Spatial University

Geography and the Spatial University

UMN GES logo

The Department of Geography, Environment, and Society (GES) in the College of Liberal Arts has been integral to the University of Minnesota being The Spatial University. Cartography was central to the department in the mid-1920s, practiced by geographers Richard Hartshorne, Ralph H. Brown, Samuel Dicken, and Daryll H. Davis. The era of modern Geographic Information Science originated in part in the 1960s with the Minnesota Land Management Information System (MLMIS), helmed in part by John Borchert in the Department of Geography. Dwight Brown, Phil Gersmehl, and Richard Skaggs developed a Water Resources GIS a decade later. GIS in GES hit its stride in the 1990s with the hiring of many others featured on the people page for recent years. 

Here we focus on people integral to building the Spatial University from the 1920s through the 1990s. More recent work may be found on our homepage and other parts of this site.

Former Students

Ron Abler (Ph.D. 1968) played several key roles, including spearheading the National Center for Geographic Information Science (NCGIA) in the late 1980s (Abler 1987) and serving at the National Science Foundation and as Executive Director of the AAG, where he helped start a decade-long series of multi-organizational meetings. [Wikipedia]

Sona Karentz Andrews is a professor emerita of geography at Portland State University and a former faculty member in Geography at the U of M. She focused on cartography, Geographic Information Science (GIS), and geography. Shed conducted research on tactual maps, graphic visualization, and spatial thinking.

Will Craig (PhD 1980). Will Craig anchored GISc work in the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs (CURA). He was a pioneer in developing Public Participation GIS and the chief author of the GIS Code of Ethics adopted by the GIS Certification Institute. He was also lead researcher in developing the grading system for US states GIS activities, the Geospatial Maturity Assessment, and co-author of a report that led to the development of Minnesota’s Wetland Protection Program. He has served on the National Research Council’s Mapping Science Committee and two of its study sections, including producing the report National Parcel Data: A Vision for the Future. Dr. Craig served as President of 3 major GIS organizations: URISA (1986-87), UCGIS (1995-96), and NSGIC (2009-10). Dr. Craig was elected to URISA's GIS Hall of Fame (2009), is a UCGIS Fellow (2011), and received the Lifetime Service Award from NSGIC (2014). He and Bob McMaster co-founded the U's Professional Master in GIS degree program in 1997.

Avi Degani (PhD 1971). Degani’s dissertation focused on on building a computerized atlas (1971). In related work, he developed one of the first examples of three-dimensional automated mapping and derivation of attribute and statical surfaces from these spatial data (Degani 1969; Chrisman 2006). He went on to found a large research and planning company, Geocartography Knowledge Group, where developed an international reputation in developing spatial research applied to the planning of economic and social systems. [GeogKG]

Jack Dangermond (MA 1968, PhD Hons 2008). Jack Dangermond received a master of architecture degree with an emphasis on urban planning from the University of Minnesota in 1968. He is the founder and president of Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI hereafter). ESRI is the world's leading software company and the fourth-largest privately held software firm. It is based in Redlands, California and employs more than 400 people. Universities, governments, and businesses in more than 200 countries use the company's software. He is described as "the leading global pioneer in the development of innovative mapping and spatial analysis products for academic, public, and private uses that have revolutionized knowledge and access to real-time information about how the Earth's environment is changing due to human impacts (e.g., urbanization, global climate alteration, deforestation and desertification." He is the author of hundreds of papers and has been the keynote speaker at numerous state, national, and international conferences. The breadth of his leadership in interdisciplinary collaboration can be measured by a joint letter of support from the deans of the College of Design, the College of Liberal Arts, the College of Food, Agricultural, and Natural Resource Sciences, and the Institute of Technology. [Wikipedia]

Barbara Elfman (PhD 1959). Dr. Elfman worked at the Defense Mapping Agency.

Ki-Suk Lee (PhD 1977). Seoul National University.

Robert Marx (PhD 1965). Dr. Marx was a student of John Borchert student. After joining the U.S. Census Bureau in 1966 he became head of the geography division at the US Census Bureau. Marx’s Lifetime Achievement Award provides details of his critical contributions to the world of GIS, especially his role in developing the TIGER file project and championing unrestricted access to GIS data nationwide. [MN GIS/LIS]

Su-Chang Wang (PhD 1981). University of New Orleans

John Wolter (PhD 1975). Wolter served as map librarian, assistant to the director of university libraries, and as lecturer and research fellow in the geography department, as well as completing a master’s degree in library science in 1965. His 1975 dissertation under the mentorship of Fred Lukermann, “The Emerging Discipline of Cartography,” used bibliometric methods to trace the history of subject bibliographies in cartography back to the nineteenth century. He then went on to become head of the Library of Congress Geography and Map Division from 1978-1991. He joined the Association of American Geographers in 1961 and received his 50-year membership recognition in 2011. He was a member of the International Geographical Union. [AAG bio, Taylor & Francis]

Former Faculty and Staff

John R. Borchert

Dwight Brown advanced the use of remote sensing and spatial analysis in natural resources and led a project to develop  Water Resources GIS with funding from the Legislative Commission on Natural Resources (Brown and Gersmehl 1987).

Gregory Chu ran the departmental cartography lab for several years.

Phil Gersmehl developed a ‘Language of Maps’ course and a suite of exercises for K12 learners.

Francis Harvey

Mei-Ling Hsu joined the Department of Geography in 1965 and was a highly-respected cartographic scholar.

Anthony Lea is the Senior Vice President and the Chief Methodologist for Environics Analytics. He manages research and development initiatives at the firm, including geodemographics and marketing research that helped build PRIZM C2 and other products. Over the course of his long career, he has directed hundreds of socioeconomic, demographic, marketing, and research projects. Previous positions include serving as Senior Research Associate with the Centre for the Study of Commercial Activity at Ryerson University; Managing Director of MapInfo Canada; and Senior Vice President of Compusearch. He has also taught courses in geography and quantitative methods at the University of Minnesota, University of Toronto, and Queen’s University; and is an adjunct professor at the School of Applied Geography at Ryerson University and the Department of Geography at the University of Toronto. Dr. Lea received the  Award for Geography in the Service of Government and Business from the Canadian Association of Geographers (2001). [Environics Analytics]

Helga Leitner

Fred Lukerman (1966) was CURA’s first acting director, an all-University multidisciplinary center addressing public problems through building community relationships and connections to faculty and students in order to explore, incubate, and share. The use of spatial approaches at CURA can be traced back as far as the 1970s with studies in land use, wetland conservation, and statewide planning.

Roger Miller worked in remote sensing before moving more into human geography.

Phil Porter

Richard Skaggs advanced the use of remote sensing and spatial analysis in natural resources.

Eric Sheppard

Notable Projects

Minnesota Land Management Information System. Professor John Borchert in the Department of Geography developed an atlas of the state’s natural resources in 1958. This work was the basis for a grid mapping approach to describe the state using the Minnesota Land Management Information System (MLMIS). The project was large and required 1.36 million punch cards. It captured land use and proximity to roads and water via air photo interpretation; soil information collected by Dick Rust and Lowell Hanson in the Soils Science Department; and land ownership data from federal and state sources. The U of M handed off MNLIS to the Minnesota State Planning Agency and became nationally known as an early model of GIS. Chrisman (1997) notes that the MNLIS was one of the few university-based projects developed in the late 1960s and early 1970s that successfully transitioned to become a part of state government. [MN DNR]

Researchers in the Department of Geography, including Dwight Brown, Phil Gersmehl, and Richard Skaggs, developed a Water Resources GIS with funding from the Legislative Commission on Natural Resources, a state body tasked with a range of natural resources issues (Brown and Gersmehl 1987). [J MN Academy of Science]

U of M's Landcare Team developed a campus tree inventory to better track emerald ash borer mitigation activity and other features of the environment. Principal Civil Engineer, Cathy Abene worked with the University’s GIS team to build out a substantial infrastructure asset inventory coupled with a mature, mobile application-based inspection program. Landcare partnered with the University’s Department of Geography to digitize the initial water infrastructure data, demonstrating an early and successful partnership between administrative and academic units. [UMN]

U-Spatial is the U of M's spatial infrastructure, founded by Steven Manson and Francis Harvey. Now part of the Office of Vice President for Research, U-Spatial is a premiere example of system-wide spatial data infrastructure. [UMN]



Abler, R. F. (1987). The national science foundation national center for geographic information and analysis. International Journal of Geographical Information Systems, 1(4), 303-326.

Borchert, J. R. (1963). Projection of Population and Highway Traffic in Minnesota. Minneapolis, MN: Minnesota Highway Research Project

Chrisman, N. (2006). Charting the unknown. How computer mapping at Harvard became GIS. Redland, ESRI.

Chrisman, N. R. (1997). Academic origins of GIS. In T. Foresman (Ed.) History of Geographic Information Systems: Perspectives from the Pioneers (pp. 33-43). London: Taylor & Francis.

Foresman, T. (Ed.). (1997). History of Geographic Information Systems: Perspectives from the Pioneers. London: Taylor & Francis.