Working as an urban planner can be quite costly, especially a self-employed one. The tools we use on a daily basis do not come cheap. Even if you just need the basics (ArcGIS, Sketchup Pro, and AutoCAD), you end up paying for them through the nose.
Thousands of dollars a year are a pretty big barrier, especially for starting professionals. Luckily, there are plenty of free tools for planners. While these do not entirely replace the paid products, they definitely come handy to get your work done.
This article is an effort to collect as many free tools for urban planners as possible, making it easy to explore what is out there. The ones that are currently listed are a start, and we will continuously update the page, adding new tools once we come across them. If you feel something is missing or when you have a tip, please tell us about it in the comment section below.
Some of the tools below are developed by nonprofits, while others are products from large, multinational organizations. We acknowledge that there are no free lunches and that nothing comes free in life. The use of these products can, for a number of reasons, be controversial, but these considerations we leave to the individual user. Still, we do encourage a critical debate. You are more than welcome to comment below on these issues or contribute with your own guest post.
With that said, we hope this list will be of use and help you in your daily work.
There is more to Google than Google Maps. You probably already know about Earth, but there are plenty more tools that are useful to the urban planner and researcher. Here is a start:
- With Earth Engine, for instance, you can track spatial change using a massive set of remote sensing data. And Earth’s pro version is free, instead of $399 per year. Read here.
The Open Data Kit lets you collect data offline and manage it in an open data environment. You can use this data for further analysis in the other Google tools, but also in the other open source software presented in this list, such as QGIS.
Tour Builder is a tool that lets you use Maps to tell a story. The end result is kind of like a powerpoint presentation, but with an integrated map.
Open Street Maps (OSM)
What’s OSM? Imagine Wikipedia meets Google Maps. It is probably one of the most important mapping projects in the history: a free, editable map of the world, created by the public. OSM is much more than its web interface - users can download the data, app developers use it on their apps, and planners can connect OSM to their GIS software.
For more advanced users, you can check Overpass Turbo, which allows you to retrieve specific information from the maps. For instance, here are all the drinking fountain around the colosseum in Rome.
An ESRI ArcGIS license will cost you up to a few hundred dollars a year, quite the expense for a starting/freelance urban planner. QGIS is a free alternative and is easy to understand for someone who has trained with ArcGIS during university courses. In case you feel you have to refresh those GIS classes, QGIS has an extensive tutorial/online course, which takes you from absolute beginner to advanced spatial statistics.
Local government/mapping institution
You’d be surprised how much information your local government shares online. Almost every city I’ve worked for shares some data online, like socioeconomic statistics or planning documents. Also, many governments have better aerial photos than Google Maps offers. The problem with governmental institutes is that more often than not their websites are horrible. So you’d probably need to struggle with interfaces that will take you back to the 90’s. In any case, once mastering the art of old-school websites, you can find invaluable information for your projects.
Besides the mapping tools Google offers, we like to use the Google Drive (15 GB of free online cloud storage) and Documents a lot. It gives you scaled down versions of the most common office programs, like a text processor (Docs), spreadsheet (Sheets), and presentation tool (Slides). It’s all cloud-based, so it makes it really easy to work on the same document while being in two different locations.
How many times have you found yourself trying to send a pdf file to a client or colleague, just to realize that it exceeds the email’s provider size limit? That exactly where Smallpdf comes in handy. This free and friendly online tool is straightforward: it efficiently shrinks pdf files, while keeping it in a decent quality. This way, you’ll be able to send these files via email, without losing the quality of your diagrams and sketches.
Smallpdf has other capabilities, like converting pdf to images and word documents, merging files, and splitting and merging pdf documents.
You can’t always shrink the files you send. When sending drafts to your client, it might be fine, but the final product should arrive in full size and quality. WeTransfer is my go-to tool for sending large files. It’s clean, elegant, easy to use, and has a free plan. All you need to do is attach the files and fill in the recipient's address. That’s all.
WeTrasfer’s free plan is sufficient for most uses, as it allows you to send files as big as 2GB. But if need to send larger files, they offer an affordable paid plan (around 120EUR/USD yearly)
Need for a stock photo but can’t afford to buy one? Then check Pexels. It offers free stock photos from different sources in one place. All photos on Pexels are licensed under the Creative Commons Zero license, which means that they are free to be used for any legal purpose. Yes, it’s completely free to modify, copy and distribute the photos. Even the main image of this post is from Pexels.
One of the richest sources of free cutout people, for bringing your projects’ visualizations to life. It has one main guideline: ‘architecture project should be in focus. Skalgubbar is not to be used as freestanding pictures or for product advertisements’.
Sketchup allows to easily create 3d drawings and is used by architects, landscape architects, designers, civil engineers, among other creatives. Since it is relatively intuitive, one can quickly draw a plan and share with colleagues and clients.
LibreCAD is a free, Open Source CAD alternative to Autocad. It’s available for Windows, Apple, and Linux.
The name probably already gave it away, but this is a free alternative to SPSS. PSPP lets you analyse large statistical datasets. It works on Windows, Mac, and several linux operating systems.
RQDA is a free alternative to programs like Nvivo and Atlas.ti. So, if you ever get a gig that involves some qualitative research methods, this might be the program for you. Don’t worry about being unfamiliar with this software, Metin Caliskan (one of the developers) has made a Youtube tutorial.