visualization chart demonstrating visualization

What are visioning and scenario planning?

Visioning is the process of identifying a clear expression of a community's highest aspirations. A vision articulates, literally and graphically, the guiding principles upon which the community will base decisions that shape its quality of life, today and in the years to come. The vision provides a framework within which planners and decision-makers can set priorities and coordinate decisions across all elements of civic life, from transportation to education, public utilities to public health, and economic development to environmental preservation. Visioning processes have been employed to develop statewide policy plans, regional land use and transportation plans, city and county comprehensive plans, and master plans for towns, villages and neighborhoods. Ideally, visions at local, regional and statewide levels complement one another. When a community visioning process is conducted in a way that respects the visions of adjacent communities, it strengthens the ability of the region as a whole to foster and sustain healthy economic growth and strong environmental stewardship.

Visioning processes benefit from the use of scenario planning, which helps generate and evaluate alternative future growth patterns. Scenario planning is an analytical process that helps people imagine and understand how they can shape their community's story to realize a long-term vision. By analyzing various forces (e.g., health, transportation, economic, environmental, land use, etc.) that affect growth, scenario planning allows communities to test how well various future growth patterns meet their goals. The information generated during a scenario planning process includes maps, charts, and performance measures that clearly indicate the preferred locations, densities, and design characteristics of ideal growth areas, as well as areas in which growth is not desired. With this type of information on hand, communities can more easily identify needed changes to growth policies in order to support the vision, as well as potential locations for targeted implementation tools.

In sum, scenarios should enlighten and inform the visioning process, not prescribe courses of action. The vision will translate the preferred scenario into broadly understood principles. Subsequently, plans emanating from the scenario-based vision can prescribe specific actions needed to achieve the vision.

Note: This page focuses on the process of scenario planning. See Scenario Planning Analysis Tools for more information about the technical tools that can be used to support scenario planning.

Who can implement it?

Anyone can use visioning to consider long-range possibilities for how the landscape might evolve over time and to identify preferences for future growth. A vision can address an area as small as a city block or as large as the entire state. Successful community visions take into account all of these scales. Developers may use a vision as a basis for mapping out a major building project. Environmental groups may wish to use visioning to help find ways to protect sensitive lands as the community grows. Government planners can use visioning to identify and address the entire range of planning and development issues most important to the local residents and businesses they serve. A successful visioning process will lead to plans that cover a variety of scales and types, such as the following:

  • Regional and statewide visioning efforts bring local representatives and state agencies together to build consensus on overarching policies and agreements that guide local plans and decisions. They define the larger contexts for localities, particularly for those elements that span jurisdictional boundaries such as environmental features, transportation networks, and economic activity centers.
  • County and city visioning processes bring local residents and officials together with regional and state agencies in order to develop comprehensive plans and regulatory tools, such as urban service boundaries. As noted above, local visions must link values with the function and form of the built environment in order to create a tie between the vision and the implementation tools.
  • Community or neighborhood visioning processes bring together local residents and officials to craft strategies that improve a local community. They provide valuable data on local preferences and site-specific issues that can be reflected in comprehensive plans and county or regional visioning processes.

Similarly, scenario planning can be used by local communities, regional planning organizations, and statewide organizations alike. Local communities can utilize scenario planning to identify ways to manage growth and maintain local identity and unique character. The results from scenario planning exercises can be incorporated into comprehensive plans to guide future growth and development. Statewide organizations can also use scenario planning on a larger scale to receive feedback for policy plans.

What are the keys to success and potential pitfalls?

While visioning processes may vary a great deal from one community to the next, successful projects rely on partnerships, participation, and perseverance as they keys to success.

Both the development and the implementation of a community vision for future development work best when four major entities in any given community work together: government agency staff; elected and appointed officials; civic organizations: "unofficial" community leaders; and the business community. Active relationships with a wide spectrum of community members can spark new partnerships to help fund projects.

Public participation is a critical element of all visioning processes. A strong vision is the result of a structured process that brings together local residents, government staff and elected officials, and other stakeholders to talk with one another about the important issues affecting their community now and in the future. Getting beyond "the usual suspects" is important when constructing a community-based vision.

Without strong support from a majority of community interests, a vision-based plan is difficult, if not impossible, to implement. It is important to seek out diverse and/or opposing interest groups in order to avoid or at least minimize the likelihood that projects stemming from the plan will become mired in controversy and legal battles. In order to effectively reach out, inform, and engage people, the process must be well supported by people with strong skills in facilitation, education, and communication.

Some local government staff members or public officials are very good facilitators, and their participation in that role can lend the process credibility and improve its transparency. Nevertheless, sometimes, even if staffs are trained in facilitation, it is best for them to take a back seat in community meetings. It is better to bring in outside facilitators if the staff may not be perceived as neutral by all people involved, or if there is the chance they will get into the politically sensitive position of mediating conflicts between elected officials and community members.

Visioning processes that lead to comprehensive plan updates and the development of regulations and policies are complex. The community must consider a broad variety of issues and ensure that all voices are heard. In addition, strong relationships must be forged among the agencies and private sector entities that will be responsible for implementing the vision. The analysis should not be simplified, nor should the consensus-building effort rushed, in the name of getting quick results. Visions that stand the test of time are usually developed over a period of one to three years, and then monitored and refined on a regular basis as conditions change over the ensuing months and years.

Where has this strategy been applied?

Examples in Montana

  • The Envision Missoula project refers to the Missoula MPO's efforts to update its long-range regional transportation plan. Although Missoula has planned for transportation on many occasions in the past, the Envision Missoula effort represents the first time the community has combined transportation planning with creating a future vision for the community. The project began in November 2007 with a series of three interactive visioning workshops. In the facilitated workshops, the public was encouraged to brainstorm about their community using materials that represent transportation routes, new places, and open space. The results of the workshops were used to develop "what if" scenarios - competing visions of what greater Missoula area might be like with 200,000 people. The visioning workshops resulted in the creation of three scenarios for the greater Missoula area. The planning scenarios were presented at a "Planning Summit" where the public was given the opportunity to further comment on these possible futures, and indicate other preferences and priorities regarding transportation investments in Missoula's transportation plan update. Keypad polling devices were made available at public meetings to help quantify the public's preference towards a desired growth scenario.
  • The Sonoran Institute recently partnered with Rural Planning Institute on a Fiscal Impact Analysis for Gallatin County. The April 2009 study compares the cost to county taxpayers of providing road and sheriff services under two future growth scenarios. The first scenario-the "business-as-usual" scenario-continued recent growth patterns. The second scenario reviewed in the analysis incorporate rural zoning and encouraged development in and near existing communities. The analysis showed the scenario with consolidated growth patterns would translate into much less land being developed within the county as compared to recent development patterns and significant savings with respect to road construction, maintenance, and county law enforcement services over the 2010 to 2025 period.
  • In 2005-06, Sonoran Institute produced a GIS growth model representing the residential growth patterns that have evolved over the years in rural, amenity-rich areas throughout the West. Recognizing that Beaverhead County could experience the type of rural residential development occurring in neighboring counties, county officials were interested in evaluating the potential outcome of current growth patterns. The Sonoran Institute used their GIS model to help depict what the county might look like if current development patterns continue into the future and for a land use scenario that limits residential densities in prime agricultural areas.
  • Several other examples of Montana scenario planning processes are described in the Scenario Planning Analysis Tools page.

Examples outside of Montana

  • The California Regional Blueprint Planning Program is a voluntary, competitive grant program that will initiate or augment existing efforts of Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) and Councils of Government (COGs) to conduct comprehensive scenario planning that results in consensus by regional leaders, local governments and stakeholders on a preferred growth scenario - or "blueprint" - to achieve the objectives delineated below for a twenty-year planning horizon. The regional blueprint efforts include development of regional performance measures that can measure progress toward the region's own vision for future land use and transportation.
  • Idaho's Transportation Future: Getting There Together - The Idaho Transportation Department (ITD), working in partnership with transportation providers, users and stakeholders throughout the state, is developing a comprehensive and shared transportation vision for Idaho. To address the numerous challenges associated with creating such a vision, ITD has decided to engage in a unique visioning process. Guided by principles, values and common futures endorsed by a large community of stakeholders, the vision will guide and inform transportation decision-makers. The vision will be accessible to the citizens and users, and be flexible in its implementation. Most importantly it will reflect the diverse and unique needs of Idaho.
  • Envision Utah used an allocation workshop approach to develop the regional Quality Growth Scenario (and community plans). Participants at the land use scenario workshop used chips to place developments on a map of the community. Development types range from "rural" to "conservation subdivision" to "main street."

Case studies

How can I get started?

The key to getting started is to assemble a core group of residents, elected officials, professional staff, and/or business leaders who are passionate about some specific aspect of their community's health and well-being and are willing and able to take responsibility for moving a visioning process forward. This group will provide continuity and motivation as the vision is shaped and implemented. They will lead the development and analysis of information and will be responsible for logistics, outreach, and communication throughout the process.

Most scenario planning processes have a similar structure, built around four simple and straightforward questions, originally articulated in the mid-1990's by noted Oregon planning expert Steven Ames:

Where are we now?
The process should begin with an inventory of existing physical, social, and economic conditions of the community and of the values held by the people who call it home. The inventory need not be overly complex or detailed. It should set a coherent, easily understood context for the process.

Where are we going?
The critically important goal of this step is to make sure all involved have an understanding and appreciation of the most important drivers that have shaped, and will likely continue to shape, the evolution of the community. The information developed for this second step is the "inventory of future conditions," which is largely an extrapolation of those existing conditions describing both the future demographics, as well as the development patterns. This future inventory results in a "trend scenario." The effort should also take stock of adopted plans and approved development projects.

Where do we want to be?
This is the first real opportunity for the community to envision new possibilities. The challenge is constructing one or more scenarios that result in outcomes that better meet the community's values, and then building consensus on the scenario that best fits the values. It is informative to develop at least three scenarios because it allows people to see that there are several viable possibilities. Participants view the results of the scenarios and select the scenario, or combination of elements from various scenarios, that represents their strongest preferences. Based on this preferred scenario, the vision expresses the community's unique values and aspirations with a conceptual map and graphics depicting desired community types and development patterns, and a statement of principles to guide all future planning and decision-making.

How will we get there?
For a vision to be effective, it needs to be tied directly to implementation strategies. The vision should be clearly reflected in each element of the comprehensive plan, as well as relevant land development codes, subdivision ordinances, and parking requirements. Strategies must be identified not only for policies and programs, but also for necessary changes to the decision-making process.

Where can I get more information?