Stepping Ahead: Oregon Enters New Phase of Scenario Planning

What do a sidewalk in Keizer, faster bus service in Medford, neighborhood parks in Corvallis, and mixed-use buildings in Bend have in common?

They are all benefits that might arise from Oregon’s most significant recent planning initiative: regional scenario planning.

The Legislature identified scenario planning in 2010’s Senate Bill 1059 to give Oregon’s major cities an effective, transparent tool for assessing their possible futures.

Taking Ownership: What Scenario Planning Does

The idea isn’t that new to Oregon. The famous 1972 Willamette Valley: Choices for the Future report was essentially a low-tech version of what is underway now.

Analyzing different potential paths of development for the valley’s future, Choices for the Future explored the impacts and outcomes in Willamette Valley communities that would result. This valuable work helped legislators and the public realize the need for a more comprehensive approach to statewide land use planning, to both protect farmland and accommodate a growing population

But today’s scenario planning is more high-tech, more effective, and more focused on some of the key challenges our communities face now: climate change, public health, and affordable transportation and housing. Through modeling, visualizations, public participation, and extensive cooperation, scenario planning makes possibilities clear and decisions easier.

It’s a fundamentally empowering exercise: a chance to take ownership of the future, rather than leave its negative outcomes for our children to address.

With SB 1059, the Legislature mandated that only the Portland Metro region undertake scenario planning immediately, with a charge to meet Oregon’s goals for greenhouse gas emission reductions. For the Portland region, that means a 20 percent emission reduction from cars and trucks by 2035.

That process is now well underway with Metro’s Climate Smart Communities project, entering its third phase this year. Watch a video at right about this project, featuring our Mary Kyle McCurdy.

1000 Friends has been an active participant in this process since the beginning. In this valuable interchange of community groups, the public, researchers, planners, and elected officials, we have made some terrific discoveries.

We’ve found that not only can we meet our climate change goals, we can actually make a much healthier, more livable region through the right transportation and land use choices, in addition to employing technology, pricing, and other strategies. It has been an eye-opening experience for everyone involved. Metro will soon release its final alternative strategies for further consideration, one of which will be adopted.

Greater Prospects: Bringing Scenario Planning to New Cities

SB 1059 also required the Eugene/Springfield area to undertake scenario planning to evaluate different land use and transportation strategies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but unlike the region is not required to actually carry out any of those strategies.

SB 1059 did not require Oregon’s four other major urban areas (Salem-Keizer, the Rogue Valley, Corvallis/Philomath, and Bend) to even undertake scenario planning. However, it directed the Oregon Department of Transportation and Department of Land Conservation and Development to create guidelines to help those communities understand the value and technique of scenario planning, so those communities can engage in scenario planning with their residents if they chose.

This spring, ODOT and DLCD released those guidelines, which Oregon’s other cities can now use to identify a scenario planning path that makes sense for them. To help, the state has developed an easy-to-use model called GreenSTEP, as well as detailed visualizations of what different kinds of development and transportation might look like in Oregon’s communities.

Key Components: Data and Dialogue

At its heart, Oregon’s scenario planning project will depend on two things: good data and great dialogue.

Probably the most important part of scenario planning, the new guidelines make clear, is developing a transparent step-by-step process with considerable public involvement, clear criteria, and consistent goals. It is an unprecedented opportunity to compare and consider different outcomes for the future.

Once these are set, communities can use computer modeling to assess a range of building types—from historic downtown to regional corridor to suburban housing—and their impact on greenhouse gas emissions, regional pollution, traffic, health, and other issues of importance to residents. It works best when communities examine several ideas for different paths of future development, such as a continuation of current trends, building at the edge, or focusing on the central city.

Developing these scenarios is a creative, collaborative process, demanding extensive public involvement through workshops, surveys, and targeted outreach. Every resident, community group, business owner, and stakeholder is offered an opportunity to participate, and the program works best when a region’s full diversity is represented.

Ultimately, a community—whether a big region or small city—can come together to compare the different scenarios and choose which future best fits its values. It is an incredible opportunity for collaboration that extends to issues well beyond climate change, opening new doors to dialogue to achieve many outcomes people care about.

​Moving Forward: Work With Us

1000 Friends believes in the power of scenario planning to help achieve what we call Cool Communities – those that have reduced greenhouse gas emissions from driving, and in the process have enhanced walkable, bikeable neighborhoods with better access to transit and housing choice. We believe that the best response to any one challenge is to find solutions that solve others at the same time. Scenario planning is an excellent tool to get us there.

Whether your city needs more safe places to walk and ride bicycles, more reliable transit service, or more investment in a declining business district, ask your leaders to explore how scenario planning might help make that happen. That is what we will be doing in the coming months around Oregon.

Learn more and take action:

Photo credits:
Medford Bus: Nicholas Ng. Creative Commons.