Unlocking the Power of GIS for Small and Midsize Cities

November 13, 2023
By Bryan Pittman, GIS Lead, WSB

Geographic Information Systems, or GIS, have become indispensable tools for cities of all sizes in their quest for efficient data management, smart decision-making and improved civic engagement. GIS is a technology that allows for the capture, storage, analysis and presentation of spatial data. This system combines geographic information with other forms of data, offering a unique perspective on various aspects of a city. Insights from GIS can drive sustainability outcomes, advancing economic, social and environmental benefits, as well as many other benefits that help advance city goals.

Today, many communities are sitting on a vast amount of data, but unsure how to aggregate and access it all in one place. These communities tend to also have the software tools and licensing necessary to use this data in the correct manner, namely Esri’s ArcGIS Online. These communities then already have all the data and tools they need to be successful with their GIS data, they just need assistance in putting the pieces together. WSB recently worked with two cities in Minnesota – Hastings and Saint Michael – to audit and organize their data, ensuring they were able to unlock its full potential.

What Kind of Data are Cities Collecting?

Small to midsize cities stand to gain significantly by harnessing the power of GIS. When thinking about how to best utilize data, it’s important to understand what data is available. GIS data communities are collecting, include:

  • Public Utility Data: Efficiently managing utilities data, including sewer, water and gas pipelines is critical. GIS data can help cities maintain these systems effectively, while minimizing disruptions and enhancing public service.
  • Community Development Data: Understanding land use and zoning is crucial for urban planning. With GIS, cities can optimize land use, improving infrastructure and the allocation of resources.
  • City-Created Data: Cities can aggregate data for specific needs and uses. Collecting and analyzing data related to city services, demographics and infrastructure can lead to smarter decisions and resource allocation. Moreover, cities can extend the benefits of GIS to the community by increasing data accessibility and conducting community outreach. For instance, some cities are surveying residents to compile data on doorbell cameras which can help law enforcement solve crimes.

Who is Using the Data?

Just as important as understanding what data is available, it’s important to understand who should have access to the data. Public works and engineering staff should have access for maintenance, repairs, planning and asset management. Community development teams can utilize data to create story maps. And ultimately, a case can be made for every city department to have access to data in some form to help drive collaboration, communication and a shared understanding of city priorities.

Where Should Cities Start?

When WSB worked with Hasting and Saint Michael to organize data, this is how we effectively gathered and aggregated their data into one platform.

  1. Perform a data and software review. What programs are being used and does the city need additional licenses? Doing an audit of this information is a good place to start.
  2. Prepare data for ArcGIS Online. Standardizing the data across platforms ensures that when it is all moved to be housed within one program, data is understandable, accessible and usable.
  3. Publish all data to ArcGIS Online. Once the data is standardized, all information is uploaded to ArcGIS Online, Esri’s cloud infrastructure.
  4. Create web applications and web maps. Now that data is all in one place, creating applications is important so users can access the data they need. Not all licensed users will need access to every bit of information. Applications make the data more usable and ensures that if data is updated by one user, it is reflected across the cloud.
  5. Train staff to understand the program and use the applications. Data is only useful if it’s understandable. WSB works with cities to train staff on how to access, update and utilize data within the cloud and related applications.

When it comes to GIS services, WSB is the ideal partner for small to midsize cities. WSB offers the expertise of a team with decades of experience in GIS and related services, guaranteeing that your city’s data is in capable hands. Furthermore, WSB’s commitment to direct municipal collaboration means that they thoroughly work to understand the unique challenges and opportunities that cities face, ensuring that GIS solutions are tailored precisely to your specific needs.

Why Communities and Developers Should Take Advantage of MPCA Brownfield Assessment Grant Now

November 13, 2023
By Ryan Spencer, Director of Environmental Investigation and Remediation, WSB

Many communities and developers in Minnesota are sitting on brownfield properties that have the potential for redevelopment, but first need to be investigated for potential contamination. With approximately $2 million coming into our state from the federal government’s bipartisan infrastructure law, now is the time to take advantage and apply for the MPCA Brownfield Assessment Grant.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) offers grants to fund the investigation of brownfield properties to support redevelopment and reuse. Eligible sites in Minnesota can be publicly or privately owned with known or suspected contamination.

Who should apply?

According to the MPCA, there are many groups that can and should apply for these dollars. They include, but are not limited to:

  • Community organizations
  • Local units of government
  • BIPOC developers
  • Emerging developers (developers who have completed 5 or fewer projects)
  • Tribal entities

Environmental Justice Zones

MPCA Brownfield Assessment Grant funds are targeted at areas of environmental justice. That could include underserved communities, low-income neighborhoods or areas with a significant BIPOC population. It’s important to remember that environmental justice zones do not only fall in urban centers, but also in many rural communities.

The MPCA provides a map of environmental justice areas in Minnesota, so applicants can check their eligibility.

Eligibility for Brownfield Investigation Grants

This specific grant will fund either Phase I or Phase II environmental site assessments. Phase I relates to the standardized environmental assessment of a property, and Phase II is the physical sampling of soil and other properties to determine if contamination is present.

The brownfield grants may also be used for sampling and analysis work plans, hazardous materials building surveys to identify lead-based paint and asbestos-containing materials, preparation of cleanup response action plans, community engagement for reuse planning, and MPCA Brownfield Program fees.

When is the best time to apply?

The grant is an ongoing grant, with dollars available from 2022-2027, so it would be great to apply anytime. The application is relatively quick and those who are eligible should absolutely take advantage of this opportunity.

Moreover, because federal stimulus dollars are flowing into the state, the MPCA wants to take those dollars and put them to work. They are strongly encouraging interested applicants to apply.

How WSB Can Help

Do you have a brownfield site and are interested in applying for these grants? WSB can help.

WSB’s team of experts can assist with grant applications, clean up, response planning that ensures full alignment with all regulatory requirements and helping communities identify brownfield sites that would benefit from development.

Ryan Spencer is our director of Environmental Investigation and Remediation and has worked in the environmental consulting industry servicing both public and private sector clients. He is proficient in the planning, management, and completion of environmental due diligence, remediation, and brownfield grant writing. 

[email protected] | 612.723.3644