Monthly Archives: January 2013

Updating Planning’s Qualitative Methodologies for a Digital Future

“The future has always been an integral concern for urban planning,” Noah Raford (PhD, ‘11) notes in his dissertation. One tool that planners have long used to help communities envision the future is qualitative scenario analysis. This involves having skilled experts help participants delineate the many possible futures that a community may face, the key factors that might lead to each, and the ways of ensuring that the most desirable futures can be realized.
Scenario analysis has long been a useful tool for planners, but it resides in a toolbox that is rapidly changing. As planners increasingly utilize digital technology and the connectivity provided by the online world to do their jobs, what implications will this have for more traditional methods like scenario analysis? Put more succinctly, what is the future of telling the future?
Noah delves into this question by testing the first generation of “participatory online collective intelligence systems.” He creates two web-based tools that replicate the key elements of scenario planning using a digital, online format. One tool helps to assess and visualize the linkages that changes in climate around the world might have on our lives. The second asks users to submit personal stories about the problems facing cities. He then shows how they can be coded using predefined variables. This allows them to be combined into cohesive scenarios.
In his dissertation, Noah compares the results and effectiveness of these methods to traditional scenario analysis. He confirmed that web-based participatory methods were valuable in helping participants envision the linkages underlying scenario analysis. The planning field could build on this initial foray into web-based scenario analysis to create most robust ways of charting a shared future. Read more about it in Noah’s dissertation.

Carbon Capture and Storage: Coal Industry Myth or Clean Energy Solution?

Sunset Over the Fisk Coal Fired Plant (Photo Credit: vxla, Creative Commons license, is the backbone of the American electric sector. It fuels half of the country’s electricity generation and it is cheap and readily available in places like Wyoming and West Virginia. Coal also accounts for approximately 40% of the country’s carbon dioxide emissions.

In the hope of perpetuating the use of a cheap and secure fuel, fossil fuel interests and their allies have urged the development of subterranean CO2 sequestration using a technology called Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS). The coal industry has branded CCS as a “clean coal technology” and has depicted it as a solution to climate change that will allow the country to continue to burn coal without emitting CO2. Utilities, industry and the government have pledged billions of dollars for clean coal projects. 

Support for “clean coal” went all the way to the top: President Barack Obama advocated for it during his first presidential campaign, saying, “This is America, we figured out how to put a man on the moon in ten years. You can’t tell me we can’t figure out how to burn coal that we mine right here in the United States of America, and make it work.” Even some environmental advocacy organizations, such as National Resources Defense Council, have supported CCS.

In her thesis, Rachel Henschel (MCP ’09) investigated the impacts of Carbon Capture and Storage and the reasons behind the support is has received from politicians and environmental groups, and concluded that CCS does not make sense. First, the technology cannot be built and scaled in time to mitigate climate change. Additionally, CCS will be so expensive that utilities have not been willing to invest in it. It also poses serious environmental and health risks such as water source contamination, earthquakes, and death by asphyxiation. Read more about Rachel’s conclusions in her thesis here, and share your opinion on EPP’s Facebook group.

Seattle’s Long Journey to Interurban Rail

Seattle Sound Transit (Photo Credit: Transportation for America, Creative Commons license, the “Emerald City” for its lush evergreen forests, Seattle has a reputation as a forward-thinking and environmentally-minded city. However, even in the progressive Pacific Northwest, powerful institutional barriers can materialize to oppose environmental planning efforts. Kim Foltz (MCP ’10) tells the story of Seattle’s decades-long flirtation with interurban rail and reveals the great difficulty with which progress has been made.

Transportation planning is one of the most intractable problems in sustainability. Transport systems are incredibly complex and deal with multiple and diverse barriers in the realms of finance, logistics, and politics. Also, because they often depend on special tax increases, large transit projects are generally subject to voter approval. Beginning in the mid-1990s, transportation planners in the Seattle area tried to establish public support for a light rail system through the electoral process. Transit advocates have made incremental electoral gains over the years–most recently in 2008–but as Kim shows, these victories have been hard-won and reflect the resistance that planners face in securing public mandates for ambitious projects.

Kim demonstrates the vulnerabilities that transit planners were subject to in the political process. Politically savvy rail opponents were initially able to hijack the public conversation by framing the region’s transportation problem solely as one of congestion, favoring new road-building campaigns and ignoring mass transit’s environmental benefits. Additionally, the need for public support throughout a three-county area led to competition among the various cities involved in the interurban rail project. These problems were exacerbated by what was originally a poor public outreach campaign on the part of the transit agency, and have resulted at several points in watered-down plans and concessions to political opponents. While transit advocates were eventually able to build support for a rail system in the Seattle area, the political process that led to their ultimate victory was exhausting and time-consuming.

In her thesis, Kim weighs the benefits and drawbacks of making planning decisions through the ballot box. Read more here, or engage in a discussion about the public’s role in planning on EPP’s Facebook group.

Designing Environmental Markets for Real Water Users

Photo Credit: Texas A&M AgriLife Today (Creative Commons license,

Due in large part to years of heavy irrigation, the portion of the Arkansas River that cuts through southeastern Colorado is one of the most saline rivers in the United States. This has dangerous environmental and agricultural implications, and is complicated by the state’s strictly regulated system of water rights. Increasingly, policymakers seek to resolve natural resources problems such as these by creating water quality trading markets that offer financial incentives for environmental protection. However, these markets have generally underperformed, threatening to leave us with the unsatisfactory options of inaction or costly technological solutions.

Beaudry Kock (DUSP PhD ’10) believes that a market-based approach can work, but that it must be reoriented to reflect the reality of social and economic interactions. Policymakers typically design environmental markets by assuming that actors will behave in an economically rational manner, but in practice that is often not the case. Financial self-interest is rarely the only factor that individuals consider, and they are often unable to determine what the lowest-cost decision will be before acting. Instead, decisions are often based on precedent, recommendations from friends and colleagues, or other factors that fall outside the bounds of rational choice theory. Environmental markets need to address complex motivations, and Beaudry’s dissertation lays out a way to do this.

Through a collaborative fact-finding process involving local stakeholders, Beaudry shows how to reduce salinity levels in the Lower Arkansas Basin by as much 10%. He finds that, by implementing a package of incentives, policymakers can address the diverse preferences of the market. Some actors respond best to traditional financial incentives while others are more likely to be swayed by improved information regarding the financial and environmental consequences of their previous decisions or by social network interventions that take advantage of various community ties. Beaudry shows how environmental markets can succeed by appealing to various triggers—both rational and irrational—of human behavior. Read Beaudry’s dissertation here to learn more about his recommendations and share your thoughts with EPP’s Facebook group.

Three Companies + Three Different Approaches = One Big Loss for the Environment

Althabasca Oil Sands copyOil and gas mining are big business in resource-rich Alberta, due largely to the province’s Athabasca Oil Sands. Nathan Lemphers, (MCP ’09) looked at the region’s three major mining companies and found surprising variation in their environmental records. Each company had its own strengths and weaknesses in stakeholder involvement, environmental protection, and operational transparency, revealing a lack of uniformity that Nathan credits to lax environmental regulation by the provincial government.
Environmental regulation in Alberta has had a shaky and inconsistent history, and oil-mining companies today have poor guidance from regulators, lax monitoring, and inadequate enforcement penalties and incentives. The absence of a strong regulatory framework has granted companies agency in determining their own approaches to environmental protection, but they are not above the influence of external forces. Environmental advocacy groups, First Nations communities, and the international media all put pressure on mining companies to adopt environmental protections, and the resulting variation in corporate responses reflects differences in how these companies have strategically responded to this pressure. Nathan identifies several factors, such as corporate organizational structure and a preference for a good public image, that dictate the priorities that corporations hold in taking environmental action.
As Alberta’s mining industry continues to grow, the provincial government must step in and establish clear guidelines for companies to follow in adhering to environmental regulation. Nathan lays out three areas of focus that must be addressed in order to restore the credibility of Alberta’s environmental regulators. The first is the transparency of data and the methods used to gauge environmental impacts and health. The second is a more robust environmental monitoring program that resolves the flaws in the current process. The third is improved enforcement mechanisms that guarantee that regulations are followed. Read more about Nathan’s conclusions in his thesis.