/ Interview / Planning Tools Have Their Place

Planning Tools Have Their Place

Matt Ball on September 15, 2012 - in Interview

The place that we live affects our access to jobs and public services, culture, shopping, education and our feeling of personal safety, security and health. Balancing access and limiting economic segregation is a daunting task for urban planners. Throw in the need to balance economic growth with environmental impacts, and the parameters grow exponentially. Matt Ball, sat down with Ken Snyder, executive director of PlaceMatters, to delve into the decision support tools that are being applied in order to balance a variety of perspectives.

This interview originally appeared in V1 Magazine on 9/15/2007.

Ball:  How did PlaceMatters get its start?

Snyder: PlaceMatters originated around the connection between land use and resource use, and looking at the tools that are available to help people make better land use planning decisions. There was a pretty quick attraction to working with communities that are dealing with high growth pressures, whether it’s small communities or large communities.

We have a close connection with the Orton Family Foundation and they’re interested in serving communities with a population of 50,000 or less. But we found that a lot of the innovative applications and ideas are happening in the bigger cities. So there’s a lot of interest in working with them and developing cutting edge approaches to land use planning.

Ball:I recently read an article in Seed magazine titled, “The Living City.” The author discussed a growing area of research that is applying a rule of biology, that the larger animals are the much more efficient animals, to the study of cities. I thought that was a fascinating observation, saying that the larger a city gets, the more efficient it gets, and the more environmentally friendly it is because of the condensed population.

{sidebar id=4}Snyder: If you look at really big cities, New York, Chicago and San Francisco in particular, and their overall resource use per capita compared to other cities or people living in the rural parts of the country, their environmental footprint is much smaller. This is usually because urban dwellers don’t have far to drive but also just because of the efficiencies of resources.

Ball:  Is there any kind of a movement afoot, with people wanting to live in more urban or rural environments?

Snyder:  Well it’s an interesting question, and I think you have people going both directions. We’re working in Steamboat Springs, Colo., where they continue to see a huge increase in population growth each year. And a number of people that are moving there are people who have very high level professional jobs, where their home base is in Chicago but they’re able to do 90% of their work remotely.

These professionals have purposely sought out a small town feel and a small town community, but they’re earning the salary of a high-end urban resident. They’re causing a ripple effect of both bringing in resources to the community but also a pressure because they can afford to buy a house that the local storeowner in Steamboat can’t afford. As a result, the housing prices are going up because all these people want to live there.

But then you have other people who want the hustle and bustle and the excitement of an urban center and cultural resources that they wouldn’t find in a small town. There’s an interesting dynamic there because there are pressures both directions. I think it’s the sleepy farm towns and ranch towns that probably are losing out the most in terms of where people want to live.

With the Internet and all of the technologies that are helping us communicate and do things in a more flexible manner, we have more choices on where we want to live and for some people that’s a very urban environment and for others it’s a small town environment.

Ball:  How would you define smart growth for a mountain resort community?

Snyder:  A lot of attention is given to ways to minimize the environmental impacts of growth and development. Creating denser, more inward growth and “grow up rather than out” strategies are definitely pursued.

But it’s more complex than that. It’s thinking about how to make it easier for people to do everything in a more efficient way. Mixed-use development is a big thing, where people can easily get a lot of the things they want within walking distance from their home, and they can work close to home.

All of those things make for a much more efficient community and a tighter community. Figuring out how to cluster things is important, instead of having single-family homes where everybody has their two acres of land and a fenced yard. Having smaller yards but a shared common space, makes it easier for people to enjoy the area with less of an impact on things.

We always talk about how any community that’s featured in Outside magazine as a top ten place to live is going to then be bombarded with people who have the resources to just pick up and move to a place like that. On one level it really helps the economy of that community because there’s an influx of people who want to move there. But it has a negative impact in terms of housing prices going up and people who have lived there all their life, or several generations, often find themselves squeezed out.

Ball:  I imagine that the focus of your organization and the way people live is wildly different than the much more urban areas of say Europe and other countries. Do you get exposure to how other countries deal with planning issues?

Snyder: In 2001, I got a fellowship called the German Marshall Fund Environmental Fellowship from the Center for Clean Air Policy. This program brought seven Americans to Europe, and seven Europeans to America every year. I went to the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom to study land use planning, but also to meet with people who are also working with this whole field of decision support tools and planning tools.

The Netherlands in particular provided a feeling of awe and amazement at how some of these communities have maximized the use of bicycle use and pedestrian-friendly environments. I keep hoping to find ways to bring some of that to the United States. Culturally it’s such a huge difference in terms of how people use bikes to get places. But I think there were a lot of interesting things to learn in terms of how you might design a community that encourages bicycle use and more sustainable community living.

Ball:  Was the fellowship centered specifically on land use planners for that exchange?

Snyder:  Yes, the focus was on land use planning and transportation. My fellowship was probably more focused on the tools and technology that can be used for planning than most of the other fellows. They’ve had a pretty impressive list of fellows, including people like Earl Bloomenauer who is now a U.S. congressman representing Oregon.

Ball:  How did your focus on decision support tools come about?

Snyder: I came from the U.S. Department of Energy where I was working for a program that focused specifically on sustainable development. One of the areas that I was asked to look at was the connection between land use and energy use. I began researching the tools that help people understand that link, which got me interested in the field of decision support. In particular, computer mapping tools that allow people to do spatial impact analysis and scenario planning and look at different scenarios and understand the implications of different types of development approaches.

I started PlaceMatters in 2002, with the idea of creating an organization that was tool neutral and looked at the whole world of tools that help communities with land use planning. I provided advice on tools that are a good fit to address land use planning and community development challenges.

In 2004, I joined the Orton Family Foundation and helped them create a tools program. And that tools program had a lot of the same sort of components of what PlaceMatters is about, but under the Orton Family Foundation’s umbrella there was a much stronger focus on small communities and then also geographically they look at the Rocky Mountain west and New England as their two primary target areas.

The Orton Family Foundation was heavily invested in the development of CommunityViz software, because they felt like it was an important way to equip particularly these small towns with the resources to do scenario planning. When PlaceMatters joined with Orton it was right at the same time that they were deciding to shift from focusing solely on the development of CommunityViz software and expanding to build a more mission driven plan to work directly with communities on their projects.

At that point CommunityViz was a mature product and was ready to be marketed and sold in the planning world. Place Ways, is responsible for Community Viz with the Foundation continuing to fund the development, but on an order of magnitude smaller than it used to.

We’ve all used CommunityViz and we work closely with Place Ways, but we are also keeping open to other tools that might be a particularly good fit for land use planning projects.

Ball:  Is 3D modeling a key component of these tools?

Snyder:  The original concept of CommunityViz in 1995 was a cutting edge idea at the time. The idea was that communities needed a tool that helped them do mapping and do impact analysis but also connect that with 3D visualization so that when you build something you can actually see what it might look like in a 3D landscape. The third component that they have, which was actually really interesting but also really hard to get planning agencies to adopt and use, was a predictive modeling tool that would help people understand if you adopted certain policies, whether it’s an urban growth boundary or a historic preservation or some sort of policy, what sort of growth might you see happening as a result of that policy. Those three pieces fit together in an interoperable way that is actually quite cutting edge.

In the Community Viz 3D visualization part, when I first saw it ten years ago it was the kind of thing that everybody got very jazzed and excited about because it was just starting to get into this realm where you could actually imagine what something would look like. Today the 3D component of CommunityViz is kind of behind the times because there are a number of other tools that allow you to create 3D models much more cheaply and easily. So actually CommunityViz is looking at ways to adopt some of these other tools that are available.

The idea is that it’s not just visualization tools for the sake of being able to see the way something look, but how to connect that visualization with information and data. That’s one thing we’re starting to see more and more of, even with tools like Google Earth where it’s mostly visual and you can fly around and navigate it. But they’re making it possible to associate data with the buildings that you put on your landscape and that makes it more possible to do impact analysis in connection with that 3D world, or to just play around with different scenarios.

Ball:  Having in-depth analysis and predictive modeling tools for urban planning excites me, because to my mind a majority of GIS users aren’t conducting analysis. They’re really using such a small segment of the tool’s functionality.

Snyder:  We see that over and over again, GIS people are just barely scratching the surface. It’s mostly generating maps so they can then put them out, and there’s not a lot of interactivity with that data.

Playing around with different possibilities makes the tool become much more powerful. Combining that with visualization tools allows you to start seeing what various plans look like in terms of infrastructure costs. For instance you can see the impacts of plans that add children to your population so that you see when you’re going to hit the threshold when you need to build a new school. All these questions can be looked at as you’re playing around with different land uses. That’s one of the things we think is really powerful about decision support tools.

Ball:  In addition to helping community planners use these tools, aren’t you also involved in using these tools to engage community involvement?

Snyder: Yes, we’re working to develop e-participation tools and techniques to support and improve the planning process. We strongly believe that if more people are engaged and involved in the process that you’re going to make better decisions. You’re also going to make people feel like they own the process and the decisions, and therefore you’re more likely to ensure that policies and ideas are implemented.

There’s a really important dance between professionals who have been trained to do urban design, and the public who have a certain amount of knowledge about what’s great about the place. The public knows what’s unique about the place, and has a historical understanding of their community. The public needs to be tapped into when you’re thinking about the future of that community.

Public participation tools in combination with professional tools and professional expertise ensure that you have a really good product coming out of the design process.

Ball:  Our publication plans to focus on the process of infrastructure creation and maintenance and the CAD and GIS toolset that is used for this purpose. The CAD/GIS divide still seems to be an ongoing problem, particularly in the urban planning community. Do you think it is time for this divides to come apart, and is there any momentum for that within the urban planning community?

Snyder:  I think it probably has to do with standards and how metadata is stored and how the programs end up helping clean up the stuff that the human hand does. One of the problems we keep running into with the CAD/GIS divide is that someone will do a whole plan in CAD and then when we try to bring it into GIS to do the impact analysis we get these fragmented files. We’ll have all the polygons fragmented because they weren’t created with GIS in mind.

Software companies should work to create tools that work behind the scenes, so the user doesn’t have to know it’s happening. That would make the data more interoperable and the divide able to dissolve more. This largely depends on the big developers of these tools, figuring out how to make sure that they talk to each other a little bit more.
If that happens then we’ll see people using these tools back and forth.

Ball:  GIS modelers have largely been focused on modeling the Earth and building facades, while the CAD community has detailed building interiors. It’s obvious that both communities stand to gain by bringing their models together.

Snyder:  Different levels of analysis require different data. But it’s difficult to go in and out of different scales. For instance, we’re doing a project in Chula Vista where the Gas Technologies Institute is doing very sophisticated analysis of buildings. They’re doing 24-hours, 365 days a year analysis of those buildings and what different technologies will improve the energy use of those buildings.

We take that data, and those models and bring them into CommunityViz and are trying to show in an aggregate what sort of energy savings you could have if you tweak a few of the technologies or adopt photovoltaics on the rooftops or if they bring in technology on more of a neighborhood scale. Jumping back and forth between those scales is challenging, but the potential is huge for us to then think about things with much more of a big-picture approach.

Ball:  Can you tell me more about this project?

Snyder:  It’s an eco-industrial park. One company’s waste could be another company’s resource, so you can design a clustering of industries together in such a way that they have less waste and would be sharing each other’s resources. Why not be able to do that also with neighborhoods and also think about a transportation system and how to make these pieces fit together?

When people have a house that’s designed in a certain way it encourages them to live more sustainably. We also need to look at how can you also bring that thinking to the neighborhood scale. So it’s not just when they’re in their home but how they get to work and once they get to work – it’s the bigger picture.

Ball:  There’s a coming together of a lot of disciplines for that big picture approach. Have you seen more interest in what you’re doing and more opportunities for collaboration from people that you wouldn’t have seen before?

Snyder: I think so. A colleague of mine talks about how it takes diversity to manage diversity. I think as our lives become more and more complex, it’s becoming harder to plan because we know more about the negative environmental impacts of the things that we do.

As we gain more knowledge of the interconnection between these different sectors, we need tools that will help us make those linkages more easily and quickly. I think that’s where there’s a very big interest in figuring out how to bring these ideas together.

The hard part is that often the bureaucracies and the agencies that are responsible for certain things are still very compartmentalized. For instance, we have a huge program called  Bridging the Divide that looks at bringing ecosystem-based management more effectively into land use planning. On the technical side there’s some great tools that help you think about an ecosystem and make sure that you’re making decisions that will if not enhance that ecosystem at least help protect it.

But then bringing that into the land-use planning world you run into all of these problems in terms of what’s the decision-making timeline for a planning agency versus the decision-making timeline for ecosystem management, who’s in charge of various decisions. And so you run into these political barriers, or even jurisdictional barriers where the watershed or the ecosystem crosses three jurisdictions so you have a hard time getting all three of those jurisdictions to work together on the right sort of strategy.

So it’s bringing the science and the tools but also the political arena all together that continues to be a challenge. But at least with these tools you’re more and more able to at least provide the right information to each other.

Ball:  It sounds like a daunting task to just bring together planning disciplines. Does it get much more complicated when you add public participation?

Snyder:  One of the side benefits of encouraging public participation is that by the nature of inviting people to the table you’re also inviting all of these different professions to come and be part of the conversation. On the first level you have them contributing to the conversation and saying wait you need to think about this or that, because they bring in their expertise.

The other thing that happens is that they remember who was at the meeting and they may remember talking to Joe who is connected with the environment. And so it becomes more of a community that’s connected and thinking about these issues in a bigger picture. There’s also that long-term benefit of people talking to each other and maybe getting outside of their normal smaller perspective of things.

Ball:  PlaceMatters is involved on a number of different levels, from tool consulting to hosting Web services to community interaction and conference organization. How do you balance all of the different arms of your organization?

Snyder:  A combination of grants from foundations help us with mission-driven initiatives or things that are outside of the boundaries of what you can usually get funded for in terms of a project. Then there’s a fee-for-service component that is probably about half of our budget where we’re doing a project specifically for a community or for another organization.

My ideal, is 50% of fee-for-service and 50% grants, because if it was all fee-for-service, we would be too caught up in how to make a dollar and we would really be trying to get things through quickly in and out the door. Whereas if we were all grant driven we’d be spending all of our time writing grant proposals and talking about theory but not putting it into practice.

With a certain amount of fee-for-service projects we feel like we have a legitimate argument to make for what works and what doesn’t work because we’ve tried it. For instance, if it weren’t for the hundred or so keypad polling events that we’ve done it would be a lot harder to talk about the benefits and the shortcomings of keypad polling for the process of engaging public input.

Matt Ball

About Matt Ball

Matt Ball is founder and editorial director of V1 Media, publisher of Informed Infrastructure, Earth Imaging Journal, Sensors & Systems, Asian Surveying & Mapping and the video news site GeoSpatial Stream.

Comments are disabled