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Scenario Planning Peer Workshop Report - Birmingham, Alabama

III. Summary of Presentations

Federal Perspective on Scenario Planning

Fred Bowers, FHWA Headquarters
Rae Keasler, FHWA Headquarters
Alisa Fine, Volpe Center
Jim Thorne, FHWA Resource Center

FHWA and Volpe Center staff introduced the scenario planning process and described how it can be used to guide regional development.

Scenario planning provides a framework for developing a shared vision for the future by analyzing various forces that affect transportation and testing future alternatives to see how well they meet community or regional needs. The approach helps a community identify priorities, envision its ideal "future self," and evaluate what combination of policies, strategies, or actions could best realize the desired future state. Scenario planning practitioners can assess scenarios using qualitative or quantitative approaches. A key feature of the approach is extensive public involvement to solicit feedback on current trends, scenarios, and analyses. MPOs interested in conducting scenario planning can use State Planning and Research, Federal metropolitan planning, Federal Surface Transportation Program, and National Highway System funds.

FHWA supports scenario planning practitioners by sponsoring webinars and workshops and by providing assistance through the FHWA scenario planning website.

FHWA also supports practitioners through the FHWA Scenario Planning Guidebook. The guidebook outlines a six-phase framework that guides practitioners to implement a complete scenario planning process (see Figure 3). The six phases offer a non-prescriptive approach that agencies can tailor to meet their needs. Each phase focuses on a different component of scenario planning, including getting started, establishing goals and aspirations, developing and assessing scenarios, and implementing an action plan. These phases provided a point of departure for SPC's discussion of its scenario planning effort.

Figure 3. FHWA Six-Phase Scenario Planning Framework. Click image for detailed description.
Figure 3: Scenario Planning process steps (graphic courtesy of FHWA).

Mr. Thorne presented several scenario planning case studies relevant to Birmingham that illustrate how the approach can address different types of issues and provide a range of benefits. These benefits include:

Examples of case studies are presented below:

Land Use, Economic, and Transportation Trends in the Greater Birmingham Region

Greater Birmingham facts

  • 6 counties, 4,744 square miles
  • 1.1 million residents
  • 9 colleges and universities, 43,000 students total
  • 2.55 persons/household
  • 36,000 companies
  • $47,000 median annual income
  • 489,500 jobs

Key economic sectors

  • Finance
  • Healthcare
  • Trade and distribution

Brett Isom, RPCGB
Mike Shattuck, Birmingham Business Alliance

Mr. Isom presented on current demographic and other trends affecting the Greater Birmingham region. There is overall population growth across Greater Birmingham; however, some communities within the region are growing quickly and others are declining in population. The fastest population growth is occurring to the south and to the northeast of the City of Birmingham, generally following major Interstate (I) highway corridors such as Interstate I-59 and I-65. Despite this growth, there are large areas that are underutilized and present opportunities for redevelopment. The region is characterized by generally low housing density due to extensive suburban and rural development patterns.

Mr. Shattuck discussed business and industrial trends in the region. Greater Birmingham is the westernmost region in the Piedmont-Atlantic megaregion (defined as a clustered network of cities) and is the most economically productive region in Alabama. Although growing more slowly than other cities in the megaregion, Birmingham remains the economic center of Alabama and provides 33 percent of the State's gross domestic product.

Mr. Shattuck identified financial services, healthcare services, and trade and distribution as the region's key industries. All of these industries are concentrated in Birmingham. Emerging sectors include biomedical and biotech research, arts, and entertainment and tourism, all of which are particularly concentrated in downtown Birmingham. However, districts surrounding highway interchanges are also receiving new commercial and industrial development. A standard suburban-to-urban commuting trend prevails. However, RPCGB staff reported that there is a growing reverse commute from urban areas to suburban industrial and office parks as well as an emerging suburb-to-suburb commute.

Scenario Planning in Southwestern Pennsylvania

Southwestern Pennsylvania facts

  • 11 counties, 7,112 square miles
  • 2.6 million residents
  • 30 colleges and universities, 150,000 students
  • 2.38 persons/household
  • 114,000 companies
  • 1 percent annual population growth by 2035

Key economic sectors

  • Healthcare
  • Retail
  • Government

Lew Villotti, SPC

Mr. Villotti noted that there are many similarities between SPC's and RPCGB's regions. In fact, Birmingham is colloquially known as the "Pittsburgh of the South." Although Southwestern Pennsylvania is geographically larger and has a larger population, the region is addressing some of the same economic issues that are affecting Greater Birmingham. Both regions have strong industrial pasts but have been affected by the decline in this sector over the latter half of the last century. Additionally, both regions are experiencing loss of tax revenue and population in some areas and growth in others.

Workshop participants believed that SPC provided a very relevant model for the Greater Birmingham region. Because scenario planning was successful in southwestern Pennsylvania, participants believed that the process could also support Greater Birmingham's goals.

SPC used a scenario planning process to develop the 2035 TDP for Southwestern Pennsylvania. The plan integrated the region's LRTP and its comprehensive economic development strategy (CEDS).1 The scenario planning effort took three and a half years, a length of time that Mr. Villotti attributed to difficulty finding information about appropriate scenario planning software and scenario planning process steps. By engaging in scenario planning, SPC sought to encourage public buy-in to and enthusiasm for the transportation planning process. During prior efforts to complete the 2035 Transportation and Development Plan (TDP), the public had expressed mistrust in the process and a concern that the process was not transparent.

Before implementing its scenario planning effort, SPC identified best practices to avoid unnecessary duplication of work. SPC drew on FHWA and academic research on scenario planning (particularly research conducted by Keith Bartholomew, Assistant Professor in the College of Architecture and Planning at the University of Utah)2 to improve the quality of the process.

Getting Started with Scenario Planning
SPC initiated its scenario planning effort by setting up basic ground rules. The agency decided from the start to:

Lessons Learned: Getting Started with Scenario Planning

  • Have clear goals and a commitment to scenario planning from the start of the project.
  • Public participation is key to scenario planning.
  • Keep the number of scenarios manageable: more than four or five scenarios can be overwhelming.
  • GIS-based analysis tools, such as INDEX, can facilitate scenario evaluation and help the public better understand scenarios.

To address these guidelines, SPC framed scenario planning as a conversation with the region and used public feedback as the main input to develop scenarios, regional priorities, and the final regional vision. For example, SPC ensured that public materials associated with the scenario planning effort were easy to understand, interesting, and interactive.3 SPC branded scenario planning as "Project Region," a name it believed was easy to remember, and invited technical experts, 400 registered partner organizations, the public, and other stakeholders to help SPC gather necessary information.

Drawing from this feedback and existing planning documents from SPC, counties, and municipalities, SPC created several hundred scenarios and then used public involvement and internal analyses to refine these into four draft scenarios, as described below:

SPC used INDEX, a geographic information systems (GIS)-based software, to create maps showing where development would occur under each scenario.4 The tool helped SPC compile large amounts of data on housing, transportation, economics, environmental quality, zoning, and other variables and view how different scenarios might affect these variables. SPC then scored scenarios according to a set of indicators such as quantity of land developed in acres, percentage of houses within walking radius of transit, cost of infrastructure, and development density.

In addition to public feedback, other inputs to scenarios included existing planning documents, mapping data, census data, public comments, and consultations with major stakeholders. Every policy statement in the 2035 TDP was linked back to county and municipality planning documents to facilitate local acceptance and implementation of the regional plan.

Lessons Learned: Outreach

  • Schedule meetings around the region and allow online access to maximize participation.
  • Begin meetings by helping people recognize they stand on common ground with others.
  • Provide an opportunity for qualitative feedback.
  • Use neutral labels for scenarios.
  • Avoid controversial terms to describe scenarios or goals of the effort.

Outreach Strategy
As part of its outreach strategy for Project Region, SPC implemented a series of innovative public workshops and other events. The agency conducted 10 workshops attended by over 800 participants. The purpose of the workshops was to inform the public about Project Region, build consensus on a regional vision, and solicit public input on what scenario best matched the regional vision. Figure 4 provides details on additional technologies and techniques that SPC used to support public participation. Some technologies were developed specifically for the project; however, Mr. Villotti noted that most of the hardware and software that SPC previously utilized is now available off-the-shelf and is cheaper and easier to use.

SPC believed that there was some mistrust among the SPC region's residents. To address this, SPC tried to foster a regional perspective during workshops and public events by helping residents understand that they relied on other parts of the region to live, work, and engage in recreational activities. For example, SPC asked rural residents where they would go if they needed a medical operation, urban residents where they would go to enjoy nature, and suburban residents where they work.

SPC also sought to avoid using terms such as "sustainability" that might have multiple meanings and were controversial in the region. To assist the public in neutrally assessing scenarios, SPC considered using numbers or letters to identify scenario alternatives (e.g., "Scenario 1") rather than text labels (e.g., "Infill Scenario"); however, the agency ultimately determined that the public would respond better to labeled scenarios.

Photograph of people sitting at tables at an SPC meeting Live polling
  • Used to quantify public response to the four scenarios and to quantify regional goals and vision. Results were tablulated and visually displayed "on the fly."
  • SPC had one polling device per table at public meetings. While this was the result of funding limitations, it also ensured that each table arrived at a consensus before submitting its vote.
Photograph of three people talking in front of an outreach kiosk Outreach kiosks
  • Kiosks solicited feedback on Project Region.
  • Little feedback was received when kiosks were placed in public areas such as a shopping mall. Kiosks received more feedback when placed at destinations where people came to discuss and think about land use and transportation such as meetings held by other agencies in the region.
Photograph of a people participating in a web-inclusive public meeting Web-inclusive meetings
  • Allowed people to participate in public meetings from home, work, or other locations.
  • Allowed several small simultaneous public meetings to be held across the region, reducing travel burdens.
  • Software was developed for SPC but is now available off-the-shelf.

Live electronic polling allowed the public to evaluate scenarios "on the fly." The public expressed the most interest in the compact/infill/TOD and the corridor/cluster scenarios. These were merged to create a regional vision scenario, which focused on improving existing developed areas and maximizing use along existing transportation corridors.

Outcomes and Implementation
The regional vision scenario was adopted into the 2035 TDP. The TDP is now used to guide economic development and transportation decisions in Southwestern Pennsylvania. Smaller communities that cannot afford extensive planning staff or complex studies also refer to the 2035 TDP as a de facto planning code.

Lessons Learned: Outcomes and Implementation

  • Use existing resources to minimize cost and maximize effectiveness.
  • Be prepared for extensive time demands on existing staff; consider whether to hire contractors to support staff efforts.
  • Consider whether incentives and disincentives exist for projects that enhance or detract from the final regional vision scenario. If none exist, assess whether these can be created and by whom.

Unlike previous transportation and economic plans, the 2035 TDP can help compare and quantify the impacts of proposed development or infrastructure with the regional vision. If a proposed project is in line with the regional vision scenario, SPC supports the project with business development programs, low-cost loans and financing, export assistance, procurement assistance, and other services. A project that does not advance the regional vision scenario can still proceed, but must do so without SPC's support.

Benefits and Challenges
Overall, SPC believed that its use of scenario planning helped:

SPC encountered several challenges in implementing scenario planning. For example, SPC had difficulty identifying a sufficient number of staff to assist with the scenario planning effort. Additionally, when starting the effort, the agency was not able to obtain sufficient information about scenario planning process steps, and guidance about how to choose appropriate software and analysis tools. New Federal scenario planning resources, including the FHWA scenario planning website and the Scenario Planning Guidebook, have since helped address these challenges. SPC believed that future scenario planning efforts will significantly benefit from these and other resources.

Combining scenarios using INDEX was not difficult; however, technical issues sometimes manifested themselves and required extensive time to identify and address. However, SPC believed that new improvements to the software would help mitigate any technical challenges.

Federal Partnership for Sustainable Communities

Lilly Shoup, USDOT OST
Rachel Kirby, HUD
Anne Keller, Ph.D., EPA Region 4

The Federal Partnership for Sustainable Communities is an initiative led by USDOT, HUD, and EPA to promote health, environmental and quality of life improvements by making improvements to the built environment.5 The Partnership coordinates funding, policy development, and professional capacity development among the three agencies and their partners to support six Federal livability principles:

Representatives from USDOT OST, HUD, and EPA attended the workshop to discuss the Partnership, their agencies' work, and funding that might be available to support livable and sustainable efforts in the Greater Birmingham region, including scenario planning efforts that address livability and sustainability topics. Additional details on the Partnership's funding resources are located in Appendix B. Details on USDOT, HUD, and EPA's presentations are provided below.

"The Partnership for Sustainable Communities works to coordinate [F]ederal housing, transportation, water, and other infrastructure investments to make neighborhoods more prosperous, allow people to live closer to jobs, save households time and money, and reduce pollution."

Ms. Shoup presented on USDOT's policies and work on sustainable communities. She identified resources that could assist the Greater Birmingham region to use scenario planning to guide the region's transportation and economic vision, and fund projects consistent with a preferred scenario. USDOT's role in the Sustainable Communities Partnership focuses on providing sustainable and livable transportation options. Examples include grants to support transit, bicycle, and pedestrian improvements along with projects to improve safety on roadways.

Ms. Kirby presented on HUD's efforts to create sustainable communities. HUD does not mandate building locations but instead encourages redevelopment and infill rather than new development in outlying areas. HUD's role in the Sustainable Communities Partnership focuses on promoting housing locations and characteristics that support the Federal livability principles.

Dr. Keller presented on the EPA's efforts to create sustainable communities. EPA's role in the Sustainable Communities Partnership focuses on promoting environmental quality through land cleanup and reuse, runoff prevention programs, air quality initiatives, programs that support environmental justice for underserved communities, and efforts to improve energy efficiency. EPA has funded over 30 projects across Region 4 as part of the Partnership.6

1 As an MPO, SPC is required to produce a LRTP to guide transportation investments if the region is to receive Federal transportation funding. Many MPOs also produce CEDS, which help a region retain or attract businesses. CEDS are required if a region is to receive Economic Development Administration funding from the U.S. Department of Commerce.

2 Additional information on Dr. Bartholomew's scenario planning research is available on the FHWA scenario planning website at

3 More information on Project Region is available at

4 INDEX is produced by Criterion as a plug-in to ESRI's ArcGIS. Additional information on INDEX is available at

5 Additional information on the Partnership is available at

6 Region 4 includes the southeastern U.S., including Greater Birmingham and all of Alabama.

Updated: 10/20/2015
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