Bringing scenario planning apps into your daily routine

When community planners talk about scenario planning, they’re typically referring to an ambitious visioning process done at the city or regional scale involving the comparison of a handful of alternative futures (scenarios) linked to different development strategies. These scenarios often include a business-as-usual trend scenario and creation of a preferred scenario through stakeholder engagement and the recommendations of professional planners. Scenario planning applications like Envision Tomorrow Plus, Urban Footprint, CommunityViz and INDEX/SPARC (equipped with customizable indicators and analysis) can assist in quantifying the costs and benefits associated with each of the scenarios.

While the need for these comprehensive efforts has been demonstrated, there are plenty of applications for these scenario planning tools that reach beyond large-scale processes into the daily work of planners. Additionally, enthusiastic,civic-minded technologists are creating low cost apps that have specialized purposes but also play nicely with other tools and frameworks. Improved interoperability amongst the more comprehensive suites of scenario planning applications, augmented with these more specialized apps, enables a new kind of exploratory and iterative planning–an approach referred to as geodesign.

Here are some examples of  “apps” found within the larger suite of scenario planning tools that have day-to-day utility.


Suitability Mapping and Site Selection

Suitability analysis is an integral part of GIS that helps to determine the ideal placement of a building, park, transit stop, or other community amenity. Almost any data relevant to the question of placement can be used in a suitability analysis.  Many tools use raster-based (cell rather than polygon data) to create suitability maps. Some tools like CommunityViz are able to do the analysis with vector-based data (polygon shape files), which can be advantageous for planners using mainly parcel maps.  With CommunityViz, you can also create user-friendly slider bars to adjust the weighting of criteria used in the suitability analysis. During a community meeting, for example, residents can rank value statements with top ranked values receiving a higher weighting. Any time the weighting is adjusted, the suitability map is updated in near real time. Planning exercises can be set up so participants can experiment with alternative scenarios and see the positive and negative impacts of different alternatives on various indicators of community health.

Below is a screenshot of an “app” developed by Pat Patnode with the Maryland-National Capital Parks & Planning Commission using CommunityViz. The app assists planners in finding sites that meet certain criteria for a solar farm.  The user can play around with four variables: minimum lot size, maximum distance to major transmission lines, maximum average slope, and maximum tree canopy. Different parcels “pop out” when varying different criteria.  

Stakeholder Engagement and Data-driven Decisions

Feedback from stakeholders and residents can often be converted into additional layers of informal data. Asset mapping exercises can use points, lines, and polygons to identify favorite places, areas to protect or target for improvement, and existing or desired trails, roads and paths for getting around. Crowd-sourced data can reveal positive or negative hotspots that can be added to the suitability analysis or incorporated into planning, design and implementation. Specialize apps, like Shareabouts, can be used to create a user-friendly mapping interface for collecting data from citizens and stakeholders. Mobile versions make it possible to collect data on the ground with a smart phone or tablet with the ability to add geo-location data, photos and comments. LocalData is an example of a crowdsourcing data collection tool that supports easy data entry with mobile devices as well as paper forms.

“Sketch planning” tools can improve stakeholder meetings with intuitive features for adding points, lines, or polygons directly on a map, allowing them to experiment with the characteristics of existing locations (i.e. change the land use or zoning or an area presently designated as single family housing to include mixed use development).  With these tools, participants can go through several iterations of adding or removing features, changing characteristics, and adjusting the weighting applied to the impact analysis. As they experiment, they learn more about linkages and ways to improve desired outcomes. The impact analysis, applied to different alternatives, and done in real-time, facilitates experimentation, learning and decision-making.


Spatial Analysis in Planning

For professional planners, there are a number features included in scenario planning tools that can also be applied to their day-to-day decision making responsibilities. Spatial analysis tools that support alternatives analysis can also be used to predict changes and produce signals when a response is potentially needed. A common example might be predicting the number of school age kids likely to move into an area with new development. At different points in the future, student population might grow to the point that new schools are needed. If families stay put for quite a while, slowing down the rate of families with younger children moving into an area, student populations may drop to the point that some schools need to be closed or are converted into other uses. Planning support tools that are relatively transparent in their analysis and allow people to drill down and look at the formulas used are preferred for this type of process and decision making. Tools like CommunityViz have wizards that make formula writing easier. Based on local land use types and associated ordnances and regulations, planners can use the formula writing wizard of scenario planning applications to build a localized app for calculating maximum floor area and building coverage allowed on lots, and, in aggregate, estimate the added square footage for different uses as a result of different development strategies. Applications like Envision Tomorrow Plus are set up to analyze indicators such as housing mix, density, cost and affordability, and estimate the resource use and outputs (i.e. energy, water, solid waste, emissions) associated with different prototypes of development. They can also be used to better match estimated future housing to projected demand and look at the location and type of existing and projected jobs and how well they are supported with the types of housing nearby. Fiscal impact questions can then be addressed including what is the net fiscal impact of future development scenarios and are there opportunities to expand development and tax base without expanding existing services.

By building a toolkit, app by app, planners, city agencies, and civic-minded organizations can improve their capacity to tackle common challenges while also prepping for the next cycle of visioning/scenario planning.


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