New Publication

Scenario Planning for Cities and Regions Teaches Planners How—and Why—to Apply This Critical Tool
By Allison Ehrich Bernstein, April 6, 2020


In the face of rapid changes to technology, the climate, and the global economy, a growing number of cities and regions use scenario planning to prepare for an uncertain future. The new book Scenario Planning for Cities and Regions: Managing and Envisioning Uncertain Futures, by Robert Goodspeed, explores this growing and evolving practice and offers the first in-depth examination of how urban planners and the communities they serve can make better decisions about the future.

A procedural tool originally developed for military and corporate strategic planning, scenario planning enables communities to create and analyze multiple plausible versions of the future. Unlike traditional approaches that begin with forecasting, scenario planning starts with a consideration of multiple plausible futures based on the different ways that major uncertainties could evolve. 

Historically, the planning field has largely ignored uncertainty, resulting in plans that perpetuated the status quo rather than preparing residents for the future. Inflexible plans can lead to disaster, however: homes flooded because they were built in areas thought to be safe from storms, public funds wasted on infrastructure to accommodate overestimated growth, or expensive mismatches between affordable housing types and residents’ needs.

By contrast, scenario planning puts uncertainties at the heart of the process, prompting practitioners to examine key variables like changing climate and weather patterns, uncertain growth trends, and evolving housing preferences. With this focal shift, a city might implement strategies that contend directly with unknown levels of sea-level rise, that direct efforts to maximize housing affordability, or that use critical natural resources more equitably and sustainably.

When this analysis focuses on forces within the city itself, planners can explore not only what may change but also what could change to advance community goals—or as the result of other interventions. When participants focus on external uncertainties, they can better prepare for changes in the broader environment, improving resilience to uncertain but foreseeable events. Taken together, these investigations help cities pursue practical transformation.

Scenario Planning for Cities and Regions examines how this tool can be adapted to a range of urban and regional planning contexts—and how it can empower practitioners and citizens alike to better address the unprecedented challenges that lie ahead for cities and regions. Intended for urban planners, students, and researchers, the book features practical guidance on scenario planning methods, modeling and simulation tools, and detailed case studies.

University of Southern California Professor Dowell Myers notes, “This masterwork on scenario planning is wonderfully accessible and deeply grounded in planning theory and systems thinking about interconnections and uncertainties. Robert Goodspeed has created the best explanation I’ve ever seen for understanding this planning strategy that is so urgently needed for guiding our cities through the turbulent 21st century.”

The book brings scenario planning to life with in-depth explorations of how planners and citizens have used the tool in their communities. Cases explored in the book include the Austin Sustainable Places Project, which used normative scenarios for low-budget, neighborhood-level land use planning in Texas, and the Sahuarita Exploratory Scenario Project, which employed exploratory scenarios to analyze an Arizona town’s general plan applied to possible futures. Although it focuses on U.S. cases, the book also describes international applications of scenario planning, including an ambitious Queensland, Australia, regional planning project, and covers foundational work by the Royal Dutch Shell company, which developed scenario creation methodology in the 1980s to analyze the global business environment.

Goodspeed also examines the history of both scenario and urban planning, showing how once-distinct fields can combine to create comprehensive long-range plans that account for a wide range of potential futures and build consensus among diverse stakeholders. He further demonstrates how scenario planning is uniquely suited to contemporary planning challenges and concludes, “Cities exist as they are, not as we wish they were, and scenario planning offers a good way to comprehend and plan them well.” 

“This book is an essential resource for anyone interested in using scenario planning to inform and improve planning and policy making,” University of Akron Emeritus Professor of Geography, Planning, and Urban Studies Richard E. Klosterman said. “It combines an instructive history of scenario planning, illustrative case studies, an overview of digital tools for creating and evaluating scenarios, a careful review of empirical studies, and a useful framework for evaluating urban scenario outcomes.”



Allison Ehrich Bernstein is principal at Allative Communications.

Photograph: Dripping Springs, Texas, was one of four towns outside of Austin that completed a scenario planning process to inform its local land use plan. Credit: Robert Goodspeed.