Planning Tools for Civic Engagement – Is There an App for That?

Developers of planning software are increasingly turning to a collaborative “ecosystem” to enhance the capabilities, and foster the use, of tools that can help communities plan for an uncertain future. An emerging network of tool developers and city and regional planners has developed an action agenda to advance scenario planning concepts as they apply to contemporary challenges like climate change — and to shift these tools, as much as possible, to an open-source format. Armando Carbonell, senior fellow at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, which has nurtured the field of planning support systems in general and visualization and scenario planning tools in particular, will address evolving approaches to engage the broadest possible community in the planning process, including groups that often have been left out or have chosen not to participate in the past. The presentation is based on the report and initiative “Opening Access to Scenario Planning Tools” launched in April 2012 and available here: Opening Access to Scenario Planning Tools


Armando Carbonell

A word or two on Lincoln Institute of Land Policy: we are a private operating foundation and think tank in Cambridge, Massachusetts. We take a particular interest in tax policy and urban planning. I deal with the urban planning side of things. I will tell you a little bit about specific products of ours and lines of work as I go through this talk. Anthony Flint, our director of public affairs is here with me and will be a resource for you for the rest of the day as you may want to learn more about what we do.

Speaking of third act surprises, this is as long as I’ve been away from a PowerPoint presentation that I submitted over a week ago without looking back and I don’t have a copy of it. Aha, surprise! 103 million new American city dwellers by 2050. It’s interesting as we look at this urban age that by mid-century according to UN projections, there is going to be about half-a-billion new Indian city dwellers. There’s going to be about 300 million new Chinese city dwellers. There’s going to be in the order of 200 million new city dwellers in Nigeria. The United States is on the list, we’re #4 with over 100 million new urban Americans. Where are they going to live? A few years ago, Bob Yaro who teaches at the University of Pennsylvania as well as being president of the Regional Plan Association and I were doing an urban planning studio at the University of Pennsylvania. We looked out to the mid-century and boldly thinking in big terms about time and space, more so than plans in the past. Students using some simple projections discover that not everybody is going to be living in the same place as they were living before. Some places are significantly losing population. Some are significantly gaining. This is going to create tremendous stresses as well as tremendous opportunities. But it really means we are building a new country over the next half century and we have to think hard now about how we are going to do that.

Another thing that affects all this when we think about the world and we think about the United States is reflected in the recent publication of the Lincoln Institute − a book called A Planet of Cities by Shlomo Sully Angel. A Planet of Cities is about the discovery through a very systematic analysis of cities around the world over a very long period of time that cities are almost universally getting less dense, that new development, incremental development is occupying a larger footprint than historical development. This means that particularly in the countries that I mentioned, we’re going to see tremendous consumption of land, tremendous impact on resources, and in terms of things like greenhouse emissions −as many of you have been concerned about over the last day here− a potential increase in greenhouse emissions due to transportation. This is a great concern to us and we have been motivated to think about planning tools that can help us think over time and space, longer periods of time and bigger spaces. We see the United States, for example, organized in mega-regions that are made of multiple metropolitan areas expanding across 500 miles or more. This is a very big challenge. In terms of greenhouse gas emissions, it’s possible to model these. It’s possible to look at how different development patterns will affect climate change. This has been done in a number of cases. It’s a graphic tool that helps us to see if we’re choosing a development path if it will help us meet our targets or not.

It’s also possible −and here we are back in the Sacramento, California blueprint plan− to think about planning at very large scales. California has been doing this systematically pretty much across the board and I think increasingly we’re going to see this in American mega-regions and large metropolitan areas.

We got into these tools development in a very particular way. We do a fair amount of work in the American west. We actually have an office in Phoenix, Arizona. We became interested in a potential demonstration of some planning techniques as well as tool development in an area called Superstition Vistas. This is a very large area of desert. It’s about 200 square miles on the east side of Phoenix. It’s in the direct path of future urbanization. It is made up of state trust land which is held by the public with the intention of developing it or otherwise using it to raise revenue to pay for schools in Arizona. So it’s a school trust land parcel and happens to be a very large one. The thought was thinking ahead and this could even be a 100-year plan depending on how long it takes to build. There are a lot of different ways that one could approach thinking about this particular future. In order to do this project, it had 2 out of the 3 components I wanted to talk about today. We had the tools and development component. We had a planning process that is in some ways innovative and in some ways, replicating some successful plans of the past. We really started what will become the third topic: we started to develop the network of developers, software planners, and users of software that is the ultimate product of this whole exercise.

Thinking about Superstition Vistas, we brought together a group of stakeholders. It’s a tough place to plan because it’s uninhabited. The stakeholders don’t live in the place yet. They’re future stakeholders. We really needed proxies or representatives of those future stakeholders. A lot of these were public officials and citizens from the surrounding inhabited areas of the counties around this fairly barren area. One of the principles, of course, and it would make sense to any planner in approaching this is to think some of this land should never be built on. It was fairly obvious where the biologically important land was and there was a considerable amount of it. This needed to be reserved as habitat. Indeed, it fits in with other protected land and it’s a very important landscape. That went without saying. There was still a tremendous area that was suitable for development, did not present significant environmental constraints, could be developed on any square inch, but that would have certain consequences. Scenarios were developed to test the outcomes of different development patterns. Our contribution in particular was to develop 2 modules that would look specifically at greenhouse gas emissions and at water consumption −2 of the most important environmental considerations in planning in a place like Arizona− to see if we could do better.

When it comes to the process of scenario planning, there are 2 essential approaches that we’ve seen used in the world. The most common approach −and, in a sense, the approach we started with but we modified it− is to say let’s look at the trends. Let’s find some way to graphically depict where things are heading and show people as realistically as possible what a place might look like in the future. A typical scenario A would be a reflection of business-as-usual practices. Very often, this is not a very pretty picture. Most people react to it especially as it accumulates years and years in a fairly negative way. “We don’t like that future; we like something else.” Then we often see a ramped up super environment of highly efficient and a very different kind of future which would be a plan B that is so desirable but then you start to price it. You discover that these great things come with a cost. They’re politically difficult and we have to change all the rules. Very often, what’s discovered is one can dial back just a bit and discover somewhere between the awful future and business-as-usual and this idealized future world that seems almost impossibly difficult; something that’s achievable, a lot better, not quite as good as the ideal. This starts to mobilize public support for change and for improvement. That sounds OK and I think it’s a fair description of successful planning projects like Envision Utah which was a model for this approach. Robert Grow who led Envision Utah actually was the consultant in charge of the scenario planning process. John Fregonese was the consultant in charge of the model building. He had worked on the Envision modeling tool that was used in Utah very successfully. We were essentially moving to replicate that approach.

What concerned us was if we really care about climate change and we’re really worried about water management in a place like Arizona, is something better than business-as-usual and not quite ideal really good enough? Should we not be pushing harder to see if we can do what is necessary as opposed to what is convenient? So you see here just a representation of a scenario D which is actually based on meeting greenhouse gas targets. What it amounts to is fairly obvious, I think. It’s the super-concentration of development in a handful of nodes which is far different than the typical development pattern that we’ve seen in Phoenix. It certainly doesn’t represent the real estate model. Interestingly enough and odd as it might seem to folks from that part of the world, Phoenix itself is starting to remake itself in much more in this pattern. With light rail investment and some concentration of new development in the downtown area, we see a place that could almost be converging in its development style with this far out way of thinking.

A lot came out of this exercise. By the way, it occurred just as the real estate market collapsed and the thought that this land is going to be developed any time soon seems unrealistic. So there was more time for people to think about how serious we’re going to be about greenhouse gas emissions and how concerned we are about water. Time is actually good in this case.

One thing we learned was that the modeling tools we were using and the development of these 2 new models on the Envision model were not going to get as wide use as one would like because it’s a proprietary model. You have to buy it, it’s expensive, or you have to go to one consulting firm which can execute the simulations for you. It’s a very nice tool but we became concerned with the idea that this is a kind of a closed source approach. Out of thinking about this, we put together a policy focus report. There are a number of copies of this available on the bar. It’s also available as a free PDF download on our website, as all of our policy focus reports at the Lincoln Institute. This is really an examination of the field of tools that have been used to support scenario planning, thinking about the future, and it reaches certain conclusions. I’ll get into that in a second.

This is a product of Regional Plan Association and it shows a little bit of the kind of future that one might want. This is mapping a world of high speed rail with dense hubs. It’s a view of the northeast United States where the Regional Plan works. What it’s showing is an alternative outcome of business-as-usual that I think many would say as desirable but will take considerable change.

Here is another example of the kind of sketch planning that comes out of the Envision tool, a more ground level version of what, in this case Superstition Vistas, can look like. Again, this is quite different than the standard development model.

Let me talk about tools a bit. I can’t see you all very well but how many have engaged in this sort of exercise with Legos or little chips? A number of you know what this is about. ULI, of course, have done a number of this around the country. I have been through a number of them myself. This is sort of an interesting way to get people engaged in looking at the problem of allocating population across space. Essentially, the exercise is based on being given a certain amount of population growth within an area or region, metropolitan area usually. The thought is that population has to go somewhere. It is either going to spread out and cause a lot of sprawl, or it’s going to get backed up into some kind of density and conserve a lot of land. This is a fairly simple principle but it turns out, it’s a principle that people don’t seem to understand very well until they go through an exercise like this where they discover that indeed, they have to do something with the people. They have to live somewhere and density comes out as a solution.

At the Lincoln Institute, we’ve been very interested in this whole idea of density and how to make it more acceptable to people, how to make it work better. Obviously, a building block tool is a limited way of thinking about the future and it only really deals with this one dimension. It’s an important lesson but we think one can go further. The tools are evolving in such a way that one can use interactive sketch tablets. Ultimately, we’ll get to mobile devices, which I’ll show you in a second, that are obviously much more robust in terms of being able to bring in many more people over much larger spaces. They all don’t have to be in the same place. Not only is this kind of device useful in terms of thinking about the future, it can actually be used in real time in permit systems. We had a presentation just a couple of days ago by the city planning directors across the country back in Cambridge. Dallas presented their new electronic permitting system. They charge $1,000 an hour to have access to this. It’s extremely popular. I think they’re now doing 40% of their permits on an express lane. What it amounts to is people don’t have to be in the same room. They just have to tune in and they’re able to interact and communicate across building plans and end up with a permit. So there is an urban management real-time aspect but also, there’s this very futuristic, long-range way of thinking about planning.

Let me talk about a different kind of scenario planning. The preferred futures approach which is the Envision Utah model that’s been used around the country since that successful experiment is based on an assumption that people can identify an agreeable, desirable future that they can reach a consensus about through an interactive process, that they can describe it well, and that all one has to do then is make certain plans and change certain policies and they’ll get that future. I think there’s a problem with that. The problem is uncertainty. We actually don’t know today what conditions are going to apply in 2050 in a number of important areas. The one that is probably most troubling today is climate change. We really don’t know how much the planet is going to warm. We really don’t know exactly how much the sea is going to rise, and that’s just in the generic sense. In terms of any specific location, we know far less. The uncertainty is very high. An approach to the future that based on accepting uncertainty instead of denying it is, in effect, saying there’s a range of possibilities. The sea could rise so much. It could be so many degrees hotter. There are many plausible futures that we need to be prepared to address. Build this into the scenario planning so that the scenarios are actually based on what may not be the desirable futures, but futures that we conceivably will need to contend with. Then we can adopt strategies that are robust across a range of possible futures and that will permit us to have few regrets, if not no regrets, about our decisions.

As technology continues to develop, the last thing I wanted to mention is the network of software developers, software users and planners. We’re encouraging that network to continue to operate. We’re sure we’ll see apps. I know there are already some terrific apps on mobile devices and so forth. I think it’s worth keeping in mind this more philosophical aspect of scenario planning which really goes back to its origins in Royal Dutch Shell thinking hard about future markets which they did very beneficially. Seeing the phone reminds me on 2 occasions just last night and the night before walking around with Tom Wright trying to find a restaurant looking down at our iPhones and saying “It’s there. It’s there,” only to look up and discover we’re standing right in front. I think the lesson for all of you is look up from your devices now and then because the future might be staring you in the face.

Question and answer session

Gordon Feller

So we have time, Armando, for a question. This would be the lead-in to the questions that you’re going to get in the coffee. Coffee is a good lubricant for questions and answers but you’re going to get that in just a moment or two. I’m going to actually call on Arun, the former city planner of Portland, to maybe give us a Portland perspective, not that you’re speaking on behalf of the whole city, mind you. Can you say the applicability to what Portland is facing right now if you look at the interactive planning and public participation perspective on this? Just a few comments.


Thank you. I wasn’t expecting a question in this way but thanks. Actually, what Armando is talking about is absolutely correct and I highly worry about the same sort of issues and Portland is a good example. If you didn’t know anything about the future, what kind of city would you want anyway? This is a very different approach to dealing with uncertainty than the predictive model itself. The idea of the predictive model is both exciting but it’s also limited in the sense that we can’t model everything; it just gives us an indication. Just to talk about the model from a personal perspective, I think the problem is not the model. The problem is not the developer of the model. The problem is the lay consumer of the output of the model. When we have politicians or other city planning officials looking at the growth of populations or climate change or air quality monitoring or traffic monitoring, the idea is how clever can we be at the administrative level to be able to interpret the meaning of the output and use it in a more appropriate way. I think the work that you’re doing and illustrating actually gets to that particular dimension of saying, “Well, the model is useful here” but your analogy of looking up sometimes is really appropriate. Portland works in that direction but it’s part of the overall milieu of problems.

Armando Carbonell

We studied Portland a bit. We made a documentary film about Portland and I actually was engaged in the review of the state land use system which brought me out there a year ago to look around pretty carefully. I was impressed. There is a famous growth boundary around Portland which suggests that all developments are going to be here and all farms and forests are going to be there. It’s a simple and strong image but that doesn’t actually where development is going to go over a 50-year period. They’ve actually created a 50-year plan and reached some consensus around it that says not where every single house will go, but where the urban reserves will be, where the farm reserves will be in a much more specific way, still accounting for the unpredictability at the precise location. I think that’s the little bit of tension in this kind of planning. It’s like quantum physics. Things are moving around. You can’t say exactly where they’re going to be but you can start to identify generally what the energy levels are and so forth. I think it’s very difficult for most planners who are trained in physical planning to not think about things in extremely concrete and specific terms. Unfortunately, the future cannot really be conceived of in that way effectively.

Gordon Feller

So the answer to the question is the next city a wave or a particle?

Armando Carbonell


Gordon Feller

10:45 we’ll come back after your coffee. Thanks so much.

Leave a Reply

Meeting of the Minds is made possible by the generous support of these organizations: