Omnibus: Becoming a Good Sustainability Planning Practitioner

18th October 2010

Session 2: 2.45 - 3.45

Introduction to Sustainability Planning Tools - Planning Support Systems


In this session we examine the development and use of models in sustainability planning. Together a suite of models is sometimes referred to as a Planning Support System (PSS), a sub-set of Decision Support Systems (DSS) in that they focus on models and software that can assist in the various steps and tasks of planning. This is a huge and rapidly changing field. One where discussion can quickly become highly technical. This brief look will give you a sense of the evolving landscape and a few glimpses of its complexity. Think about the questions on the agenda as you are exploring the readings and links below.


For a most appropriate and accessible introduction to this topic through an example, take a look at the summary of MetroQuest and then go to their web site, where you will find a summary presentation and you can test out the on-line version of their system that has been developed for the City of Guelph. You will see that this is a product first developed under John Robinson's leadership at UBC and then spun off to a company, Envision, for further development and application by his students and early applications were to Greater Vancouver and the Lower Fraser Basin. You might be interested in a review of this earlier version.


Another example of a PSS that is beginning to be widely used is CommunityViz. Take a look at their introductory video that includes Scenario 360, Site Builder 3D and how it works with Google Earth. There is also a video with more detail on exporting to Google Earth along with a number of additional videos demonstrating other capabilities of the software. (Note you may need Plugins to play these videos. You can easily get them by clicking on the button on the top right "Install Missing Plugins.." On my Mac it automatically recognized which Plugin I needed and then led me through the simple download process. Once it was installed on my machine the videos worked fine but I had to do two things: (i) move to the extreme right of my screen to see the window for the video and then (ii) double click anywhere in that window to start the video running).


Geographic Information Systems (GIS) are now used extensively and often parts of other systems. If you would like to read a basic description go to ESRI the major company which produces ArcGIS and look at What is GIS? You can follow their links for further information. The US Geological Survey has a more detailed introduction to GIS if you are interested. ArcGIS is the software taught in PLAN 548W.


For a thought-provoking overview of PSS read Michael Batty's 2007 paper Planning Support Systems: Progress, Predictions and Speculations on the Shape of Things to Come His bio is worth a look and the Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis (CASA) that he founded at University College London is doing fascinating work, as you will discover from his paper and can learn more about from the rich resources available on their site including working papers (e.g. Batty's 2007 paper above), website links (e.g. London Air Quality) and videos on You Tube (e.g. it led me to Panorama in Google Earth, check out their example flying through London). Batty introduces much of this in his paper. Follow the links he provides.


Land Use Transportation Models (LUTMs) have long been a major focus of modeling in planning as you will read in Batty's paper. A 2008 paper in the Journal of Planning Literature, Models of Transportation and Land Use Change: A Guide to the Territory provides a good overview. Begin by reading the opening pages (323-325) and then the last two sections - Resolved and Ongoing Model Issues, and the Conclusions (335-338). If you want an introduction to each of the major types of models then read the first few paragraphs for each of the sub-sections on them. This will help in explaining Batty's references to major types of models including "agent-based modeling (ABM)" and "cellular automata".

Box City

There are also low cost, appropriate technology approaches to modeling that don't involve computers and that can be very powerful. Take a look at one of my favorites Box City.

New Tools for Community Design and Decision-Making

Finally, you might also want to look at this site created by Peter Katz to showcase a wide variety of modeling approaches that have been created by firms and researchers to support planning processes.


  1. What is a Planning Support System?
  2. What in general are the challenges in using computer-based modelling in PSSs?
  3. Who participates and how in PSSs?
  4. In your case study (a) what kind of PSS is being used and (b) how are they used in each of the "steps" of the planning model(s) being used?
  5. What is your present state of literacy with respect to PSSs? What level of literacy do you aspire to before graduation? In what areas do you aspire to competency?