Technology, Scenario Planning and Stakeholder Engagement in Land Use Planning
Technology is embedded in many forms of urban planning. Examples of this include using GIS to perform complex spatial analysis or using 3D and parametric modelling software such as City Engine to test built form patterns, massing relationships and design elements. To evolve, planning practices are now harnessing technologies such as these to advance and enrich stakeholder engagement, a critical component of land use planning. One benefit to this approach is the relative speed and ease in which different future scenarios can be developed and refined based on stakeholder input and feedback. Scenarios are the outcomes of a set of inputs which are then put to the test. These inputs can include both controllable elements (such as density or height) and uncontrollable elements (such as household formation rates or employment numbers) to project what would happen if the assumptions came true. They can take the form of a modeled land use plan or a 3D model of an entire neighourbood precinct, showing possible outcomes for the future.
Engaging the Future
The idea of using scenarios to engage and empower stakeholders is explored thoroughly in the book: “Engaging the Future: Forecasts, Scenarios, Plans and Projects”. Several chapters of this book discuss using scenarios as a means from moving away from an end-state plan where the future is defined. Instead, the book proposes using technology to explore, test and discuss scenarios with stakeholders. This process allows stakeholders to gain ownership of the outcomes. They can also see firsthand the impacts of policy trade-offs and make conscious decisions about planning for an unknowable future (see for instance, Chapter 6 – Using Scenarios to Make Urban Plans, by Uri Avin). It is a process of embracing the unknown to allow for clear discussion of potential scenarios. This helps with stakeholder engagement as the technical experts use their skills to truly engage and assist stakeholders with preparing a vision for the future.
Midtown in Focus
The City of Toronto illustrates this in its secondary plan procedure, Midtown in Focus. Through this process, different scenarios were developed and tested using various forms of technology coupled with a robust public engagement strategy. While using technology to develop and present scenarios was a key component of the process, the intention of this was to use this to engage stakeholders as thoroughly as possible. The technical material prepared and presented by the project team was developed through an iterative process which relied on sustained contact with stakeholders, mostly in person. The technological tools also provided the means to efficiently present the implications, review and confirm directions.
Online What If
The Online What If (OWI) planning support system is an international example of digital engagement taking place in Australia. The “What if” program is specifically designed for ease of use in generating land use and development scenarios based on user input. The program is intended to develop a more engaged and robust discussion surrounding the outcomes of specific policy choices. It also allows for variables that cannot be completely controlled but nonetheless should be considered.
The program was included as part of online community engagement strategy in Western Australia to provide a modern avenue for stakeholder participation, providing easy access to information through a familiar online user interface. The scenarios were focused on land use and future potential development patterns, which the user could model based on their own inputs. The method was implemented to be consistent with changes in social online presence, allowing for a physically dispersed audience to participate online.
Potentially even more interesting is the open-source nature of “What if”. The “What if” code can be accessed online, modified, and applied to an extremely broad range of scenarios. This characteristic also invites engagement in a different way, through the continued development and innovation of the tool itself by a broader digital community.
The purpose of these examples is to show situations where stakeholder planning engagement can be enabled through the use of technology, both in person and online. These methods provide meaningful and robust stakeholder engagement on future scenarios, while allowing for a wide range of scalable applications. The possibilities and potential outcomes of such an approach are exciting and varied and can be explored to a great deal in the real world.
Mike Crough is a full member of the Ontario Professional Planners Institute and Canadian Institute of Planners with over 14 years of experience as a practicing planner. His years of experience in the private and public sector have fostered a range of land use planning, policy analysis, development, and design expertise.