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Change & Continuity

As an urban designer, I was taught the principles of good urban form that make for successful, integrative, and healthy environments. However, my education and early career offered less clarity about how cities decide what sort of places they will become. What are the decisions that need to be made, and by who, in order for us to build better cities? What information is needed to support those decisions? How do we present that information so that it matters – that it clarifies, sharpens, and leads to better decisions?

The last 3 years at PlaceMatters have allowed me to work with some wonderful people to tackle those questions. We’ve improved decision-support tools, integrated data and technology into the decision-making process, and built technical capacity for dozens of communities. We’ve helped nurture tools that communicate complex ideas, and built a few of our own.

Along the way, I’ve become increasingly convinced that we need tools and methods that do a better job of both analyzing and communicating the tradeoffs of the decisions facing cities. My time at PlaceMatters has been an enviable vantage point from which I’ve seen the tools and the practice of scenario planning shift towards that spirit of communicating, visualizing, and building understanding.

This vantage point has been ideal preparation for my next position. Starting later this month, I’ll be joining the UrbanFootprint team at Calthorpe Associates. I’ll be helping them use and build out UrbanFootprint, a web-based scenario modeling tool that’s been used extensively in California and elsewhere. It’s already a great tool, and I’m excited about contributing what I’ve learned in the last three years about how technology, analysis, and user-centered design can shape the way we build cities.  Although I’ll miss the people and work at PlaceMatters, I’ll continue to be involved in the network of folks that have been part of the PlaceMatters family.

Thank you to all the smart, kind people I’ve had the pleasure to work with over the last few years; I hope we have a chance to work together again someday soon.

PlaceMatters work in Chula Vista published in best practices in modeling text book

The Future of Cities and Regions

The Future of Cities and Regions

A case study of PlaceMatters’ work in Chula Vista was published this year in The Future of Cities and Regions: Simulation, Scenario and Visioning, Governance, and Scale. The book features best practices in urban and regional simulation with nine case studies from around the world. The chapter was researched by our 2010 PlaceMatters’ Fellow, Elise Novak, in collaboration with Ken Snyder and Doug Newman (project leads) highlighting the project’s innovative integration of sophisticated building energy analysis and VMT modeling with planning at the neighborhood scale. The integrated use of land use, transportation, and building energy technologies was shown to reduce aggregate energy consumption and carbon dioxide emissions of a large-scale development project by as much as 45% when compared with the Title-24-compliant project. The book is available in hardcover and as an ebook.

Communicating Complexity in Planning: Webinar Recording

How do you square the complexity of planning issues with the need for clear, compelling information in decision-making? Earlier today, we held a webinar for HUD Sustainable Communities Initiative grantees with two folks who had lots of great ideas about just that topic! We talked visualization, learning styles, user interface design, civic engagement and lots more. Check it out and let us know what you think.

PlaceMatters’ Work Published in Journal of Conservation Biology

Alternative Scenario for BCD Region

Alternative Scenario for BCD Region

Since an important focus of PlaceMatters’ work is informed decision-making (and the technical tools this sometimes requires), I thought I’d share some more detail on one of our past projects, partly because the work–integrating ecosystem and hazard data into traditional planning– was recently published in the Journal of Conservation Biology. Co-authored by Patrick Crist of NatureServe, Kiersten Madden of the University of TX Marine Science Institute, Doug Walker of Placeways, Tashya Allen and Dave Eslinger of NOAA, and myself, the article, “Supporting cross-sector, cross-domain planning through interoperating toolkits,” includes work PlaceMatters (and partners) did to demonstrated the benefits of addressing conservation goals and hazard mitigation simultaneously through a holistic approach to traditional planning. The article focuses on two pilot projects, our work in the Charleston area and the work done by UT in the Mission-Aransas NERR, both funded by the Packard Foundation to investigate the use of tools to improve ecosystem-based management within traditional planning contexts.

I won’t go into the details here (since you can read the paper), but essentially PlaceMatters’ project, called Creating Resilient Communities, first focused on measuring: 1) how well the region would do with respect to the conservation goals identified by a team of regional experts and 2) how many people (particularly vulnerable populations like the elderly or low income households) would live or work in hazard prone areas if growth patterns in the region continued as is. We then suggested an alternative scenario that moved new development out of hazard prone and biologically important areas (which were frequently the same areas) to show how conservation goals and hazard mitigation goals were aligned. In addition to making a case for different growth patterns, the project tested a toolkit of analysis tools–  CommunityVizNatureServe’s Vista, and NOAA’s Roadmap for Adapting to Coastal Risk. While we found that they worked reasonably well together, there is still room for additional improvement in interoperability.

One of the reasons we use scenario planning processes like this one is to help people–stakeholders, decision-makers, members of the public–understand the linkages between sectors and topics, as well as the linkages between policy choices and the things that they care about. Scenarios let us explore possible impacts and see where there might be unexpected results.  Toolkits like the ones used in each of these pilot projects help us to better understand and communicate these linkages and potential outcomes. While there are improvements that remain that could make analysis tools, and the data they require, work better together, the real challenges to integrated planning are not technical.

Planning that truly takes into account the system in which we live–including natural, economic, and social systems–is frequently hindered more by the ways in which decisions are made than by the tools we use to model it. At PlaceMatters, we are working hard to make sure that decision-making is better informed by “systems thinking,” but this will take commitment from decision-makers, both individuals and agencies. Stay tuned for future blog posts about communities or organizations that are great examples of using scenario planning effectively to promote and achieve cross-sector, multidisciplinary, holistic decision-making.


SimCity and Scenario Planning

The internet has been bubbling for the last month or so about the latest release of SimCity. FastCoExist asked a number of urban planners and other designers (including some Open Planning Tools Consortium participants like OpenPlans) to face off to design the best city. Slate had its own take on what the game means for urbanism and open data. And then there’s the usual twitter traffic.

I should preface this by saying I’m not a SimCity devotee. In fact, I might be one of the relatively few technology-focused planners of my generation who was never into SimCity as a kid (it certainly got some incredulous looks around the office). But games like SimCity pose some interesting questions for scenario planning:

Engagement and Analysis: Many of the tools developed for scenario planning look and feel as though they were built for analysis by professionals, and then “backed in” to use as engagement tools. Games like SimCity tend to be set up the opposite direction: first as tools for engagement (in this case, recreational engagement) with analysis as a means to that end. What can we learn about structuring the engagement components of scenario planning tools from games like SimCity?

Making Data Compelling: As the Slate piece points out, the volume of data available in planning presents a challenge to decision-makers (whether planners or game players). At PlaceMatters, we spend a lot of time figuring out how to select and present data in a useful way in our own scenario planning work. I’m really interested in how SimCity uses alerts, dashboards, or other mechanisms for showing the right data in the right way at the right time.

3D Visualization: From the screenshots I’ve seen of the new SimCity, it carries forward an aesthetic common in video games, which differs from the “SketchUp in Google Earth”-esque graphics common in planning. Given how quickly 3D visualizations in planning tools have been evolving, it’s worth thinking about the cityscapes and other representational decisions made within SimCity.

Short-Term vs Long-Term thinking: One of the pillars of scenario planning is working through the implications of choosing between short-term vs long-term outcomes. As the FastCoExist article pointed out, one of the main comments from the planners playing the game was that the value system embedded within it tended towards short term rewards. Are there lessons in the way SimCity structures those short-term vs long-term tradeoffs that could help scenario planners frame such issues?

Process: One thing games like SimCity rarely deal with is the process of making decisions in complex socio-political environments. Yet, it’s often those decision-making pieces that shape how scenarios on paper (or pixel) are actualized. Games and scenario planning tools that allow players to interact in richer, more collaborative ways is a direction in which many games are moving (see Minecraft or the nascent multiplayer features in SimCity).

I’m hoping to dig into the new SimCity soon and flesh out some of these thoughts, and I’d love to hear from those that have already started playing around with it.

(crossposted at

Linking Equity and Scenario Planning

Kirwan Opportunity Map

Example of Opportunity Mapping from Kirwan Institute

A few months ago, PlaceMatters hosted a webinar “Linking Equity and Scenario Planning” for the Sustainable Communities Grantees.  The webinar featured highlights of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning‘s GO TO 2040 process and its equity components, including increasing access to the scenario planning work via interact kiosks placed in strategic parts of the region.   Jason Reece from the Kirwan Institute gave a great presentation on Opportunity Mapping, which provides spatial representation of some of the inequities in access to opportunity. Boston’s Metropolitan Area Planning Council then discussed the work they have done incorporating equity issues into both the process and content of their scenarios work.  Finally, I wrapped things up with a few additional thoughts on how to communicate complex information.

Our presenters had really valuable thoughts about the linkages between equity and scenario planning–both how to equitably engage people in the scenario planning process and what to measure and think about in scenario development itself. Issues of inequitable access to opportunity are complicated, difficult to measure, and difficult to talk about. Our webinar presenters are at the forefront of making equity a critical part of scenario planning discussions and are examples of how to embed the equity conversation in all aspects of our work.

Watch the webinar below, and please contact us with any thoughts and questions, as this is a topic we continue to explore.

Sustainable Communities Initiative: Equity and Scenario Planning Webinar from PlaceMatters’ Videos on Vimeo.

Scenario Planning Tools Workshop Highlights

Last week, PlaceMatters and Envision Utah hosted a Scenario Planning Workshop in Salt Lake City for grantees of the HUD/EPA/DOT Sustainable Communities Initiative. In addition to overviews of how scenario planning fits within broader planning projects, the workshop gave attendees a chance to get hands-on training in the nuts and bolts of using scenario planning tools. All of the tools experts provided excellent resources for the grantees, and two things stood out to me in particular:

First, Bill Lennertz from National Charrette Institute gave a great presentation about the charrette process, which uses iterative design sessions in a compressed time frame to generate both design strategies and community buy-in to the process and the solutions. It got me thinking about ways to incorporate Bill’s charrette approach into how we do scenario planning projects; for instance, are there ways that more in-depth working sessions with stakeholders and design-oriented approaches to scenario creation and exploration could plug into typical scenario frameworks? That’s something we’ll be exploring more in the coming months.

I also really enjoyed going under the hood of Envision Tomorrow +. Alex and Nadine from Fregonese Associates went through the details of several of the spreadsheets that drive the Return on Investment model and some of the other features of ET+, which really cemented my own interest in using it both on its own and in concert with other scenario planning tools that we use in our own shop.

All in all, the workshop was a great opportunity to connect with grantees and find how both how they’ve been using scenario planning tools in the past and the strategies they are putting together for their current projects.

Scenario Planning and Equity

Last week, PlaceMatters convened a peer exchange event in Seattle to look at how to better integrate social equity and scenario planning. The event, part of the HUD/EPA/DOT Sustainable Communities Initiative, brought together regions from around the country who have strong track records of engaging both topics, and the peer exchange format allowed for some great conversations. A couple personal highlights:

  • Boston’s regional planning agency (MAPC) is doing some amazing things that link together data and mapping with the Weave  platform. For instance, the one pictured below links a chart and map so that you can highlight an element of either the map or chart and it highlights the corresponding element on the other side (rather than trying to make sense of my description, I suggest you test it out).

    DataCommon, built on the Weave platform

  • The Puget Sound Regional Council has teamed up with Impact Capital to develop a regional equity network that is making sure equity issues are central to their planning project. I was particularly impressed with the regional equity network concept (more on that here) and the way the small grants program is tapping into existing institutions and networks to build civic capacity and engagement.
  • Finally, Dr. Gerardo Sandoval, a professor at University of Oregon, is looking at how undocumented immigrant communities can be better engaged and included in planning processes, including scenario planning. He had some great examples of things like commute patterns by bike that would likely get missed in a typical scenario planning process. It’s incredibly easy to lose sight of how much diversity there is in the way people use the built environment, so his research is a much-needed check to the scenario planning and civic engagement worlds.

These sorts of conversations, in which professionals are able to share lessons learned and collaboratively talk about solving current challenges, are incredibly valuable but unfortunately rare opportunities. They’re possible because of the innovative Sustainable Communities Initiative, and I hope they’re able to become more regular parts of the planning world.

Opening Access to Scenario Planning Tools and a Changing Planning Paradigm


Download the report “Opening Access to Scenario Planning Tools” from the Lincoln website.

Having come off of a really great APA 2012 in Los Angeles, I’m very excited about the energy and momentum building for some of the topics I’ve devoted a lot of my professional and personal energy to.  One of my main roles at PlaceMatters is to open up the tools available in planning by supporting and building a community around tool development, use and experimentation.

While we’ll still build and experiment with tools at PlaceMatters in our on the ground work, we are turning things inside-out here and making tool development an exploratory and collaborative process as much as we can.  We’ve started this through our involvement with the Open Source Planning Tools group, which has regular monthly calls and, so far, 2 annual workshops [join our discussion on Google Groups] supported by a joint partnership of the Lincoln Institute and Sonoran Institute.  While I am excited about the tools we can build together as a community, my ultimate passion lies in the possibility for paradigm shifts and transformations about how we think of planning and the mechanisms we have for implementation.  The scenario tools that we want to open access to are a means and not just an end for me.

You can see a little preview of where all this is heading in the Lincoln Policy Focus Report Opening Access to Scenario Planning Tools [download] [and read more about the report here, here and here].  The final recommendation addresses “advancing new concepts to address future challenges.”  Maybe a bit vague and open ended at this point, but this is where the exciting transformations could occur if we move this conversation.  This recommendation speaks to the conundrum we have if we are successful at making scenario planning tools more adaptive and flexible and yet have static implementation mechanisms like zoning and subdivision ordinances that do not reflect emerging realities captured in our explorations of many possible futures.  Tools and ways of thinking are now catching up to the pace of change in our dynamic world.  We stand at a milestone in a conversation that arguably traces back to Christopher Alexander and early systems thinking, where technology, research and policy can converge to give us a regulatory system that is more adaptive and responsive to the needs and challenges of modern cities [see also: earlier blog post on a Pattern Language].

We haven’t formalized this discussion yet, but you can track it at  Ray Quay, who has many more intelligent insights into this topic, will help us shepherd this conversation into something more robust over the coming years and I’ll be prodding us along as much as I can in my role at PlaceMatters.  This is an important and exciting conversation to have and I think it will bring a number of folks together from many fields and interests.  It will also bring about a number of challenges we’ll have to figure out together as a community and profession like:

  1. What does a planning education look like in the future?
  2. What does the planning profession look like in the future? How should it change?  What are the unwavering core skills of the profession?
  3. What’s the right amount of flexibility in planning regulations (for example, some of the inflexibility is by design to save us from externalities of rapid and overwhelming development; what inflexibility can we cede if we have better systems for tracking change?)
  4. What are the challenges in fitting this into a democratic, representative decision-making process?
  5. How do we keep the process of planning and city-making human in light of these new tools and vast amounts of data?  Can we or should we avoid positivist approaches to planning and how can tool design keep us from marching down the path of metrics and data without human context?
  6. And many more…including more insight from Rob Goodspeed in this past blog post referencing E.S Savas’s 1970 Science Article Cybernetics in City Hall

Would you like to join us in the conversation and community building?  What other questions do we need to consider in this possible future?  Who are the early predecessors of this movement that we should bring out into the light again?  Help us shape the conversation.

Cross-posted on

PlaceMatters Blog Roundup: February 29, 2012

Kids and adults alike have at it in the Lego "free play" building area at the National Building Museum.

Kids and adults alike have at it in the Lego "free play" building area at the National Building Museum.

BMW Guggenheim Lab blog reflects on some Lego-based experiments in exploring urban form at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C.

Planetizen has a guest post by Rob Goodspeed on the implications of big data for urban and community-planning (a subject we’ll be focusing on during our panels at the American Planning Association conference in April).

Ethan Zuckerman explores the use of (and challenges of using) video in a civic participation context.

EngagingCities (in a guest post by Rebecca Sanborn Stone) describes three very cool art-based civic participation projects designed to inform community planning efforts.

Engaging Cities also describes Crowdmap, a platform for gathering crowdsourced information and viewing the data on a map and with a timeline.

Bang the Table reports on a new study on the impact of e-participation efforts, focusing on projects in Seoul, South Korea (h/t to Gov 2.0 Watch).

Intellitics describes the Knight Foundation’s new Engagement Commons initiative.

Open Source Planning reflects on scenario planning.

Spatially Adjusted lusts after the new Ideum MT65 3D display … a 65″ 3D touch screen monitor introduced at the Consumer Electronics Show last month. It’s expected to sell for $18,000 when it’s released this spring. We aren’t likely to buy one anytime soon, but we share the sentiment.

The mobile industry association GSMA and the software company mCRUMBS are launching an augmented reality app for the Mobile World Congress, which offers another example of how augmented reality technology can provide rich, location-based content in a way that might be useful for community planning and decision-making.

On the PlaceMatters blog you’ll find posts on “The Tension Between Participatory Art and Participatory Decision-Making,” engaging community members around vacant property issues, and big data (and the use of Twitter and other geotagged data to understand human behavior in cities).

What did we miss?