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Minnesota State University, Mankato
Minnesota State University, Mankato

Mapping out a Future

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Mapping out a Future

Associate Professor of Geography Fei Yuan

An expert in both GIS and remote sensing, Minnesota State Mankato's associate professor of geography Fei Yuan explores the combination of the two technologies in guiding urban planning.

The people in charge of mapping out a city's population growth and determining what available land can and cannot be used don't usually go about things Fei Yuan's way.

But that could well change, as the associate professor of geography at Minnesota State Mankato is about to have work published showing the benefits of merging two technological tools in the interests of better managing population growth and its environmental impact.

It's a case of significantly high–tech ingredients adding up to a fairly straightforward premise: "It allows you to see what has happened in the past and also predict the future," Yuan says.

The recipient of a 2008 Summer Research Grant from Minnesota State Mankato, Yuan will have her studies published in the academic journal Landscape and Urban Planning. The upshot of it all is to show how the use of both remote sensing technology and geographic information systems (GIS) can help city planners more accurately predict the best route to growth and sustainability in areas where population is on the rise.

After receiving her bachelor's degree in geography at East China Normal School University in Shanghai, Yuan received a master's degree in GIS at the University of Minnesota, followed by a doctorate in remote sensing, also received at the U of M.

Remote sensing is the process by which information about the earth's surface is gathered electromagnetically by satellite or aircraft sensors. Geographic information systems, or GIS, allows for computer–based analysis of a particular area and for the manipulation of data to enable planners to predict where people and land use are headed.

"Using multi–temporal remote sensing data obtained by the airborne or satellite–based sensor, I can do the image process and analysis, and can map the urban growth dynamically," Yuan says.

It's an unusual step—at least now—to use both remote sensing and geographic information systems together for urban planning, Yuan says. But her research makes a case for it.

Her testing ground was nothing less than the Twin Cities metropolitan area, which includes the seven counties surrounding Minneapolis and St. Paul, some areas of which—Woodbury, for instance—are seeing a large population growth. By addressing the question of how planning for the future urban growth of the Twin Cities Metropolitan Area should proceed, her study presents an example of using spatial technologies to estimate impacts of urban land plans and policies on future urban development.

Over the past two decades, urban–use land in the area went from 24 percent in 1986 to nearly 33 percent in 2002. Agricultural land and forestry diminished by nearly 9 percent. Meanwhile, the Metropolitan Council, the regional planning agency for the Twin Cities area, has forecasted a population increase of 500,000 by 2020.

Obviously, if sustainability is a concern, it's time to proceed cautiously. Enter the high–tech.

Yuan began this project in 2007 by collecting the remote sensing images of the Twin Cities Metropolitan Area that were obtained between 1975 and 2006. These were available through the University of Minnesota and a data–sharing agreement with Minnesota State Mankato. She also collected GIS data from the Twin Cities Metropolitan Council, the Minnesota Department of Transportation and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

The Metropolitan Council does have a land–use plan in place, one that stretches into 2030. What Yuan's research did was use remote sensing and GIS data to examine two scenarios. The first is one in which the existing plan's policies are followed. In the second one, growth trends are left to continue with no restrictions. "The second is more like a natural state," Yuan says. "If you don't apply any policy constraints—what would happen?"

Her study shows the urban area of TCMA grew 126,700 hectares from 1975 to 2006 at the expense of agriculture, wetland, and forestland. The majority of urban developments over the 31–year span were within the 2010 metropolitan urban service area (MUSA) boundary and along major highways and roads. Another 67,000 hectares of urban growth from 2006 to 2030 were also projected by her study.

"When I compare (the second scenario) to the highly controlled pattern defined by the blueprint, the patterns look very different," Yuan says. "Under the framework, the growth pattern is very compacted because the Met Council has divided the region into different zones. Some land is already urban, some is developing. Some should be reserved for agricultural land and should not be developed."

And compacted is good—it means the population growth is contained rather than spreading out and occupying non–urban space. "It can give you more efficient land use," Yuan says. "When current 2030 regional growth strategies were embedded, much more homogeneous and compact growth patterns are predicted along the urban periphery, which demonstrates land use planning and policies can have considerable influence on future landscape change."

"Cities and townships along the edge of the urban area are facing challenges to accommodate the projected 67,000 hectares of urban growth by 2030. Land supplies within fast developing cities are constrained by regional capacities of wastewater treatment and transportation infrastructure. For example, the analysis indicated Lakeville and Woodbury will continue to be the top two fastest growing communities in the next two decades based on current regional planning. However, a large portion of the predicted growth locates outside the current designated 2030 MUSA boundary based on the current blueprint. The shortage of urban land supply implies MUSA expansion is necessary."

With her use of GIS and remote sensing amounting to an endorsement of the Metropolitan Council's plan, the main significance she sees with the project is in the realm of the urban planner.

"If they change the policy a little bit, what will happen? This will show what will happen."