Untitled Document


Teaching Urban Geology From the Bottom Up
Jon L. Rau

Whether it is called urban geology or environmental geology, there has always been a need for the study of how geology affects cities. The necessity for urban geology in the United States was born as settlement spread into the hazard-prone lands of the West. Prior to about 1950, few maps presented engineering geology data and, if they did, it was intended for the use of engineers, not planners. Urban geology is essential for planning and development in virtually every city — just think of New Orleans and its flood plans prior to Hurricane Katrina.

James Cobb, state geologist of Kentucky, reported that geologic maps have saved Kentucky taxpayers a minimum of $2.26 billion, during discussions of the National Cooperative Geologic Mapping Act in July 2004 by the House Resources Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources. It was determined that one 1:24,000-scale geologic quadrangle map saved Kentucky $43,527. The complete series of Kentucky’s 1:24,000-scale, 7.5-minute geologic quandrangle maps — a total of 707 maps — has been digitized, thus making use of the data flexible and easily accessible to many agencies and citizens. The maps have been used to study seismic hazards, karst hydrology, groundwater supply and protection, geology for planning, coalbed methane, carbon sequestration, and mineral and energy resources.

Substantial benefits also have come from urban geologic studies of Canada’s national capital district in Ottawa by the Geological Survey of Canada. Natural Resources Canada’s Audit and Evaluation Branch determined that urban geoscience documents are used extensively, and have helped to reduce costs by 5 to 20 percent in civil/environmental engineering design and planning projects — amounting to annual savings of several million dollars.

Yet despite all its benefits to society, urban geology has yet to garner enough attention, particularly in the policy arena. Few people living outside the hazard-prone West Coast, Texas, Alaska, Hawaii and the Rocky Mountains region are aware of the role urban geologists and engineering geologists play in providing security for America’s cities. Additionally, uneven dissemination of basic earth science information is contributing to the lack of attention, due in part to declining earth science enrollments in American public schools.

There has been no lack of effort by American government agencies, notably the U.S. Geological Survey, Federal Emergency Management Agency, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and many state geological survey organizations, as well as private professional organizations, such as the Geological Society of America, the Geological Association of Canada, the International Association of Engineering Geologists and the Association of Engineering Geologists, to make the public more aware of the usefulness of geologic data in cities. All of these groups have disseminated their scientific findings through maps of hazardous areas, assessments of basic geologic and hydrologic data, and other important work for more than four decades, and much of the data are now on the Internet.

Yet many of the people who formulate policy to mitigate natural hazards and to support land-use planning in our cities seem to ignore most of these efforts. Partially to blame perhaps is a lack of political will, as well as a strong movement of property owners who oppose land management. But another reason may be the problems in communicating urban geologic data to decision-makers. How many of our cities’ decision-makers have had any earth science education since middle school?

I have great respect for middle and high school teachers and, by and large, they do a great job. I worked with teachers for many years in British Columbia and Ohio. Unfortunately, the heavy teaching loads and uneven academic backgrounds of many teachers hinder success in the teaching of earth science. The ability of a teacher to assimilate and convert urban geologic data into interesting lesson plans is directly dependent on the teacher’s background in geology and related sciences.

Textbooks do not contain sufficient geological data to illustrate interesting problems and natural hazards that are related to local geological urban settings, thus forcing teachers to do their own research. Although Internet content is steadily improving, we need a readable and affordable text on urban geology to begin to address the issue.

If teachers want to talk about the urban geology of the city in which they teach, they must have the ability to read a geologic map and be conversant with the local geologic literature, some of which is available online. They must be confident enough in their own background to guide a successful field trip through the city and its surroundings. This objective is easier said than done. University and government geologists could help by preparing guides on the urban geology of cities, as a few have already done.

Our future generation of clients of urban geological information, such as city council members, planners, mayors, city engineers, decision-makers and, most important, the local citizenry, must be exposed to earth science in middle school or high school (preferably both, in addition to at least one university or night school course, if possible). Data indicate that far too few states have an elective earth and space science course at the senior high school level, and few require it.

An introduction to earth science (or general science with an earth science unit) in middle school has been a tradition in the American educational system since the 1940s. The halcyon days of the American Geological Institute’s Earth Science Curriculum Project, an unimaginably successful grade-8 program adopted in many schools throughout the country (and abroad) in the 1970s, have all but disappeared. Whatever the reason for the decline in middle and secondary school earth science enrollments, the drop-off has indirectly hurt the understanding and application of geology in city planning and decision-making.

Rau is a North Dakotan who initiated an urban geology training program for geological surveys in 25 Asian countries in the 1980s and 1990s, while employed by the U.N. Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, headquartered in Bangkok, Thailand.

Back to top

Untitled Document

Geotimes Home | AGI Home | Information Services | Geoscience Education | Public Policy | Programs | Publications | Careers

© 2019 American Geological Institute. All rights reserved. Any copying, redistribution or retransmission of any of the contents of this service without the express written consent of the American Geological Institute is expressly prohibited. For all electronic copyright requests, visit: