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From Uncertainty

to Resiliency


  1 Goodspeed, Robert. “Scenario Planning: Embracing Uncertainty to Make Better Decisions”, Policy Brief — Lincoln Institute of Land Policy (2019). 

2 Holway, Jim. Opening Access to Scenario Planning Tools. Cambridge, MA: Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, 2012, 38-39.

In the twenty-first century, rapid urbanization and climate change have further exacerbated the onslaught of environmental and health crises affecting cities. Despite historical data and prior experiences with crises, many current resilience efforts are largely still in response to - instead of in preparation for - hazardous events. Furthermore, efforts often ignore local voices and stakeholders when considering how to best meet the needs of a devastated community. Learning from the past, modern-day planners should embrace scenario planning for preparedness, leveraging both geospatial technologies and participatory engagement to bolster community resilience. 

Scenario planning embraces a proactive approach to enhancing resilience. By placing uncertainty at the heart of the process, scenario planning calls upon actors to identify, prioritize, and analyze critical variables facing communities, and consider how internal and external forces may affect alternate futures.​[1] In contrast to longer-term, comprehensive planning approaches that often ignore uncertainty, scenario planning offers the flexibility so critical to building resilience.
Planning frameworks that ignore uncertainty tend to promote the status quo. Especially in the face of disasters, thinking of resilience planning as a way to prepare cities to return to the status quo is flawed: it fails to consider the possibility that previous conditions were unsuitable. Furthermore, returning to previous conditions often ignores local voices and community stakeholders when considering how to best meet the needs of a devastated community. By contrast, scenario planning emphasizes inclusion and collaboration, pairing planning expertise with community input throughout the process. Focusing on desired futures (through more normative scenarios) or several hypothetical futures (through exploratory scenarios), planners and relevant community actors embrace uncertainty to consider implementation processes at various spatial scales. 

While scenario planning does not require the use of digital tools in practice, modern-day spatial technologies can streamline robust geospatial data processes, thereby facilitating scenario development. In geospatial systems modeling, planners can simulate alternative futures by incorporating a variety of data types and processing large amounts of information. For example, simulations incorporating historical data around land change and sea-level rise coupled with existing terrain conditions and socioeconomic data can help planners pinpoint vulnerable areas at risk of storm damage. While using data from the past to prepare for the future is imperfect, systems modeling can provide the needed speed and processing power to efficiently run complex scenario simulations. The collaboration between planners and community stakeholders in model development is crucial, pairing domain expertise with local context to better tease apart inputs and understand nuances. 

While the GIS technology landscape today is largely proprietary - with collaborative platforms like CommunityViz as extensions to ESRI’s ArcGIS suite - some tools have shown recent movement towards an open-source approach.[2]  Envision Tomorrow, for example, deployed a web-based version of their toolkit to broaden access to scenario development capabilities.[3] There are also opportunities for geospatial analysis and technical knowledge-sharing outside of commercial platforms. These include robust open-source software programs like QGIS, workflows using the R programing language for statistical modeling, and even simple spreadsheet functionality. For smaller communities without the budget allowance or personnel capacity, these lighter weight technologies may be the best solutions and provide lower barriers to entry. Regardless, with collaboration at the heart of the scenario planning process, it is important for planners - as well as scenario tool developers - to consider ways to bridge the access gap.


Several communities in Michigan are situated on lake coastlines. However, with unpredictability around lake water fluctuations exacerbated by climate change, coastal areas are becoming increasingly susceptible to flooding and erosion from rising waters. The City of Grand Haven and Grand Haven Charter Township partnered with the University of Michigan and the nonprofit Land Information Access Association (LIAA) to leverage scenario planning to inform coastal management policies and enhance flood resilience.

The multidisciplinary team of planners and researchers collaborated on a process to craft three “climate futures,” relying on readily accessible public data on historic water levels and FEMA flood risk zones.[4] The team then tested each future against three different local management options, creating an array of nine scenarios to explore differing impacts on land use and environmental conditions.[5] While geospatial tools facilitated the technical side of scenario development, the team also relied on community input through sessions with residents and consultation with local government actors. 

This scenario planning process culminated in recommended strategies for assessing and preparing for local flood risks. Both jurisdictions adopted coastal management policies into their master plans to different extents. The City of Grand Haven, for example, revised its master plan to include coastal management policies aimed at protecting the waterfront, a major tourism destination. In 2018, the City also adopted a beach overlay district and extended shoreline protection measures in high-risk erosion areas, using the satellite imagery and data analyses behind the potential futures to bolster support for regulations.[6] In the Grand Haven Charter Township, the process led to consideration of proposals for seawall prohibition and construction regulations.[7] 

The collaborative, multidisciplinary nature of the project steered its success. Local officials in both jurisdictions embraced the consultant-led process, drawing upon external domain expertise and technical assistance to guide scenario development and prioritization. The process also leveraged constituent input to better understand local conditions and inform decision-making. In each case, scenario planning helped the communities understand the range of possible futures, and equipped local actors with data-driven analyses and recommendations to bolster coastal resilience in the face of uncertainty. 

In the face of change and uncertainty, planners are well suited to play a crucial role in enhancing overall city resilience. Through leveraging their domain expertise and experiences with modern spatial technologies, opportunities exist for planners to meaningfully engage with community stakeholders and partner with organizations and city officials to prepare for future scenarios. Predicting the future is impossible, but by embracing scenario planning methods, planners can leverage spatial technologies alongside community collaboration to enhance resilience.

A Call to Embrace Scenario Planning 



Aerial view of flooding in New Orleans four days after Hurricane Katrina made landfall.

Source: Gary Nichols/U.S. Navy, Wikimedia, September 2005 

Flood waters from the Mississippi River ruined cornfields for the year in Quincy, Illinois.

Source: Photo by Robert Kaufmann/FEMA, Wikimedia, June 2008.

Jenna Epstein is a first year Master of City Planning student concentrating in Smart Cities. After graduating in 2016 from Washington University in St. Louis with a degree in International Development and French, she worked as a Project Manager and Data Analyst in Washington, DC. She is passionate about using data and technology to support communities and build more resilient cities.

By Jenna Epstein


3 “Envision Tomorrow Online.” Envision Tomorrow. Accessed February 2021. 
4 “City of Grand Haven 2016 Master Plan” and “Planning for Coastal Resiliency in Grand Haven Charter Township.” Land Information Access Association, as part of the Resilient Grand Haven project, 2016. Both plans accessed via 
5 Ibid. 

6 Zehner, Emma. “Great Lakes Communities Use Scenario Planning to Prepare for Rising Waters.” Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, January 15, 2020. 
7 Ibid.

Aerial view of wildfires burning in Yosemite National Park. Wildfire resiliency is another area of where geospatial technologies can assist with scenario planning efforts and priorities.

Source: Photo by Mike Lewelling/National Park Service, Wikimedia, August 2013


Waves crashing against the lighthouse and pier at Grand Haven State Park. Flooding is a frequent concern for the City of Grand Haven and Grand Haven Township on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan.

Source: Photo by James Peacock, Unsplash, November 2017.

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