Interview with new Center for GIS Director Subhrajit Guhathakurta

Oct 14, 2011 | Atlanta, GA

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  • Subhrajit Guhathakurta

  • Drew Swope

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Drew Swope

This story is from the Newsletter created by the Student Planning Association under the directorship of Drew Swope (MCRP class of '12).

Dr. Subhrajit Guhathakurta, or Dr. Subhro, is the new director of The Georgia Institute of Technology’s Center for Geographic and Information Systems. Born in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), India, and the son of an engineer, his primary and secondary education was under the strict rule of the Jesuits. He later attended Jadavpur University in Kolkata for his Bachelors degree in Architecture. With extensive experience in developing and applying geo-spatial technologies, he also has spent time studying economic development in India and California, and has taught as a visiting professor in London, Bangalore, Brisbane, and Germany. It was my pleasure to sit down with him for a bit to learn more about how he arrived in Atlanta. Here is how our conversation took place.

Drew Swope: Dr. Subhro, please tell us about your foray into City Planning.

Dr. Subhro: Well, as an architecture student in Kolkata, I made a decision during my senior year that I wouldn’t enjoy practicing the discipline. In an effort to learn about various options, I sat down with my faculty advisor who gave me the book, “Making City Planning Work” by Alan Jacobs, a man whom I have since befriended. This book is all about how San Francisco became the city that it is, it’s a beautiful book and goes into the nitty-gritty of how planning actually gets done. I was interested in the diverse studies and opportunities that planning could provide so I began looking into furthering my studies in this field.

D: Following undergrad, you went straight into a planning program? Where?

S: Yes, I graduated in the Spring of 1985, stayed in Kolkata for the summer, and left for Iowa State University in August.

D: Is this where your interests in GIS were developed?

S: Sort of, I had always been interested in technology and here I became fascinated with the ability computers have to automate numerous planning functions. It was this interest that initially led my research around computer modeling tools. At the time urban modeling was in the doldrums, but I was still interested in its potential so I focused my masters thesis around it. I eventually developed my paper further and received the Chester Rapkin award for the best paper in the Journal of Planning Education and Research. The paper discusses how computational tools can follow the trajectory of and support urban planning theory. In the 80s, people were interested in communicative planning so I elaborated on how these tools can help make cities a platform for every kind of person to have a voice and enjoy a lifestyle they aspire towards.

D: That’s really interesting. I think there are many people in Atlanta who would like to see GIS used more progressively to educate communities and encourage them toward public participation. So then, when you graduated, did you stay in Iowa? America?

S: Ha, no and yes. I moved to San Francisco to start the Ph.D. program at Berkeley, which, as I mentioned, is where I met Alan Jacobs.

D: Did you continue your GIS studies there?

S: No, I did include GIS and urban modeling in my application to Berkeley, but instead focused on development work and how to enable underprivileged people to participate in the formal economy. I focused on how the state can create the foundation that fosters or stunts economic growth and wrote my thesis on a case in India. The federal government was regulating economic activity for small-scale manufacturing industries and this regulation was intended to encourage entrepreneurship, but instead prevented small businesses from being competitive from economies of scale. However, this was also the time that John Landis was at Berkeley and the work he did there with his California Urban Futures project influenced me and he eventually became a mentor of mine.

D: Well, tell me how did your GIS expertise develop?

S: Well GIS has always been a part of what I did. Oftentimes, students have come into my office explaining, “I want to do a project on GIS” in which I always explained, GIS is a tool that may help explain or clarify a problem, but what is important is defining the problem itself. Once the problem is defined, only then can we judge if GIS is the appropriate tool. Then, in 2002, eight years after I was hired as an assistant professor at ASU, I started an urban modeling and simulation lab influenced by John Landis’ California Urban Futures project. I began working with UrbanSim, an open source programming software, with a computer science faculty colleague and two students, one from computer science and the other from planning, to begin creating realistic scenarios of metro Phoenix’s future.

D: So using urban modeling and GIS within UrbanSim you would create scenarios to understand implications of future development and population growth?

S: Yes, but it was much more than that. Using the original research from this lab, we received a large grant from a local donor, which funded the creation of the Digital Phoenix Project. This allowed us to bring together a large interdisciplinary team with planners, architects, computer scientists, life scientists, civil engineers, and landscape architects. We created richly textured visual models of Phoenix’s downtown core that helped us create digital scenarios based on components of city population, transportation, materials used for development, employment, air quality, and water consumption. These scenarios then helped us understand how different policies and social behaviors would create different future environments that could be evaluated through a series of sustainability indicators. This tool was used to engage the local officials and residents interested in the future of Phoenix.

This project developed my understanding of how geo-spatial tools can assist planning for a city’s future and influenced me to incorporate a deeper sensitivity to sustainability of urban futures. In 2005, I was one of the first professors appointed to Arizona State University’s new School of Sustainability, which brought me to one of my current research projects: Investigating how the different designs of neighborhoods influence their consumption of energy.

D: So is this part of your vision for the Georgia Tech’s Center for Geographic and Information Systems?

S: Well sure, I’ll be interested in continuing my research, but my focus for the center is a bit bigger. Working with such a progressive research institute, I’m hoping this will become a center to connect all parts of this campus. If there is research involving space or place I want to find a way to collaborate with that. Furthermore, I’d like to connect outside of campus as well. I would like Georgia Tech’s GIS center to be a nerve center of an international network. I have worked with universities all over the world in China, India, London, Germany, Australia and South Africa. I think our center can become an important part of the international community in developing and applying geospatial technologies.


Drew Swope is a second year MCRP student concentrating in economic development.  He  recieved a Bachelor's in Urban Studies from Furman University and currently works with Charis Community Housing.