Sustainable Places Project

Robert Paterson
Associate Professor
Community and Regional Planning
School of Architecture
rgfp@mail.utexas.edu

Sarah Wu
Grants and Projects Manager
Center for Sustainable Development
sarahwu@mail.utexas.edu

I. A Brief History of Central Texas Regional Planning

Over the last two decades, a number of plans and policies have been collaboratively developed to better promote greater livability and sustainability in the Central region with a variety of public, private and nonprofit partners. The Capital Area Texas Sustainability (CATS) Consortium Sustainable Places Project is a broad-based collaboration of public, private, academic, and nonprofit stakeholders in the Central Texas region (Austin-Round Rock MSA) that seeks to build on those previous efforts to realize more sustainable and livable urban patterns as millions more people move into the Central Texas region to live, work and play over the next two decades. The CATS Consortium includes the University of Texas at Austin, the Capital Area Council of Governments (CAPCOG), the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO), Envision Central Texas, IBM, and the Cities of Austin, Round Rock, and San Marcos. The CATS Sustainable Places Project builds on a strong tradition of regional planning and collaboration in Central Texas. Over more than a decade, the Central Texas region has involved thousands of citizens in setting new goals and policies for a better quality of life, including the following key planning initiatives. In what follows, we will first review a sampling of the past regional plans and concepts, as well as existing regional planning tools, in an effect to contextualize the current work of our Consortium, before going into detail about the project itself.

The Preferred Regional Development Scenario Concept Plan. This plan was developed by Envision Central Texas, a non-profit organization that formed to craft a more sustainable region through an extensive five- county public outreach process. The concept plan calls for more transit supportive, walkable, and compact land development and transportation patterns to better realize six key Livability Principles (http://www. envisioncentraltexas.org).

The CAMPO 2035 Plan. Adopted in May 2010, the CAMPO 2035 Plan prioritizes Central Texas’s regional transportation investments for the next twenty years and is required to be completed in compliance with federal transportation funding requirements. The plan embodies a bold new vision for our regional transportation investments. Building on the ECT preferred scenario, it sets a goal that 30% of new growth in the next 20 years be in 37 activity centers that encompass compact mixed-use centers for jobs, housing, and services, connected by both transit and roads. This integrated land- use-and-transportation approach to investment signals a huge shift for our region. Rather than basing all mobility decisions purely on travel-demand models, CAMPO now requires projects to show how they reduce congestion. Through the CAMPO 2035 Plan, Central Texas has an adopted policy to help the region move toward sustainable land use and transportation development patterns (http://www.campotexas.org/programs_plan.php).

The Austin Strategic Mobility Plan (ASMP) sets bold policy for transportation investments within the region’s largest city. The ASMP establishes measures of effectiveness based directly on the six Livability Principles which must drive all spending and projects. Significantly, a transportation bond package going to Austin voters in November dedicates 50% of dollars to non-road investments — a historic first (http://www.austinstrategicmobility.com/).

Greenprint for Growth: A Regional Action Plan for Conservation and Economic Opportunity: Spearheaded by Envision Central Texas and the Trust for Public Lands, this is a unique tool (funded in part by the Federal Highway Administration) that applies GIS mapping and modeling technology to help communities and governments guide growth and development while protecting natural, cultural, and recreational resources. The priorities for conservation goals were individually determined by each county (http://envisioncentraltexas.org/resources/CenTexReport.pdf).

Innovation Clusters Project. In recognition of these and other accomplishments, the U.S. Department of Commerce, Economic Development Administration funded one of its first innovation Clusters Projects through the Capital Area Council of Governments (CAPCOG), a voluntary association of counties, cities, and special districts that address the planning needs of Central Texas that cross the boundaries of individual local governments and require regional attention. This innovation Clusters Project is one of the nation’s first projects linking energy technology with the creation of an economic cluster of interrelated green energy businesses. CAPCOG provided funding to the Pecan Street Project, a smart- grid/ smart-home demonstration project being implemented through partnerships between Austin Energy, UT’s Austin Technology Incubator, the Environmental Defense Fund, the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, as well as Cisco, Dell, Freescale Semiconductor, GE, IBM, Intel, Oracle, Microsoft, and SEMATECH. These efforts in turn provide impetus to the emerging Greenbelt Alliance to develop the clean-economy cluster in both Austin and San Antonio.

Other elements of Central Texas regional planning spectrum that will contribute to the CATS Sustainable Places Project include the Capital Area Economic Development Strategy, the Clean Air Action Plan and Compact, Austin Climate Protection Plan, Imagine Austin Comprehensive Plan, and the Greenbelt Alliance Initiative.

The Sustainable Places Project builds on all these efforts and the lessons learned to conduct the next generation of engagement and planning for our region. This project offers a way for citizens and leaders of Central Texas to explore why sustainability is a goal worthy of their support and pursuit. Our project will demonstrate how data supports choices that create sustainable, cost effective, economically competitive outcomes for communities, while preserving the character and values that make the region’s communities unique and diverse places. We expect to forge a regional compact and other voluntary intergovernmental agreements to provide a platform for future planning decisions and investments based on the project results. The Sustainable Places Project and the CATS Consortium will be creating frequent and ongoing opportunities for sustainability capacity building and knowledge sharing.

II. The Sustainable Places Project

The goal of the Sustainable Places Project and project consortium is to produce intellectual capital that adds to the body of sustainability knowledge, technology, metrics, analytics, case studies and practical tools available nationwide. Within the CATS Consortium, the UT Center for Sustainable Development, IBM, and the City of Austin are developing a new software program, the Sustainable Places Analytic Tool, to perform sustainability analyses of future development scenarios for Central Texas communities. This tool will allow citizens and planers of Central Texas to explore how sustainable future development might be with sustainability metric reports for each alternate configuration of an urban, suburban or rural community activity center. By providing a standardized software package that each of the separate places in a region can use, this tool enables different communities to speak in the same sustainability terms when making choices, thereby elevating dialogue and coordinated planning to advance sustainability. The information generated by the modeling tool will go back to decision makers to shape local comprehensive and capital investment plans. Most importantly, it will go directly to citizens and leaders to show how livability can be attained with choices that protect and improve upon the local environment, character, and values of Central Texas’ diverse urban, suburban, small-town, and rural communities.

As a pilot initiative, we will use the Sustainable Places Analytic Tool for demonstration projects in three to six Activity Centers in order to support existing communities in creating special area plans for their own sustainable development decisions. The pilot will enable us to identify the extent to which the tool helps each community enhance its unique characteristics by investing in healthy, safe, and walkable neighborhoods co-located with appropriate employment opportunities. The demonstration projects will, in turn, provide a real-world pilot for the Sustainable Places Analytic Tool. The CATS team will use the feedback from users of the software to change content and user interface to better facilitate sustainability analysis and learning. Lessons gleaned from the demonstration projects will help not just the selected sites, but all Activity Centers in Central Texas interested in shifting toward sustainable development.

III. Existing Regional Planning Tools

Increased access to GIS and more powerful geoprocessing capabilities in recent years has led to a new generation of software tools capable of increasingly sophisticated scenario- based planning. I-PLACE3S and INDEX are two of these tools that municipalities and other organizations are increasingly employing for projects ranging from neighborhood design to regional visioning. While these tools are similar to the Sustainable Places Analytic Tool in many ways, they are also different in some fundamental ways.

I-PLACE3S. I-PLACE3S was first developed in 2002 as PLACE3S (PLAnning for Community Energy, Economic and Environmental Sustainability), a desktop-based tool created for King County, WA. This early edition of PLACE3S was created in part to capitalize on the results of Land Use, Transportation, Air Quality, and Health (LUTAQH), a study by the same organizations that tied land use and transportation decisions to health impacts, including air quality and physical activity. The goal of PLACE3S was to create a tool that would allow planners and policymakers to better understand and quantify the results of different land use scenarios. In 2006, I-PLACE3S was developed as an internet-based replacement for PLACE3S.

I-PLACE3S works by asking users to start with a base scenario of development. It then allows users to define the data parameters that describe different land use types based on existing zoning (e.g., single family residential, business commercial, etc) or proposed land use types (e.g., mixed use). Examples of data parameters include dwelling density, %age of various land uses, and transportation demand. These land use types are then “painted” into parcel-based maps of the study area. After different scenarios are created, I-PLACE3S can then compare the performance of each scenario across a variety of indicators, including energy usage, transportation mode changes, and densities. The web-based display of I-PLACE3S makes it accessible to those without advanced GIS software or experience. However, the initial setup of data required to perform these scenario analyses can be tedious, often requiring professionals with technical knowledge of both land use planning and GIS. Further, the indicators used to compare different scenarios are standardized, making it problematic for users who would like customize what indicators matter to them.

INDEX. The next tool, INDEX, is similar to I-PLACE3S. Originally conceived in 1994, INDEX was intended to satisfy a perceived need to create a tool that would allow municipalities to simplify the scenario planning process by distilling the complexity of data analysis into a fewer number of indicators that could be easily compared between scenarios, demonstrate the inter-connectedness of transportation and land use decisions and impacts, and create more objective decision-making. Like I-PLACE3S, INDEX asks the user to create land use palettes that describe existing and potential zoning categories or development patterns. However, unlike I-PLACE3S, INDEX allows users to create thresholds of maximum or minimum scores across any data point or indicator. This reliance on thresholds makes INDEX particularly useful for understanding the desirability of various scenarios in terms defined by the local user as responses to the question “what’s a good score for this indicator?” Another benefit of INDEX is its ability to let users define the relative importance of different factors to the overall score calculated for a given indicator. Further, INDEX enables users to define goals for indicators at the beginning of scenario planning and then shows how each decision impacts the overall performance of the scenario against predefined goals. INDEX can also easily show changes to different scenarios “on the fly.” This is particularly useful in community workshops or other public participation events in which real-time information can shape the dynamics of decision-making. A final distinction from I-PLACE3S is that INDEX is desktop-based, integrating directly with ArcGIS as an extension or module rather than web-based. While this requires more up-front software access and expertise, it also uses a software environment already familiar and widely used by many planning professionals.

The CATS Tool will differ in several important respects. First, some of the indicators will be based on Central Texas specific data analysis using survey data from the Sustainability Indicators Project and models developed by UT researchers that are based on local economic, energy and fiscal data. Second, the tool will run from a middleware web-interface called COGNOS that will build off IBM’s Smarter Cities program. The program will initially be used by planners but eventually have greater usability capacity for non-professional audiences as well. Third, the CATS Consortium is intent on taking this version of sustainability software to another level where pop-up windows will enable users to understand why a measure like impervious cover or jobs-housing balance is important to local sustainability concerns. It will serve an education and capacity- building function as it develops over the next three years. Finally, where knowledge and data are reasonably accessible for the analytical tool, the metrics will suggest “thresholds” beyond which the study area will actually see a decline in sustainability capacity. This kind of information facilitates a dialogue around the appropriate, sustainable level to set for thresholds for each measure the tool addresses. The CATS Consortium is excited by the possibilities for this new software to have very tangible benefits for the participating Central Texas communities participating in the demonstration projects.

IV. Project Potential and Larger Sustainability Implications for our Region

The Sustainable Places Project has the potential to demonstrate to Central Texans the benefits of sustainable development for the region. The Sustainable Places Analytic Tool and demonstration sites will allow modeling of alternate land and transportation development patterns so communities can assess the benefits and costs of different sustainable development scenarios. Early results from the project may be available for viewing as soon January 2012. If you have any questions about the project please feel free to contact Sarah Wu at the Center for Sustainable Development at sarahwu@mail.utexas.edu.