Scenario planning helps communities respond to change. Typically, participants break into small groups to focus on issues and facilitate interaction. Large maps and other visual tools help participants understand the context and impact of their choices.
Developing a Shared Vision
Scenario planning is a process through which public agencies, private entities, and citizens work together to envision the long-term future of their communities. In formulating their collective vision for their city, region, or State, participants consider a number of factors that affect growth, such as land use and development, transportation, economic growth, health and safety, and environmental resources. A primary goal of scenario planning is to engage the general public, the business community, resource agencies, and elected officials on a broad scale; to gain a thorough understanding of community values, growth trends, and tradeoffs; and to incorporate participants' values and feedback into future plans.
Strong support is crucial to successful scenario planning. The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) actively encourages scenario planning because it can help citizens, businesses, and government officials understand the impacts of growth, especially the interface between transportation and the social, environmental, and economic development of communities.
The Scenario Planning Process: A Framework for Analyzing Complex Issues
The scenario planning process may be organized by a local planning agency, metropolitan planning organization (MPO), State, or nonprofit coalition. The resulting team engages the public through marketing and outreach efforts, and facilitates scenario planning workshops. The typical scenario planning process begins with a goal-setting workshop that lays the foundation for subsequent work. Next, a series of workshops is held throughout the region to maximize public access. At these workshops, participants share perspectives on how they want their communities to look in 20 to 40 years, and then develop alternative future scenarios that include where they want any projected population growth to occur. Aspects of all the groups' scenarios are then incorporated in summary scenarios that represent the different ideas for the future that were expressed by the public. A baseline scenario, based on the current plans or trends for the region, is always included with the summary of alternative scenarios. Scenario planning tools-which are frequently GIS-based computer programs that combine visualization and simulation-and transportation models are used to analyze the scenarios resulting from the workshops. A series of indicators are then calculated so the public can see how each of the scenarios compare to each other. Indicators include:
- Impact on land use - how much new land must be developed,
- The transportation system - how many more vehicle or transit trips will be created,
- Schools - where new schools will need to be built, and
- The environment - increased threats to natural areas that may result if the scenario comes to fruition.
Finally, one scenario is chosen as the preferred scenario and is adopted as the region's vision for the future. This vision may provide the basis for the region's comprehensive land-use plan or long-range transportation plan. In total, scenario planning can take one to three years to complete, depending on how many workshops are held and how much detail is discussed and analyzed.
MPOs have effectively used scenario planning, in cooperation with the public and State and Federal partners, to formulate their regions' visions for the future. The following scenario planning efforts highlighted all culminated in heightened levels of environmental stewardship in their communities.
Modeling Growth Alternatives - Gainesville Metropolitan Transportation Planning Organization, Gainesville
The City of Gainesville and Alachua County in central Florida have a population of 223,578. A number of environmentally sensitive and significant areas are located within the region. To the east of the city are wetlands, to the west is prime agricultural land, and to the south is Payne's Prairie State Preserve, which consists of 21,000 acres of protected wilderness. The Gainesville Metropolitan Transportation Planning Organization (MTPO) is the Federally designated planning agency for the region.
To evaluate how the city and county's growth will impact these environmentally sensitive areas, the MTPO's scenario planning model included a number of direct and indirect environmental indicators, including vehicle emissions and the amount of new land consumed or affected by development. Seeing how each of the scenarios compared in their impact on the environment enabled the general public and other stakeholders to make a more informed decision about which scenario to choose as the region's preferred growth alternative. The MTPO used this preferred scenario as the basis for its regional long-range transportation plan. Parts of this plan were then integrated into city and county plans.
State and Federal Support
Can Make a Difference
Successful scenario planning relies on strong support, involvement, and guidance from State and Federal transportation and environmental agencies. Scenario planning in both Gainesville and Puget Sound was aided by State and Federal agencies, as described below.
- The Florida Department of Transportation (DOT) and the Florida FHWA Division enabled the Gainesville MPO to undertake scenario planning by approving the MPO's use of money that would normally be spent to update the transportation model.
- The Florida Department of Environmental Protection is a member of the Gainesville MPO's Technical Advisory Committee, which reviews all MPO activities and makes recommendations and suggestions for improvement to the MPO board.
- PSRC's Ad-Hoc Environmental Planning Committee is composed of officials from agencies including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the FHWA, the State Department of Ecology, and the State DOT. The Committee helped PSRC develop its environmental baseline report, and assisted in crafting the request for proposals that PSRC used to select its environmental analysis consultant.
Incorporating Scenario Planning and Environmental Assessment - Puget Sound Regional Council, Seattle
The Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC) is the Federally designated MPO that covers the four-county central Puget Sound region, which includes the cities of Everett, Seattle, Tacoma, and Bremerton. PSRC's scenario planning process began in 2004 and will conclude in early 2007. PSRC is hiring a consultant to perform an environmental impact statement (EIS) on their chosen scenarios. First, however, an environmental baseline report will summarize the region's current environmental state. This report, which will be significantly shorter and less technical than the EIS, will set the stage for the region's discussion of environmental issues and be used as the framework for the new VISION-the region's growth management, transportation, and economic strategy.
PSRC will develop a draft EIS on the last round of scenarios before a preferred scenario is chosen. Stakeholders will then be able to see how each of these four scenarios compare in their impacts on the environment, and can choose the preferred scenario accordingly. The preferred alternative will be adopted in the VISION document in 2007 and integrated into the region's long-range transportation plan in 2008.
Addressing the Public's Concern for the Environment - Northeastern Illinois Planning Commission, Chicago
While the Northeastern Illinois Planning Commission (NIPC) is not a Federally designated MPO, it is the comprehensive planning organization for the six counties of the metropolitan Chicago region. NIPC's focus on the environment came from the ground up. NIPC began its scenario planning process with a series of public meetings to articulate the shared goals for the region and its future. The public's concern for the environment was clear: people wanted the region to be known for its healthy environment. Twelve of the 52 goals for the region drafted by the public involved conserving or preserving the environment. A healthy environment is therefore identified as one of the five core themes on which the region should focus as it develops over the next 35 years.
NIPC worked with the public to translate the 52 goals into land use concepts for future growth. During this second phase of workshops, the public was able to create scenarios identifying where development growth should be focused and what areas should be protected. Ultimately, the numerous scenarios that emerged from these workshops were synthesized into one Common Ground scenario that NIPC adopted as part of its 2040 Regional Framework Plan.
Supporting the Future of Scenario Planning
A region's preferred growth scenario can provide a solid yet flexible decision-making framework, and ensure better management of increasingly limited resources. FHWA is offering technical support, information, and research to State and local partners as they undertake scenario planning. Visit FHWA's scenario planning website for more information.
FHWA Office of Project Development and
400 7th Street SW, Room 3222
Washington, DC 20590
Norman A. Abbott
Director, Growth Management Planning
Puget Sound Regional Council
Director of Research and Community
Northeastern Illinois Planning Commission
Director of Transportation Planning
Gainesville Metropolitan Transportation
Look What's New!
- Learn more about SAFETEA-LU, new legislation that authorizes the Federal surface transportation programs for highways, highway safety, and transit for the 5-year period 2005-2009, which includes the complete legislation as well as summary information and fact sheets on specific provisions.
- Be on the lookout for the newly redesigned website, featuring the NEW Environmental Guidebook. The Environmental Guidebook will be completely redesigned to make searching for environmental and transportation planning information easier. The redesigned website will be easier to navigate, giving users improved access to environmental streamlining and stewardship resources.