The strengthening of spatial database infrastructures, further promoted by the INSPIRE Directive adopted in 2007, has led to an increased use of spatial data in planning and decision-making. Given that land-use plans are intrinsically spatial, such evidence and approaches can significantly benefit plan-making. A spatial framework could especially support the specific Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) aspects of the plan-making process. Spatial tools such as Geographic Information Systems (GIS) are particularly well-placed to support the environmental integration sought in SEA by providing evidence through the spatial assessment of multiple environmental datasets. Moreover, GIS bring the opportunity to augment conventional assessment techniques (e.g. matrix-based assessments) by acting as visual mediators of spatial knowledge and by providing an effective tool for the spatial and temporal analysis of environmental impacts.
This paper presents a GIS-based approach to SEA (GISEA), and analyses the above premise by evaluating the barriers, limitations, opportunities and benefits of its implementation. The GISEA approach has been applied to seven development plans of differing scales in the Republic of Ireland. The results of the case studies revealed that current issues in SEA (e.g. restricted time-frames and institutional arrangements) condition the implementation of a GIS-based approach. Moreover. GIS expertise, data accessibility and quality remain limiting factors to an effective GIS application in SEA. However, the results also confirmed that GIS have the potential to increase the objectivity and accuracy of the assessment, enhance both the understanding of environmental and planning considerations and the delivery of information, and, therefore, help to improve the effectiveness of SEA practice. (C) 2010 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.