Scenario planning for cities and regions: Managing and envisioning uncertain futures, by Robert Goodspeed

Journal of Urban Affairs > Book Review > Scenario planning for cities and regions: Managing and envisioning uncertain futures, by Robert Goodspeed

Yvonne Yexuan Gu (2022) Scenario planning for cities and regions: Managing and envisioning uncertain futures, by Robert Goodspeed, Journal of Urban Affairs, 44:1, 110-112, DOI: 10.1080/07352166.2021.1939595

During my college years, while everyone was busy learning how to design for the future, I was constantly perplexed by one question: what the future really needs. The reasons that made this question difficult for me could be summarized by one word: uncertainty. Uncertainty about the future, as much as we humans dislike it, has always been one of the core problems of contemporary planning practice. In this light, Robert Goodspeed proposes a more nuanced question: “how planning can improve its effectiveness in the face of an urgent need for urban transformation and growing uncertainty about the future” (p. 192).

Goodspeed’s book, Scenario Planning for Cities and Regions comes at a prime time since researchers and practitioners have been eager to understand and cope with the uncertainties induced by various forces, such as new technologies, climate change, and social disorders. This is not his first attempt to write about scenario planning. He has published articles about its theories, practice, and related methods in several journals, such as Environment and Planning B and the Journal of the American Planning Association.

Scenario planning’s main origin, as Goodspeed introduces, dates to the 1960s with the publication of Thinking About the Unthinkable, a book about thermonuclear war written by Herman Kahn, who was a distinguished futurist at the time. Nowadays, scenario planning has largely developed into multiple fields for addressing uncertainties of the future. In this book, Goodspeed thoroughly explains urban scenario planning for researchers and practitioners who are interested in addressing city transformation and future uncertainty. His goal is not only to explain what scenario planning is, but also to illuminate how to use it with a lot of practical guidance, including case studies and digital tools (e.g., CommunityViz, Envision Tomorrow, and UrbanFootPrint).

The book is divided into four parts, which blend theories with research, practice, and education in urban scenario planning. Although Goodspeed claims that “this book is to provide advice for practice but not reduce scenario planning to a highly prescriptive formula” (p. 194), the frameworks (e.g., p. 56), diagrams (e.g., p. 64), listed multi-step processes (e.g., pp. 61 & 63), and explicit explanation of abundant digital tools make the book sufficiently accessible for practical implementation.

In Goodspeed’s words, “scenario planning is long-term strategic planning that creates representations of multiple, plausible futures of a system of interest” (p. 21). For him, the theoretical development of scenario planning is based on two complementary theories: complex systems theory and collaborative planning theory. Apparently, he is an advocate of diverse societal voices, which reminds me of a quote by Jane Jacobs (1961): “cities have the capacity of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody” (p. 238). Jacobs’s Death and Life of Great American Cities, as Goodspeed references multiple times, has fundamentally influenced the development of urban scenario planning. Her theories, however, lacked “professional prescriptions,” which were “limited by the state of theory in their day” (p. 20).

To fill the aforementioned gap, in Part 1, Goodspeed illustrates the importance of understanding uncertainty (i.e., “what might change”) and transformation (i.e., “what could change to further the community’s goals for transformation” [p. 27]). With these two core concepts in mind, Goodspeed explains two types of uncertainties—forecastable risks and scenario uncertainties—and three types of scenarios—predictive (what will happen), exploratory (what can happen), and normative (how a specific target can be reached), which set the theoretical base for the rest of the book. To reinforce the understanding of urban scenario planning theories, Goodspeed also reviews four related approaches: forecasting, strategic planning, visioning, and consensus building.

After the thorough explanation of urban scenario planning theories, in Part 2 Goodspeed describes how the approach can be, and has been, used in practice. More specifically, Goodspeed introduces a framework, three case studies of normative and exploratory projects, a variety of digital tools, and the research of practice. The framework encompasses four categories (context, project, process, and outcomes) and several components in each category; it lays out the organization of the rest of the book. For instance, three case studies in this part are described around the six components in the project category. And the evaluation in Part 3 is based on the components in the category of outcomes. This part is the most practical one for providing constructive advice for practitioners.

In Part 3, Goodspeed focuses on the evaluation of urban scenario planning projects. He also proposes an evaluation framework to organize project outcomes into three groups—learning, institutional change, and system change—within three levels—individual, organizational, and city (p. 163). This is a breakthrough in scenario planning since its evaluation is still nascent, and existing evaluation research has not been sufficiently organized. As Goodspeed mentions, the result of the existing evaluation research “is a long list of outcomes, hypotheses, and research designs using diverse measurements” (p. 159). Part 4 concludes the book with insights into the progressive nature of scenario planning for future transformative planning as well as scenario planning’s further relations with race for urban equity.

Given that this book is a research-based project aiming to provide practical advice, there are missed opportunities. Although Goodspeed reiterates the importance of public participation, the book does not discuss the practical methods and challenges of how the public negotiate and create consensus. Negotiation could be very challenging in scenario planning due to different backgrounds, interests, and communication barriers of participants, which is worth more discussion, especially in case studies.

Goodspeed’s book is an outstanding complement to the current body of literature of scenario planning. First, it goes beyond merely discussing scenario planning in urban planning to include narratives in other fields (such as military, corporation, and landscape architecture) for better understanding. Second, a highlight of the book is the review of evaluations of practical projects. Unlike a lot of similar books that aim to provide practical advice, this book goes beyond theories and case studies. The evaluation of practice provides solid evidence on the value of scenario planning and reflects on what specific factors make a practice successful. This book could benefit a wide range of people who are interested in addressing the complex and uncertain futures of cities, including but not limited to practitioners, scholars, students, and stakeholders.


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