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April 13, 2012

Scenario planning tools in bloom

   If scenario planning software was arrayed on a shelf, for many planners it could be a dizzying experience, figuring out which visioning tools were right for their challenge. Some have become somewhat famous, of course, such as software by Fregonese Associates for Envision Utah and Superstition Vistas, or Community Viz  developed by Placeways LLC. But there are different shapes and sizes, and the advances in technology and innovation makes it hard to keep up.
     A team convened by the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy and the Sonoran Institute tried to address that problem, hoping to make scenario planning tools openly accessible on a common platform -- and ultimately open-source as well, to take advantage of ideas and innovations in technology in the future. Opening Access to Scenario Planning Tools, a report and online initiative, based in beta version at the website www.ScenarioPlanningTools.org, was released today at the American Planning Association’s National Planning Conference in Los Angeles.
    More reflections on the topic of "visioning" tools and public participation can be found at Planetizen.
    Scenario planning tools use the best in available technology to help citizens visualize different futures for their cities and regions, typically by taking inputs such as density, mixed-use development, and transportation nodes, together with population estimates, to show different outcomes. The Lincoln Institute team sought to create a clearinghouse for planners to sort through these tools and determine how best to use them, beginning with the establishment of a community of planners and software developers exchanging information and ideas at the new website. ScenarioPlanningTools.org is a mechanism for interested parties to contribute and collaborate in the rapidly changing world of planning tools, with the goal of making them easier to understand and more transparent in their applications.
    The use of scenario planning tools is expected to rise. Scenario planning is legislatively required in greenhouse gas emissions reduction planning in Oregon and California, and is also mandated as part of US Department of Housing and Urban Development sustainability grants.
     Decisions about the future are increasingly controversial due to competing economic interests, different cultural values, and divergent views about property rights and the role of government, said Jim Holway, lead author of the report and director of Western Lands and Communities at the Sonoran Institute. To ensure community support for decisions about development and other land-related policies -- and public investments -- broader and more effective civic engagement is needed, he said. The traditional predict-and-plan paradigm is inadequate to address all of these challenges.
     The initiative underscores three major concepts for planners to engage in better scenario planning and tool-building -- collaboration, capacity building, and creation of an open environment for engagement. Collaborative problem solving recognizes that interrelated issues cannot be resolved by one organization alone. Capacity building is needed to enable individuals and organizations to apply scenario planning methods and tools effectively to their specific planning concerns. An open environment for information sharing and education will help accelerate the use and improvement of scenario planning tools in multiple settings.
      The other team members include a number of leaders in the burgeoning field of visioning and visualization, and public participation: C.J. Gabbe, an urban planner with Fregonese Associates, Inc., in Portland, Oregon.; Frank Hebbert, director of civic works at OpenPlans in New York City; Jason Lally, director of the Decision Lab at PlaceMatters, a nonprofit organization based in Denver; Robert Matthews, project director for the Decision Commons initiative in Seattle, a joint project of the University of Washington’s Runstad Center for Real Estate Studies and the Quality Growth Alliance; and Ray Quay, research professional at the Decision Center for a Desert City, a National Science Foundation–funded Decision Making Under Uncertainty Center within the Global Institute of Sustainability at Arizona State University.
     Computer-based planning tools have been around for many decades, noted Gregory K. Ingram, president of the Lincoln Institute The difference today is both in an explosion of availability of key data and advances in presentation, starting with geographical information systems (GIS). Programmers are making the formats more and more user-friendly.
     Armando Carbonell, senior fellow and chairman of the Department of Planning and Urban Form at the Lincoln Institute, said the goal of the initiative was to take many different scenario planning tools and make them available and easy to use, for planners everywhere.
     Many team members will be at APA in LA. Jim Holway, Frank Hebbert, Jason Lally, and Robert Matthews will appear on the panel, Advancing Scenario Planning Tools, with Ted Cochin, Office of Policy, Economics, and Innovation, at the US Environmental Protection Agency, at 2:30 on Monday April 16 at the conference.

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