American metropolitan areas are facing unprecedented challenges. From COVID-19 to infrastructure disinvestment, and from rising inequality to climate change, cities need structured and prepared leadership like never before. Scenario planning has emerged as a potential way for planners and policy makers in municipalities to navigate our uncertain future.
However, current issues are often beyond the scale of one municipality and require regional coordination to tackle: large scale problems require large scale solutions. But how effective can scenario planning be when our local governments are often so fractured and divided, and when certain municipalities don't adhere to regional organizing?
In "Beyond Plans: Scenario Planning as a Tool for Regional Capacity Building," in the Journal of the American Planning Association (Vol. 88, No. 4), Stephen Averill Sherman and Arnab Chakraborty investigate the relationship between regional and municipal scenario plans by examining how regional plans "guide long-range municipal plans or how the scenarios reshape planning institutions." Their study covers new ground by focusing on actual plan use rather than plan conformance between the municipal and regional levels.
The authors define scenario plans as "any plan that uses multiple scenarios as a way of conceiving the future." Scenario planning, they argue, is a potentially more inclusive version of planning that accommodates multiple potential future outcomes. These multiple contingencies can be especially useful when planning at the regional scale.
Sherman and Chakraborty then focus on three metropolitan regions in the U.S.: Madison, Wisconsin; Kansas City, Missouri/Kansas; and Boston, Massachusetts; comparing how regional plans in the areas were reflected in various municipal plans throughout the given region.
The authors acquired the most recent comprehensive plans for the 20 largest cities in each metropolitan area (16 in the case of Madison) and determined whether the local plans employed "scenario methods." After reviewing the plans, they interviewed planning professionals and employees from the local and regional agencies that were involved in creating the regional scenario plan. These professionals were chosen based on their role within the planning process, and interview questions largely focused on the plan-making process, and whether broader regional involvement in their plans informed some of their decisions.
The study's findings, like so much in our field, indicate that the value of regional plans lies not necessarily in the plans themselves, but in the processes through which the plans are created. Even if municipalities within a regional metropolitan area did not conform to the regional planning authority's scenario plans, the process of creating those regional plans produced a network of "new, durable partnerships" between municipal planning agencies.
Additionally, the outreach and engagement processes used to create these regional plans helped foster a sense of community-oriented action amongst various stakeholder groups and proved influential in individual municipalities' planning practice moving forward.
Table 2. Summary of planning documents.
As a reader and planning student, there were two key takeaways from this investigation. The first is the importance of in-depth qualitative analysis for planners — Sherman and Chakraborty's findings were greatly augmented by their interviews with plan stakeholders, and they were able to unearth and parse through the values of the planning process outside of conformance. However, this dynamic is twofold: while there is value in process, it does not take away from the importance of the outcome.
The finding that most municipal scenario plans were implemented without consulting already existing regional plans shows the need for greater coordination between agencies, especially after the regional plan has already been created. While it is important that social and professional connections were made during the regional planning process, it is equally important that the ideas from these processes are not showcased in vain.
The Journal of the American Planning Association is the quarterly journal of record for the planning profession. For full access to the JAPA archive, APA members may purchase a discounted digital subscription for $36/year.
More From APA
Scenario planning enables professionals, and the public, to respond dynamically to an unknown future. This collection catalogs resources that provide information about developing and using scenarios in local and regional planning. Get additional scenario planning resources in the Scenario Planning Research KnowledgeBase Collection.
Top image: E+ - filo
About the author
Michael Zajakowski Uhll is a master in urban planning candidate at Harvard University's Graduate School of Design.