Simulation models are fantastic tools for engagement

By David Maddox

A lot of recent discussion around urban planning, resilience, and sustainable cities has included ideas about community engagement. How do we get the public more engaged in urban planning in ways that are effective - that honors good design, evidence-based science and community desires? Having decided that community engagement is a good idea doesn't make it easy. My friend and colleague PK Das of Mumbai has been involved in a lot of public engagement around the expansion of open spaces, and he said something insightful. One the one hand, plopping a big plan with an elaborate drawing down in front of an audience is not exactly engagement - in fact, it can easily be a buzz kill. On the other hand, when I asked Das what for him was the biggest difficulty, he responded: "As a professional, it is resisting the temptation to try and control the proceedings; I need to relax and be a participant." So there it is. How can we meld expert opinion (and science) and non-expert opinion (just as valid, but different) in a way that honors and includes both?

I am very excited about engagement exercises that use simulation models as tools to get people talking not just about their opinions, but about the consequences of their opinions. That is, individuals or groups can sit down with a computer simulator of, say, how green infrastructure performs in storm water capture. The people can arrange green roofs, or parks, or street trees on the landscape and the model calculates for them how much storm water has been captured using their design. The science and expert knowledge are built into the inner workings of the simulator (the "black box"). Individuals can try out their designs and social ideas using the model, and have the model give some feedback about the how their ideas work. Their ideas are taken out of the realm of unverified opinion and placed in a context in which their function can be compared. You might still prefer one type of design to another, but its performance could now be part of the decision mix.

A fantastic new example of such a simulator is now available in a testing phase ("Beta") version. It is called Manahatta2409 and is an outgrowth of Wildlife Conservation Society ecologist Eric Sanderson's work to reconstruct what Manhattan island looked like in the year 1609, the year the Dutch arrived. Manhatta2409 is forward looking. You can take any section of today's Manhattan and redesign it, putting it parks, bike lanes, green roofs, streetcar lines, wind arrays, landfills, bigger buildings... anything. You can specify the behavior of the residents in your simulation: average New Yorker, average American, "Eco-hipster", etc.

Want to retreat from the shore and install barrier beaches along the periphery? OK. Want to compare street trees to parks in their storm water capture? Get to it. Want to fill Central Park with solar panels? Sure - great for carbon footprint, bad for biodiversity (don't worry, eliminating Central Park as a public space means you won't be Mayor of New York for long).

You redesign Manhattan, block by block, to your specifications and then the "black box" of the simulator calculates a variety of key sustainability statistics, such as energy use, carbon, water flow, biodiversity, human population size, etc. You can register at the website and make your own designs (or "Visions") or just check out others (there is a library of them). Warning: there is a bit of a learning curve, but investing some time, with patience, is fascinating and greatly rewarding. The creators have plans to continue improving it, including things like learning "competitions" to find to best and most productive design ideas.

Check it out. Do this:

  • Select "Existing Visions," and a popup presents a list of Visions that have already been created.
  • Scroll to the right (with the right arrow); find and click on "Terra Nova 14th Street", a redesign of the east to west length of 14 Street in lower Manhattan.
  • A box appears in the upper left; click on the little "i" button to see some information about the Vision.
  • Click on "Environmental Performance" and then "Show Details" to see how the design (the orange bar in the histogram) performs compared to the current design of the street in 2010 (brown bar), and the how the place was in 1609 (green bar).
  • Notice that this design has more people (higher density buildings) but emits dramatically less carbon and flushes zero storm water. Beware: no automobiles!

Note: Click here to go directly to the Vision.

There is a famous adage about models: "All models are wrong; some of them are useful." The designers of Manahatta2409 have created a tool that models various key elements of sustainable cities, and allows you to try out your designs and see how they perform, to compare them. It's not perfect, and it isn't exactly "real life", but as any thoughtfully and comprehensively created model does, it provides a tool to think, compare, and come to a better understanding of how sustainable cities might be put together.

Check it out. The simulator is an amazing accomplishment. And, I think approaches like this are a key element to the future of thoughtful and productive public engagement in urban planning.

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