the velodrome and the aquatics center as his venues, which he situated in the Lloyd District of Portland, near the Olympic Village designed by fellow classmate Dan Meehan, geodesign program manager in the Penn State Department of Landscape Architecture. They collaborated closely to integrate their venues and coordinate the movement of people throughout the region’s other Olympic venues.

The course’s accelerated pace and the takeaways from the final review will help Suders prepare to reach his career goal of providing enhanced planning support and design services to smaller Pennsylvania municipalities experiencing the pressures of growth.

“Planning is an interdisciplinary endeavor,” said Suders. “The geodesign professional functions as a liaison while at the same time maximizing the use of enabling technologies. The concepts we are learning here are unlike anything I currently see implemented in the field. Geodesign’s scenario-based concepts are changing how we approach the planning problem. The feedback we receive in these courses helps us to prepare for future projects.”

The final review provided an opportunity for the students — from Hong Kong to Pennsylvania — to have a synchronic experience online in the TERF environment with reviewers from Pepper Foster Consulting in Portland, including Damian Smith, founder and managing partner; Pia Shivdasani, consultant; and Jake Lovell, associate consultant; as well as Kelleann Foster, lead faculty member for the program and director of the Penn State Stuckeman School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture; and Eliza Pennypacker, director of the Penn State Department of Landscape Architecture. Smith’s input in regard to Portland’s history and his on-site experience gave students a better context for the venues and chosen sites. The reviewers and Sipes agreed that the students managed to ask the right questions and successfully articulate their designs.

“This was a crazy project to give you,” admitted Sipes to his students at the end of the final review. “Realistically, if this were a professional project that you were going to work on, you’re probably working on this for the next five to 10 years. Then, you get to the end of the 10 years and you’re probably still not done. I’m very impressed.”

For more information on Penn State’s geodesign program, visit