ArcGIS Urban view of Boston (Esri)

Boston plans its future with GIS-based 3D models

By 2030, the population of Boston is expected to reach 724,000 residents -- a 15 percent increase from the current population.  To help city planners plan  for resident growth, the Boston Planning and Development Agency is using a suite of tools to that show the impacts of rezoning and redevelopment projects.

BPDA is using Esri’s ArcGIS Urban to create 3D models of the city that incorporate Boston’s zoning code and key features such as the amount of shade a tall building throws.  BPDA worked with Esri to develop ArcGIS Urban, and the solution was made available to the public at the July 9 Esri User Conference.

“We’ve experienced a large amount of growth in the past four to five years in the downtown  Boston and Dorchester Avenue areas with a lot of new developments,” BPDA Geospatial Data Manager Carolyn Bennett told GCN. “I’ve been working with Esri to help design ArcGIS Urban so we can determine which inputs and indicators are valuable to us to help us understand the impacts of various developments.”

With ArcGIS Urban BPDA can create 3D models showing what different developments would look like, as well as their impacts on traffic, parking, school systems and public services. The digital version of the city is easy to change, so planners can also experiment with various rules and regulations to understand their impact on a project.

ArcGIS Urban builds upon the current capabilities of the ArcGIS suite of programs.

“We can visualize the recommendations and assumptions that are put into urban city planning through tools like ArcGIS Pro,” Bennett said. “We also had Esri help us to develop shadow tools specifically with the ability to place a shadow along historic parks since we have a lot of projects being proposed in historic districts.”

To monitor development of projects, BPDA project managers use a Salesforce database to keep track of all relevant documents.  Bennett said her agency was able to take the data from Salesforce and map it onto the ArcGIS platform.

“The ability to keep track of all of this data through ArcGIS Urban isn’t in real time right now,  but things don’t change very quickly during construction,” Bennett said.

ArcGIS Urban is primarily used by GIS specialists at BPDA and Esri staff, but city planners could also use the tool to run different scenarios.

"One of the most urgent concerns for cities today is ensuring a supply of new housing to meet the demands of growing populations," Esri Account Executive Brooks Patrick said.  "ArcGIS Urban will offer planners and designers a common environment for sharing what is being planned and what is being built, allowing them to discuss and resolve problems around housing, transportation, and economic activity efficiently."

BPDA’s work with Esri is continuing to evolve as ArcGIS Urban becomes more sophisticated.

“Adding the financial feasibility of different projects is something that we are interested in Esri adding, and  they have added to their list of functionality updates,” Bennett said. 

Editor's note: This article was changed July 20 to clarify that the expected population growth is for Boston, not the Boston metropolitan region.

About the Author

Sara Friedman is a reporter/producer for GCN, covering cloud, cybersecurity and a wide range of other public-sector IT topics.

Before joining GCN, Friedman was a reporter for Gambling Compliance, where she covered state issues related to casinos, lotteries and fantasy sports. She has also written for Communications Daily and Washington Internet Daily on state telecom and cloud computing. Friedman is a graduate of Ithaca College, where she studied journalism, politics and international communications.

Friedman can be contacted at or follow her on Twitter @SaraEFriedman.

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