Questions People Ask About Scenario Planning for Cities

Last fall I spoke to a number of groups about scenario planning and my book, Scenario Planning for Cities and Regions: Managing and Envisioning Uncertain Futures. Here are some of the questions that frequently cropped up.

1. What tool should I use?

The simple answer to this question is, any one! Since scenario planning refers to the general approach, it is compatible with a wide range of tools. In fact, the chapter about digital tools in my book runs the gamut from sophisticated urban models to qualitative modeling techniques and everything in between. The slightly longer answer is that not all models may be equally suitable. Some models, such as travel forecasting models, can sometimes be used for scenarios, but have been developed more strongly in the forecasting tradition. Therefore, their technical structure and the culture of their use can have a tension with the assumptions of scenario planning. As a consequence, I have a special sidebar in my book about the various caveats of using travel models, as well as one about models strongly associated with scenario planning practice which I call place-type development and sketching tools, including UrbanFootprint, Envision Tomorrow, and CommunityViz.

2. Isn’t scenario planning expensive?

Like the tool question, this question has a quick answer–not necessarily. Like all planning, it does require resources, however I believe the method can be readily scaled to different project budgets. One of my motivations for a working paper I wrote for the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy that specifically sought out scenario planning projects in smaller cities and regions was to demonstrate that the method could be used at these scales effectively, even though large regional projects are best known. There are two reasons why scenario planning is sometimes correctly perceived as expensive. First, it can be expensive for some planning organizations the first time you use it, due to the cost of consultants, new tools, and professional development. Therefore, the expense reflects the one-time cost of adoption, or a switching cost, not an intrinsic cost. Second, the logic of the scenario planning method often fosters considerations of other issues, necessitating additional research, analysis, and expertise beyond an agency’s typical domain. However in both cases, this additional expense is presumably justified because it builds capacity, or implements, a more effective, richer form of planning. Although I don’t have hard evidence, anecdotally effective scenario-based plans seem to have much greater implementation success and shelf life than other style plans.

Incidentally, like tools I also have a short box describing the one limited survey I could find of MPOs investigating whether scenario planning was more expensive. They found that it was–but only by a modest amount most agencies could meet through routine funding sources. In sum, while adopting scenario planning may incur more expense than a simpler style of planning, it can be scaled to different settings, and the additional expense is in my view worth it.

3. How can multiple scenarios be reconciled by the need for clear recommendations?

Many planning exercises are conducted within an enabling environment that demands a single recommendation–for example, a future land use map, or a set of recommended infrastructure projects. The more nuanced logic of scenarios can therefore superficially seem like a poor fit for these types of plans. However, there are many ways the strengths of scenarios can be provided, even when decision-makers or legal mandates demand recommendations.

The simplest way to combine the two is to use the scenarios to foster the analysis and discussion of a variety of options in order to clarify a consensus which forms the basis for the plan. This is basically the approach of normative scenario planning which has been used to create many plans concluding with recommendations about how to pursue the selected scenario.

However, additional approaches are possible. The Imagine Madison comprehensive plan used scenarios to consider now the general land-use pattern–which was fixed in the plan–but instead the location of the growth, using the analysis to result in a set of policies about how the city could encourage growth at certain locations. In general, when a scenario-based project utilizes exploratory scenarios, deviations from the simple normative approach are needed, and a recent article by Uri Avin and myself in JAPA outline a variety of ways practitioners have done this, from simply using these scenarios to inform further planning all the way to projects which sought to focus on one scenario as a desirable outcome.

4. Does scenario planning make sense in my slowly-growing region?

Since some of the best-known scenario planning projects, like Envision Utah, were primarily about exploring growth patterns in fast-growing regions, it is sometimes unclear to practitioners how scenario planning can be utilized in more slowly-growing, or declining cities. Although I agree that some of the most common techniques won’t always apply–sketching growth scenarios, for example–I think there are still opportunities for using scenarios in these places. First, scenarios excel when there is uncertainty or when there are choices to be made (another type of uncertainty). Therefore, scenarios could be used to create alternative redevelopment or placemaking plans, even in the absence of community-wide change. Many cities are also facing the uncertain impacts of climate change–from coastal storms to changing precipitation. Scenarios can play an important role in those settings to foster resilience. A couple projects come to mind, first the Vibrant NEO project for the greater Cleveland area considered both growth and low-growth scenarios, showing how even under lower growth the overall pattern of development would make a difference. Second, Richard Norton conducted simple scenario analyses of Great Lakes coastal communities, creating concrete estimates for how many homes could be at risk unless communities modified their existing regulations.

These examples notwithstanding, the scenario planning community realizes a broader repertoir of methods are needed to use scenarios outside of the typical “how should we grow” situation, and the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy has recently sponsored an RFP for methods on this topic. Stay tuned!

5. I’m sold, but how can I introduce scenarios to my city?

As an academic, I am not sure I can answer this question as well as practitioners who have actually done it! Therefore the first answer is to engage with the Consortium for Scenario Planning where you can connect with like-minded professionals about how and where to introduce scenario methods in your context. What I have seen done in my research is evidence where practitioners use small projects to introduce the idea–for example including scenarios as an appendix, or conducted as a freestanding project outside of a process to produce a plan with a formal legal or regulatory role. These approaches succeed to plant the seeds for more substantial engagements, and also serve to build the organization’s familiarity and skills with the methods. As with any process of adoption, there is probably not a single recipe, but instead skilled practitioners build familiarity with a variety of methods, standing ready to propose them when the time seems right and they are aligned with the project needs.

Author: Rob Goodspeed