Doctoral Research Analyzes the Impact of Planning Tools

In recent years, more and more professional planners are using computer tools to augment participatory planning workshops, many which are mentioned in the “Opening Access to Scenario Planning Tools” report. In particular, many are based in Geographic Information Systems (GIS), making some of the rich visuals and analytics of GIS available to the public. Some of these specific programs include CommunityViz, Envision Tomorrow, INDEX, PLACES, and others. The use of these tools, and the impact they are having on land use planning, is the subject of the research for my PhD dissertation.

Practitioners are using these tools in land use planning projects to facilitate discussion, introduce relevant spatial information such as the location of infrastructure and environmental features, and compare alternatives with indicators and other measurements. For the purposes of my research, I am focusing on three specific features: interactive representation, indicator construction, and rule extrapolation.

The research focuses on evaluating the impact of these tools from a social learning perspective. Social learning covers not only participants’ factual knowledge, but also changes in their views, ability to imagine alternatives, and attitudes. My research questions are:

1. How do GIS-based land use planning tools contribute to social learning in participatory workshops?

2. How does the structure of the participation process and model development explain the effectiveness of these tools for different types of social learning?

3. How do metropolitan regions develop infrastructures for social learning in land use planning?

My study will use a case study research method focusing on several different cases. For each case, I am documenting the planning process and context, and evaluating the use of the tool in public workshops using observations and surveys. Although I have selected my primary cases, I am interested in new opportunities for research collaboration. If you are involved in a planning process using these tools and interested in participating in the study contact me at

This post was contributed by Rob Goodspeed, a PhD student at the M.I.T. Department of Urban Studies and Planning with the Urban Information Systems program group and part-time research analyst at the Boston Metropolitan Area Planning Council.


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