Through a grant from U.S. Department of Housing and Development (HUD), the Sustainable Places Project team developed a software tool – the Sustainable Communities Scenario Suite – to help policy leaders examine growth scenarios for activity centers across Central Texas. The innovative suite of sustainability analytics tools and indicators builds off the Envision Tomorrow open source scenario software to allow users to identify the long-term effects of various development scenarios on municipal budgets and a variety of community health and sustainability indicators. UT researchers at the CSD collaborated in this effort to expand the analytical capabilities of the software to include a locally calibrated land use fiscal impact model, new considerations for green infrastructure, a new MXD travel app that estimates impacts of the built environment on travel behavior, new social equity indicators, 3D visualization capabilities and an online platform to utilize the tools. The team also worked to improve the educational component of the software, integrating ‘pop-up’ information windows that explain the theory and underlying research behind each indicator, explaining how the measures are connected to livability concerns, as well as providing design solutions via hyperlink text to online resources.
The software was piloted and beta-tested in demonstration sites in Austin, Dripping Springs, Elgin, Hutto, and Lockhart. Civic leaders subsequently used the analyses to develop activity center plans that take advantage of alignments in housing, jobs, and transportation options in ways that complement existing community values.
Measurement and feedback to aid decision-making
Assessing and comparing different forms of development and deciding between alternatives is made operational if the choices are quantifiable and related to impacts. The analytic tool was used to estimate the impacts of different development scenarios, including the impacts on municipal budgets, as well as a myriad of important social and environmental sustainability indicators. Scenario-based planning provides an immediate feedback loop to participants on “what if” land use scenarios so that inappropriate or incompatible development can be avoided or minimized. The new software program also suggests alternative design and planning solutions for civic leaders when adverse effects of a proposed project arise in its indicator report system.
Technology to improve engagement and representation of the future
UT faculty and graduate research assistants collaborated with the Texas Advanced Computing Center to create an online public engagement software system where products from charrettes can be imported to a web template for online public participation. This effort is aimed at greatly increasing the accessibility of planning support tools to the public and increasing the opportunities for community members to participate in the planning process.
The Sustainable Communities Scenario Suite integrates the ESRI City Engine building modeling system to enable high quality 3D visualizations of development alternatives. Progress continues to be made towards the development of a City Engine coding tool that seamlessly creates 3D visualizations of development alternatives from 2D plans created using Envision Tomorrow.
Considering Green Infrastructure components of development
The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment identified urbanization as one of the leading causes of global environmental degradation. The value of supplementing traditional forms of infrastructure with green infrastructure approaches has grown rapidly in light of the cost and performance benefits that can be realized by utilizing nature’s services. UT researchers developed a method for including street trees as an urban design attribute, allowing users to prioritize planting of street trees in various development settings and select specific tree species to estimate ecosystem benefits such as energy savings from reductions in urban heat island effects, improvements in stormwater management, carbon storage and sequestration, air quality improvements, and aesthetic benefits. In addition, the City of Austin project partners developed a building-level green infrastructure tool that allows users to include green roof technology, rainwater harvesting, biofiltration and rain gardens to building types that feed into the development typologies. This tool also produces estimates of benefits including stormwater runoff reduction, energy savings, air pollutant reduction, CO2 reductions, open space and habitat provision, and water quality pollutant load reductions.
Measuring the local fiscal impacts of land use decisions
The UT-CSD research team developed a model to evaluate the fiscal impacts of various development scenarios as part of the Sustainable Communities Scenario Suite. This fiscal impact tool is based on specific detailed data developed at the local jurisdiction level (city governments, school districts, and public utility districts). Some data needed to support our local fiscal impact model (LFIM) are derived from national data sources (e.g. U.S. Census), but a majority of the needed baseline information is derived directly from local budget documents, property appraisal data, and service surveys from local government departments.
The tool can be characterized as a ‘bottom up’ approach to estimating a development project’s potential fiscal impacts, rather than a top down approach in which national or county level data are attributed to lower level jurisdictions.
Working with Fregonese Associates, the University of Utah Metropolitan Research Center, the UT Texas Advanced Computing Center, the Texas Capital Area Council of Governments, and the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, the CSD has continued to grow the software system well beyond the end of the HUD grant period in 2013, evolving eventually into the open source GIS environment. Consortium members plan to seek out additional funds to refine and continually improve the software system so that it may be a long-term resource for the Central Texas region.
For more information on the Sustainable Places Project and the Central Texas demonstration sites, including final planning reports, please visit the project website: www.sustainableplacesproject.com
For technical documentation, tutorials, GIS data, and other resources to begin using scenario planning tools, please visit the Sustainable Communities Scenario Suite website: http://scss.soa.utexas.edu/
Sustainable Places Project partner Fregonese Associates developed the original Envision Tomorrow software as an open source platform for free and customizable use. They offer up-to-date software and scenario models: www.envisiontomorrow.org
Visualizing the Urban Future with Analytics
Article from Information Week about the data visualization tools available through the SPP. September 27, 2013
$31 billion rail impact? Not quite
Article in the Austin American Statesman about an urban rail economic analysis and the SPP. September 15, 2013