Scenario planning in cities and regions

Cities and regions are increasingly using scenario planning. Land Journal spoke to the assistant professor of urban planning at University of Michigan about how this approach focuses on traditional urban planning, but can also be adapted for large-scale uncertainty and valuation


  • Robert Goodspeed

03 September 2020

Q: Can you explain what scenario planning is?

Robert Goodspeed: It is a strategic planning approach designed to create multiple plausible futures for places or regions often to clarify a vision so that you know which direction you want to take or to look at external uncertainties.

Q: How is it used? 

RG: In urban planning it is used for projects focused on land use or infrastructure decisions, involving modelling different scenarios of the same city, and comparing land use patterns, often in a collaborative way. Many stakeholders shape cities, so they should be included to help create the scenarios and learn from the exercise to decide the future. There is a strong tradition of looking at alternative land and transportation uses but it can also be applied to other issues such as climate resilience. 

Q: How does it work in practice?

RG: The case studies in my book Scenario planning for cities and regions: managing and envisioning uncertain futures are mainly US-based – but it does also include a couple of UK, and some Scottish and NZ scenarios. The methodology has global application though as national planning cultures come from different point of view.

Q: Is scenario planning as you characterise it different from the normal development of a menu of options to enable politicians or communities to exercise choice?

RG: As I conceive it, it is not only defined by specific choice but also by combining to see what is possible to see a whole future picture. Therefore, it is more focused across functional domains – they can and are used to analyse a type of list of options, but those are 2 separate things.

Q: Is it a technocratic process or a democratic process?

RG: I’m a proponent of collaborative planning practice that combines technical analysis with robust stakeholder engagement and public participation. In most situations no single player holds all the power, so the assumption is they all have to be engaged in planning. However good scenario planning uses technical analysis to educate the community about what futures are plausible, helping them think through difficult choices and trade-offs.

Q: Where does it fit into the plan-making system? 

RG: It is often used for long-range strategic plans, anywhere there is lots of uncertainty whether that is external or internal. Although it could be used for real estate development it is more conceptual and about thinking through the bigger picture.

Q: Can you give an example where it has worked well?

RG: The Envision Utah project, launched in Salt Lake City in 1997, analysed land development trends and the impact they would have on sustainability, quality of life and the environment. Utah had a high rate of low-density sprawl – and has since seen a real shift in how that region has grown with the help of local people. The methods used have now been adopted more widely in America and more regions are now seeking to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It concluded in the early 2000s but still continues to write plans.

The Austin sustainable places project is a key scenario-based project at a community scale where planners for different, fast-growing suburbs created land-use scenarios effectively to help them decide what zoning they should adopt. Completed around 2012, it combined the use of a modelling tool called Envision tomorrow where local stakeholders could propose ideas that were input and reported back in real time, a novel feature to help connect with local decision makers.

Q: The UK has a discretionary rather than a prescriptive planning system. Many US planning systems are prescriptive based on zoning ordinances and “as of right” development permits. How flexible can the plan be after the scenario process has been concluded?

RG: Most scenario projects result in a strategic plan not a detailed project plan. They describe the general pattern of a desired scenario – but do not prescribe every last building or transit link. It is not aimed at replacing detailed redevelopment plans, but instead complementing more specific project planning for particular buildings or infrastructure investments.

Q: The UK has announced significant reforms to its planning system with the intention of bringing more certainty to its expectations and outcomes. What might be the enhanced role of scenario planning in a reformed planning system?

RG: I haven’t been following the debate closely enough to say for sure. However, our cities are facing many societal uncertainties, from climate change to the advent of new technologies like automated vehicles. Therefore, I think foresight methods such as scenario planning have an important role in any planning system, since they seek to understand and analyse these developments. In the US land use planning framework, scenarios can be used to develop a master plan, which is then implemented through more specific tools like the zoning code and capital improvements budget. In the realm of transportation planning, the book discusses the visioning and backcasting for transportation (VIBAT) methodology developed by Dr Robin Hickman (UCL) and David Bannister which I think is an interesting example of scenario planning for sustainable transportation in the UK.

Q: How might planners use scenario planning in regard to COVID-19?

RG: There is a tradition in public health and emergency response of holding scenario exercises specifically for pandemic preparedness, where key decision-makers are given hypothetical scenarios and asked to respond. This style of scenario planning will continue to have a valuable role responding to COVID-19 or other hazards and emergencies. In addition, some scenario planning frameworks have emerged tailored for organizations, for example the Bridgespan Group has published a non-profit scenario planning tool. However, both of these are a bit different than the type of scenario planning in my book, which is generally aimed at considering long-term land use and transportation issues. Although these plans do not generally consider public health specifically, they can result in plans that consider pandemic-related uncertainties such as a recession.

Q: The development industry uses scenario planning and sensitivity analysis to assess risk in developments. How might your approach inform or enhance decision making for developers?

RG: I like this question because it points out the perspective in the book is more public sector-oriented, but this highlights that the methods were developed in corporate strategic planning – Shell Oil, for example, has used it for many decades. Although I am less expert in this area, there is an application for those in the industry to look at how societal changes shifting demographic patterns and their preferences could impact the real estate market. But public authorities face some of the same questions when it comes to promoting their plans and finding out which land use will be in demand. So there is a potential use for scenario planning there.

My graduate students have been developing land-use scenarios. They suggested a model of housing, rather like a dormitory for young professionals because demographic data shows people are delaying getting married and in high cost markets it’s an approach to housing that’s very attractive. They discovered that San Francisco actually already has new models of shared housing for adults through a private company, so obviously many people were thinking along similar lines. Scenario planning can prompt you to look at trends and see how the world can change in valuable ways. Now, during COVID-19, we might think of public health. Even the menu of housing choices may evolve in future.

UK Planning reform – reducing uncertainty

In the context of this interview it is worth noting the proposals for radical change in the recent White Paper for England Planning for the future. In his foreword the prime minister stated that we need to tear up the current planning system and start again. The UK government’s intention is to bring greater certainty into the planning system for the communities and developers who rely on it. 

When faced with unknowable uncertainty what should the appropriate planning response be? Plan down to the last detail to provide some certainty or devise a loose plan that is resilient enough to respond to whatever may arrive? 

These are significant issues and although the reform proposals come in a White Paper indicating decided government policy, there are lots of things unsaid in the paper and lots of questions asked in the consultation. 

The implication of the ongoing COVID-19 experience raises lots of “What if?” questions that lend themselves to scenario planning that any new planning system should be capable of responding to, including:
  • What if significant numbers of office workers demonstrate increased productivity working from home and they and their employers are happy with that arrangement?
  • Does that mean we might need different types of homes and different types of business districts?
  • In adopting the digital upside are we ignoring a digital downside?
  • What if a reliable vaccine were released at the beginning of 2021 – would it be a return to business as usual?

If you wish to submit your comments on the government consultation please use this link by 29 October, or to be included in the RICS’ response, email Tony Mulhall by 15 October.

Related competencies include: Spatial planning policy and infrastructure, Strategic real estate consultancy, Sustainability

Robert Goodspeed is the author of Scenario planning for cities and regions.

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