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Building Resilience with Scenario Planning: An Interview with Dr. Robert Goodspeed

January 10, 2022

by Cj Pettus

Rob Goodspeed

Dr. Robert Goodspeed, University of Michigan Associate Professor of Urban and Regional Planning, is launching a brand new Scenario Planning for Urban Futures 3-day course in May of 2023. Registration is open for any professionals who are interested in diving into this topic. We recently sat down with Dr. Goodspeed to learn more about scenario planning and his work.

WHAT IS SCENARIO PLANNING?

Dr. Goodspeed: Scenario planning is an approach for conducting long-range strategic planning that centers on the creation of multiple plausible centers. It’s great for communities that want to envision how they can transform themselves and grow and change in a new direction. Scenarios provide you a framework to envision something different, analyze it, and communicate effectively with the public.

The other major application is more in the realm of resilience. A lot of communities are facing different resilience challenges—heat waves, coastal vulnerability, or economic uncertainty —so in resilience, planning scenarios are used to explore what could happen— both the good and the bad—and prepare for them.

WHY IS SCENARIO PLANNING VALUABLE?

Dr. Goodspeed: The exact ways in which scenario planning is valuable to different communities really depend on their goals and whether they want to pursue more internal changes or whether they want to use it to better understand the opportunities and threats emerging from the broader environment. Ultimately, it comes down to making better decisions today to either steer towards a desired future – and also take steps to prepare for what may be coming.

HOW DOES SCENARIO PLANNING COMPLEMENT OTHER ASPECTS OF URBAN PLANNING?

Dr. Goodspeed: In practice, communities have mandates to create master plans, and regions have mandates to create long-range transportation plans. But they really have a lot of flexibility about the many different types of plans that satisfy those requirements.

Where scenario planning comes in is where practitioners or communities are going to do a planning exercise but want a different framework and a different approach to guide the creation of that plan.

The type of planning work where scenario planning makes sense is where you’re looking at decisions or investments that have long time horizons, such as transportation, infrastructure, or land use change. So you want to be sure that the decisions you’re making are going to make sense for the long term. That’s where scenarios come into play.

We do need to do more short-term, rapid response, emergency management, and so-forth. But I think, ultimately, scenarios complement all of that by helping communities chart their own path in a more effective way.

HOW DOES SCENARIO PLANNING DISRUPT EXISTING IDEAS?

Dr. Goodspeed: Within the field, there’s an older tradition, which I think has been largely discredited but is still out there—that planning should be about accommodating a future that has been forecast. And the critique of this approach is that the track record of accuracy of urban forecasts, in terms of growth or other measures of change, is not very good. Although there are forecasts that are available for different cities, we know that they’re very uncertain.

Another concern with that approach of planning is it really takes the city out of the driver’s seat. And it turns out that cities do have the power to shape their own futures. And to shape the amount and character of growth they have, how they channel that growth into the different land use patterns, how the environment or community is impacted, and so forth.

The whole idea of scenario planning is to recapture that agency—remind folks we do actually have an ability to chart our future and that should be the basis that we use. It’s not just about creating a single ideal future or accommodating a forecasted future but really thinking through what could be and all of the different possibilities of what the future could look like. Either taking action to be resilient or figuring out how to take action to steer your city or your region toward a more desirable future as you’ve defined it.

WHAT IMPROVEMENTS CAN A PLANNER EXPECT FROM INCORPORATING SCENARIO PLANNING INTO THEIR WORK?

Dr. Goodspeed: Scenarios can be a very powerful tool to foster that bigger-picture thinking and also look across different sectors. Really intrinsic in ideal scenarios is having a holistic perspective. Too often, plans are written only by looking at a kind of single policy domain, like transportation. But in planning, we know transportation is influenced by land use patterns and how those change. Each of those in turn are influenced by changes to culture or the demographics of your community and so forth.

In a more technical way, scenarios give you the framework where you can do analyses, organize them, and provide a framework for the inputs. You can arrive at numbers that show what could be and capture that diversity in a plan.

And there are a lot of examples of this. I’ve talked to practitioners who’ve created scenario-based plans and, often, their ideal outcome doesn’t happen, but a more pessimistic scenario comes to fruition, and they feel really satisfied with their preparations. They say ‘well, we didn’t want this. But we’ve done the analysis. And we already have a sense of the impacts that, for example, an economic downturn will have on our region. And some of the decisions we might want to be thinking about. Even though we’re hoping for other opportunities.’

It provides that degree of flexibility and added value to the plans that you’ve prepared.

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