Monday, 20 July 2015

Urban footprints: some building outline data sources

This is an informational post about where to find building outline data, which I've used a lot in previous GIS projects. It might also be of interest to architects, engineers and anyone interested in urban studies and planning more generally. I like using this kind of data to explore cities as it gives us a good idea of the layout of the urban fabric, as in the example below (New Orleans). The links mainly refer to data from the US, Canada and Great Britain but other parts of the world are covered to various extents by OpenStreetMap.

New Orleans


Let's start big, with OSM... Steve Bernard has produced an excellent video which explains how you can get OpenStreetMap data directly into QGIS very simply - he uses Madrid in the example. The accuracy and coverage varies a great deal across the world, so you need to bear this in mind when downloading and using it - but on the whole it is a fantastic resource. The example below shows Mogadishu, where the coverage is incomplete for buildings but pretty good for the road network. 

© OpenStreetMap contributors

Another useful OSM-related resource with decent global city coverage is CAD Mapper, where you can download areas up to 1km square for free. However, I'm focusing on open data today so will not go into detail on this. The best OSM download source is I think GEOFABRIK (German for 'geo factory), a German GIS consultancy who extract and process OSM data and then make it available for free online. It's really nicely structured and easy to find what you're looking for. Here's the download page for New Zealand, for example - followed by the contents, where you can see the building data on top of a current OSM base map. At time of writing, the zipped shp folder for the whole of New Zealand was 146MB.

The New Zealand GEOFABRIK download page (20 July 2015)


Auckland, NZ - very good building coverage here


The OSM sources are great, since the licence is very generous and you can use the data for just about anything, so long as it's properly cited. However, many towns, cities and counties across the world also provide building footprint or outline data (the terminology varies from place to place) so I've put together a list below of ones I know about. Some of them (e.g. Detroit, NYC) cover land parcels or tax lots so are slightly different but in the main it's just building outlines. I've included visuals for some of the datasets, so you can get an idea of what they look like.


New York City - from the BYTES of the BIG APPLE website you can download the MapPLUTO dataset, for all 5 Boroughs in New York City. Tax lot level rather than building outlines, but it's an extremely rich dataset with loads of useful land use planning variables in it, including 'year built' and number of floors. A little sample of the data are shown below, for the area around Central Park.

A little sample of the data (using Qgis2threejs)

Chicago - the building footprints layer is avaiable in two versions online, one of which says it is deprecated but I've heard from the Chicago GIS team that this isn't the case. It's just that due to limited staff the dataset is only edited when necessary. Also contains a 'year built' and height variable.



San Francisco - another really good city buildings dataset, from SF OpenData. Also lots of useful variables in this dataset, including height. I really like this one.



Dallas - you'll probably get a disclaimer box in a pop-up when you go to download this. I've linked to the general GIS page and the file you want is called Structures (Building Footprints) in the Planimetric Data section - it's about 81MB to download and the unzipped file is well over 100MB.


Atlanta - again, I've linked to the GIS page, this time from the City of Atlanta and you need to download the 'Impervious Buildings' layer. If you're looking to map the sprawl of Atlanta, this won't work as it covers the City area only. Still, a very useful dataset.


Denver - excellent open data from Denver. This dataset covers all permanent structures and buildings for a 152 square mile area of the City and County of Denver. Available in a number of different formats.


Seattle - this dataset was created in 2009 by Pictometry International Corp but is now in the public domain. It is available via the City of Seattle's data website.


Los Angeles - this is a fantastic dataset for the County (not just the City) of Los Angeles, which is the most populous county in the United States (just over 10 million). Made available via the LA County GIS Data Portal. It is a little hefty (581MB) so be careful! In the example below I show all the buildings in LA County but the City of Los Angeles in dark shading, just to emphasise its crazy shape.


Boston - this was created in 2012 and is available via the City of Boston. Contains a number of different fields, including base elevation of the structures, the elevation of the highest point above sea level and fields on building type.



Detroit - like New York, not strictly a buildings outline file but instead a property lot level dataset. Very impressive dataset produced by Data Driven Detroit's Motor City Mapping project. I've used this data a lot in talks and teaching as it's a really good example of its type.



Now some links to further datasets which I know of but haven't used that much...

Washington DC - link is to the download page, but direct link to zip is here (559MB unzipped)



Baltimore - the top link on this page

Philadelphia - via OpenDataPhilly

Massachusetts - buildings for a wide range of towns and cities in the state

Boulder - this is from Boulder County, Colorado. Available in a number of different file formats.

Bloomington, Indiana - one of many smaller cities with excellent geodata

New Orleans - an excellent dataset, not just because of the unusual shape of the city!



Toronto - don't be confused by the '3D Massing' terminology here. Scroll down to the 'Data download' section

Vancouver - doesn't cover the whole city and they were digitised in 1999 but still a useful dataset.

Waterloo - this is from the Region of Waterloo and was up to date as of January 2014.

Hobart, Tasmania - an nice example of building data from Hobart in Australia. Contains a 'year constructed' variable.



Wellington, NZ - can't overlook New Zealand! I think you need to register to download this but it's Creative Commons 3 so still open. 


The list wouldn't be complete without mentioning OS OpenData for Great Britain, provided by Ordnance Survey. A new dataset with detailed buildings became available in March (the OS Open Map - Local) dataset. The building data is a very small part of this collection but one I find very interesting. I've patched together a few cities here to get the ball rolling but you can download your own. There's also a 'tile finder' to help you identify which OS tile you need to cover your area of interest. 


This could save you some time 


I think this just about covers it. Get in touch if you have any other great data sources for building outlines.