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Office of Planning, Environment, & Realty (HEP)

Scenario Planning Peer Workshop Report - Burlington, Vermont

II. Introduction

A. Overview of Scenario Planning

Jody McCullough, Community Planner, Federal Highway Administration Office of Planning

Ms. McCullough provided the group with an overview of scenario planning and how it could be used for a more effective transportation planning process. FHWA has been working to promote scenario planning for several years as a tool for integrating transportation with other activities in the community. It has been shown to be a method for creating a positive visioning and public participation process. Scenario planning is not about trying to predict the future, but rather about understanding what you want, using new technologies to understand the impacts of project decisions, and ultimately making better-informed decisions.

FHWA defines scenario planning as "a process in which transportation professionals and citizens work together to analyze and shape the long-term future of their communities. Using a variety of tools and techniques, participants assess trends in key factors such as transportation, land use, demographics, health, etc. Participants bring the factors together in alternative future scenarios, each of these reflecting different trend assumptions and tradeoff preferences.

Around the country, scenario planning processes take place under different names, such as Blueprint (California), Envision Utah, and others. Although the processes vary, they have common themes. Scenario planning allows the community to develop "what-ifs", which can be conservative or more creative, to understand some plausible futures and spark discussion. It is useful for getting people to the table early in the process. People are often more wiling to make tradeoffs if they understand why the decisions have been made.

Queensland, Australia was an early proponent of scenario planning for transportation and land use. The 4seeable Futures Project laid out the following process:

  1. Identify the quality of life issues facing the region. this information provides the foundation for scenario development. These issues can be expressed as a question about the future that the scenarios might answer.
  2. Research the driving forces - define the major sources of change that may impact the future. These forces can be either predictable or non-predictable elements. Some predictable elements may be local demographics, trends in local land use consumption for example. Less predictable macro elements are things like the future of the world economy, future availability of infrastructure funding and technological advances. There are many other driving forces, which are uncertain. Narrowing down those driving forces will be helpful in advancing a scenario planning process.
  3. Determine the patterns of interaction - consider how the driving forces could combine to determine future conditions. On a matrix, these driving forces can be identified as either having a positive or negative outcome and their relationship to a dichotomy of potential future worlds can be further examined. For example, if we use the economy as a driving force, we can label it as having either little or no growth or fast growth. In determining the interaction of each of the future conditions, scenarios can be created.
  4. Generating scenarios - there are implications of different strategies in different future environments. The goal here is to bring life to the scenarios in a way that community stakeholders can easily recognize and connect the various components.
  5. Analyze implications - scenarios enable planners to explore the shape and nature of transportation within a variety of circumstances using a range of tools.
  6. Evaluate implications - the devised scenarios are measured against each other by comparing indicators relating to land use and other criteria.
  7. Monitor scenarios - the process is an ongoing one and as the future unfolds, reality needs to be assessed compared to the selected scenarios.

Benefits of Scenario Planning:

  1. Enhances ability to respond to change. Thinking about extreme futures, including possibly unpleasant results of decisions, helps prepare the community for what actually occurs.
  2. Helps to manage and prioritize use of limited resources
  3. Provides information to avoid potential consequences and to seize opportunities
  4. Provides tools to assess transportation's impact on communities
  5. Facilitates consensus building among a wide variety of stakeholders. Using new participation methods, such as keypad voting, people who may not otherwise speak out can have their voices heard.

Visualization tools are helpful, as people interpret data in different ways. Scenario planning can take advantage of new technologies, but some areas have used markers, maps, post-it notes, and photos to benefit from a "low-tech" and affordable process.

FHWA's role in scenario planning is to encourage agencies to investigate it and experience the community-building benefits of using a scenario planning process. The FHWA Scenario Planning website provides information on tools, technologies, and case studies from across the country. Over the next year, FHWA will be doing follow-up to understand some of the long-term benefits that communities may experience.


Is scenario planning always led by the transportation agency?
Leadership of the process varies. In Chicago, for example, the land use agency led the process with the participation of the transportation agency.
Can using scenario planning really lead to different projects?
Yes, one example is that of the North Central Florida Regional Planning Council. In that community, there had been resistance to higher densities and village centers, but the scenario planning process convinced the stakeholders of the benefits of that approach.
Most of the cases seem to be drawn from big cities. Would scenario planning be useful at a small community level?
Scenario planning is an adaptable process and has been used successfully in smaller towns, such as Mooresville, North Carolina and St. George, Utah. Some software tools, such as CommunityVIZ, go down to the parcel level and are often used in small towns. In Mooresville, construction of the headquarters of a major company was expected to suddenly bring 10,000 new jobs to the community. Using scenario planning, the community developed strategies for quick implementation.
Updated: 12/2/2015
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