Methods And Technologies Of Urban Planning Research Paper

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The collection, interpretation, and dissemination of the information needed to improve public and private decision making is one of the major justifications for urban planning. As a result, planning methods and technologies have played a central role in planning practice and education since the profession’s inception. This research paper reviews the evolution of planning methods and techniques, considers the methods and technologies that are most widely used in contemporary planning practice, and speculates on the future of planning methods and technologies.

1. Evolution Of Planning Methods And Technologies

Three relatively distinct eras can be traced in the evolution of planning practice, methods and techniques. The first era, ‘planning as design,’ characterized planning from its inception until the decade of the 1960s. The second, ‘planning as applied science,’ characterized the profession in the 1960s and 1970s. The third, ‘planning as communication and reasoning together,’ characterized the profession during the 1980s and 1990s. The following sections examine each of these eras and their corresponding methods and techniques in turn.

1.1 The Early Profession

The planning profession emerged in the USA at the beginning of the twentieth century in response to the unregulated urban growth and inadequate public facilities of the new industrial cities. Guided by a rather naive form of environmental determinism, the early planners assumed a professional responsibility for improving society through changes in the physical environment and protecting an overarching public interest from the presumably self-interested and uninformed actions of elected officials and private citizens. Planners’ methods were largely intuitive methods of manual design adapted from the profession’s institutional homes in architecture and landscape architecture, taught primarily by planning practitioners in the ubiquitous studio workshop.

By the 1950s these largely intuitive methods had evolved into a standard land use planning approach codified in and F. Stuart Chapin’s Urban Land Use Planning (1957) and T. J. Kent’s The Urban General Plan (1964). This model defined planning as the preparation of a formal document laying out a long-term, comprehensive, but general, vision for a community’s future physical development, including public and private uses of land and related public facilities. These plans included a summary of existing and emerging conditions and needs, a statement of planning goals, a 20or 30-year development plan expressed in map form, and policies for implementing the plan. Variations on this general approach are reflected in contemporary land use planning practice (Kaiser and Godschalk 1995).

1.2 The 1960s And 1970s

The planning profession’s attention turned in the 1960s from the design of the physical city to new concerns with improving transportation access, reducing urban blight, and improving social and economic conditions on both the urban and regional scales. The dominant perception of the field changed from an image of ‘planning as design’ to ‘planning as an applied science’ as new students, faculties, and departments joined the profession from outside the traditional schools of design. An increased emphasis on quantitative methods and social science theory led to the abandonment of the once ubiquitous design studio for new courses in research design, statistics, and quantitative techniques represented by Isard et al.’s monumental Methods of Regional Analysis (1960) and Krueckeberg and Silvers’ widely used Urban Planning Analysis (1974). Planners’ professional role was now seen as delivering unbiased, ‘objective,’ and politically neutral advice to elected officials and the public and collecting and disseminating more and better information that could inform and improve the policymaking process.

Computers were first used in planning in the 1960s, as part of a general faith in science and technology and the emergence of new academic fields such as operations research, urban economics, and regional science. The most notable early attempts to use computers in planning were the extremely ambitious and highly visible federally-funded efforts to build large-scale metropolitan land use–transportation models and integrated municipal information systems. These efforts were seen as providing the foundations for a new ‘science’ of planning by helping to understand and guide the urban development process and improve the information base for public and private decision making (Harris 1965, Webber 1965).

Planners’ optimistic faith in computer technology was severely tested in the 1970s. The pioneering efforts to develop large-scale urban models and municipal information systems failed spectacularly, largely as a result of their overly ambitious goals, the limitations of available computer equipment, the lack of required data, and an inadequate understanding of the urban development process. Sophisticated analytic tools such as mathematical programming, which were once assumed to provide the foundations for ‘scientific planning,’ were found to be largely inappropriate for most planning applications which are hard to define or solve, have outcomes that are difficult to predict, and involve considerable judgement (Lee 1973, Brewer 1973, Laudon 1974).

The practical failure of the early computer-based urban models reflected a more fundamental rejection of the ‘rational planning’ model that was assumed to underlie all attempts to use computers in planning. Planning methods and technologies that were once assumed to be ‘objective’ and politically neutral were found inevitably to increase the power of administrators and technical experts at the expense of those who lacked the expertise to use them effectively. Information that once appeared to be more accurate, credible, and objective, simply because it has been generated by a computer, was found to reflect fundamental choices in the selection of data, the application of computational procedures, and the distribution of results that helped answer the fundamental political questions of ‘who gets what, when, and how’ (Wachs 1982). By the decade’s end, most planners had no access to—or perceived need for—the expensive, fragile, and hard-to-use mainframe computers of the era and continued to rely on manual computational techniques that had changed little since the 1950s.

1.3 The 1980s And 1990s

Planners’ faith in computing technology was reborn in the 1980s with the emergence of microcomputers that made computer-based methods and techniques readily available to planners the world over. By the end of the century, nearly all planning agencies used computers for general-purpose office functions such as processing documents, monitoring budgets, and maintaining records. Many of the larger planning agencies routinely used geographic information systems (GIS) (see Sect. 2.2) for planning management tasks such as processing permits, collecting and maintaining land-related information, and preparing thematic maps. The maturation of municipal GIS and the dramatic growth of the internet allowed planners to access vast quantities of spatially related information that could only have been dreamed of by earlier planners.

Underlying these developments were new images of ‘planning as communication and reasoning together.’ Planners increasingly realized that planning involves not only the collection and distribution of information but, more importantly, face-to-face communication with colleagues and clients involving other nontraditional types of ‘information’: stories, advice, and personal experiences. As a result, planners increasingly realized that the ways in which they transmit information is often more important than what they say.

For example, planning forecasts could be described either as the result of sophisticated computer-based modeling efforts too complex for laymen to understand, or as implementing a few easy-to-understand assumptions. The same analysis techniques and results could be employed in both cases. However, in the first case planners’ communications are likely to mystify their audience and exclude nonexperts from the planning process. In the second, they will invite the public to participate by critically examining the assumptions that underlie the forecasts.

The 1990s also witnessed the emergence of new professional models which suggested that planners should develop and guide interactive and ongoing processes of community learning and debate that allow, public officials, stakeholders, and planners to jointly define issues, collect information, and share their ideas, perspectives, and interests. These strategies not only help promote public participation and understanding, increase public support for the proposals that are developed, but often help resolve issues before the formal decision-making processes begin (Innes 1998).

2. Current Planning Methods And Technologies

Before the advent of computers, planning data were available only in voluminous printed volumes and paper maps that were incomplete, inconsistent, and could only be updated manually. Planning analysis and communication required manually copying the relevant information, laborious and error-prone hand computations, typing text and tables, and drafting maps and graphs.

Today all of this has changed. An almost overwhelming array of data are readily available in digital form from national, regional, and local databases. Planners’ computer-based tools allow them to analyze these facts quickly and use them to produce attractive documents, charts, and maps. As a result, it is almost impossible to conceive of planning without computers and related advanced information technologies. The following section briefly reviews the most methods and technologies that are most widely used by contemporary planners.

2.1 Spreadsheets

An electronic spreadsheet (or simply a ‘spreadsheet’) is an electronic version of the accountant’s traditional paper spreadsheet, which stores numeric data in two-dimensional tables that display the results of calculations performed on these data. They have been called, with some justification, ‘God’s gift to planners.’ They are easy to learn, forgiving of errors, and provide an intuitively logical structure for examining any quantitative problem that can be formulated as a two-dimensional table. They are easily adaptable, allowing users to copy data and computational formulas easily from one location to another and develop predefined ‘spreadsheet models’ that for many years provided the most widely used software tools designed specifically for planning applications (see, e.g., Klosterman et al. 1993). And, most importantly, spreadsheets are ideal for examining the ‘what if’ questions that permeate planning by allowing planners quickly and easily to determine the effects of alternative policy choices and different assumptions about the future.

2.2 Geographic Information Systems

GIS are computer-based systems for capturing, storing, analyzing, and displaying spatially related data. GIS combine: (a) sophisticated mapping capabilities which allow attractive and informative maps to be prepared quickly and easily; (b) highly developed data base management tools for storing, modifying, and manipulating descriptive data describing the features displayed on a map; (d) topological data structures which explicitly describe the spatial relationships between map features; and (e) extensive data describing anything that can be displayed on a map.

GIS has proven extremely useful for a full range of planning applications such as:

(a) displaying spatially related information;

(b) maintaining land-based inventories and organizing spatial data previously maintained by different organizations;

(c) identifying the best (or worst site) for locating facilities and activities;

(d) conducting spatial analysis tasks such as defining buffers around selected map features; and

(e) dealing with network-related transportation and infrastructure issues.

2.3 Planning Support Systems (PSS)

The popularity of GIS is due largely to its ability to serve as a ‘chameleon technology’ which provides basic functions that are extremely useful for a wide range of publicand private-sector applications. However, this general applicability comes at the expense of the particular needs of specialized fields such as planning. In response to these limitations, at the end of the twentieth century, planners began to develop PSS that adapted the concept of decision support systems to planning. PSS combined (a) an array of spatial and nonspatial data with (b) a broad range of models and methods for determining the implications of alternative policy choices; and (c) visualization tools for displaying model results in easily understandable formats, ideally over the Internet. More importantly, PSS provided interactive and participatory processes for group interaction and decision making for dealing with non-routine and poorly structured decisions (Brail and Klosterman 2001).

2.4 Visualization And Multimedia Systems

Planners use not only printed reports, charts, and maps to describe and understand neighborhoods, cities, and regions, and relate their descriptions, analyses, and plans to others. They also use computer-based visualization and multimedia systems to combine these traditional types of information with aerial and eye-level photographs and video and audio clips to provide a more comprehensive understanding of an area and alternative plans for its future.

For example, all types of information—statistical, textual, mapped, audio, video, and computer-generated—on a vacant industrial site and alternative proposals for developing it could be compiled in digital form and made available for face-to-face group meetings or ‘virtual’ meetings held over the web. These different types of information can help provide the foundation for collaborative processes of collective design by allowing meeting participants to explore current and past conditions, review issues and concerns raised by community residents, and jointly explore alternative development possibilities and their impacts. Computer-aided visualization can also help promote community participation by rendering information more understandable, credible, and usable to different segments of the public, particularly to those who have not had experience with more traditional forms of information (Shiffer 1992).

2.5 The Internet And The Worldwide Web

The internet and the worldwide web (or ‘web’) provide a ‘network of networks’ that connects millions of computer users around the world into a seamless web of electronic communication and information dissemination. The internet has been extremely useful by providing planners and the public with ‘anytime, anyplace’ access to large databases such as the entire contents of the national census, local property information, and interactive audio and video displays. It also allows plans and proposals—along with their supporting documents, information, and analytical models—to be distributed at very little cost, allowing people with different skills, viewpoints, and objectives to contribute to the collective decision-making process, independent of time and/or place.

3. Future Of Planning Methods And Technologies

Planning methods and technologies have changed dramatically, due largely to the tremendous advances in information technology that occurred during the 1980s and 1990s. Future technological advances promise to be even more dramatic, making it extremely difficult to forecast what the future will hold. However, some trends are relatively clear. Computers and related advanced information technologies will continue to get faster, more powerful, cheaper, and easier to use. Nearly universal, high-speed access to the internet will allow planners to retrieve, analyze, and distribute vast quantities of spatially referenced information quickly and easily. Planners’ software tools for processing and analyzing all types of information—numerical, textual, graphic, audio, and video— and for conveying it to others in readily understandable ways, will become increasingly powerful, available, and easy to use.

The effects that these advances will have on planning practice are much less clear. The increased availability of spatially referenced information, improved data dissemination and visualization technologies, and the ability to conduct meetings unconstrained by location or time, will facilitate increased public access to government information. Continually improving technology and the increased sophistication of planners and the public they serve will allow computer-based planning, analysis, and evaluation models to take their place at the center of planning practice. Together they will provide the foundations for new modes of planning which more directly involve the public in the fundamental public policy choices that help shape their communities. Only time and professional practice will tell whether this potential is achieved.


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