PlanTech and Planning Methods

Header for PlanTech Trends

The world is in constant flux and so is the planning profession. PlanTech, the technologies planners can use in their work to facilitate processes or make certain tasks more efficient is emerging as a critical element of the future of planning. Emerging methods, such as people-centric and hyperlocal planning approaches to enhance equity, or the integration of futures literacy and imagination into planning are also rising to meet the challenges of a complex and uncertain future.

Embrace PlanTech, Adapt to Change

AI-based planning tools

In addition to the expected impacts on cities and communities and the resulting effects on planners, the planning profession itself is likely to face disruption due to AI. For example, the deployment of AI systems for testing, modeling, and other use cases is growing. While most discussions on AI suggest that at least for now, AI will mainly serve to assist with specific tasks and processes instead of completely replacing the human role, the market for advanced tools that automate traditional planning tasks and processes (such as development review and zoning revision or administration) is expected to continue to grow. Planners will have to adjust their skillsets and learn how to work with these emerging AI tools and applications. For more on this, check out PAS Memo 111, "Artificial Intelligence and Planning Practice."

Acknowledging and righting historical planning wrongs

Past planning has resulted in segregation in the built environment. For example, planning professionals and elected officials intentionally used the construction of the interstate highway system to further segregate and disrupt Black and other racialized communities. In policy conversations at all levels, there has been a call to action to reconnect and restore the affected communities. Planners today will also need to consider the potential displacement and gentrification that may occur when attempting to reconnect these communities, and supplement physical linkages between communities with social and economic resources. For more information on the profession's role in highway construction and community disruption, see the December 2020 Planning Magazine article "From Urban Renewal to Highway Removal."

Commercial quadrupedal robots

Four-legged robots that look like dogs and can move around difficult terrain could become a part of the planner's toolkit soon. Similar to drones, these robots can map environments, navigate difficult terrain, and interact with objects in both the natural and built environments. Planners can consider applications for inspections and surveying in difficult terrain, maintenance of infrastructure and buildings, and emergency response or disaster recovery.

digital city twins

Digital city twins are gaining ever more attention as a useful tool for planners. Planners need to understand how these applications collect and process data, adopt processes that prevent data gaps, and eliminate algorithmic bias to ensure equitable outcomes. For more on digital city twins, check out the December 2021 issue of PAS QuickNotes 89, "Smart City Digital Twins," and "Smart City Digital Twins Are a New Tool for Scenario Planning," from the April 2021 issue of Planning Magazine.

diminished reality

Diminished reality (DR) is a form of augmented reality that hides existing elements from the physical environment. Examples for existing tools include noise-cancelling earphones or smart glasses. Planners should be aware of the potential risks related to this technology. Using smart glasses to simply cancel out anything or anyone we don't like to see might affect how society prioritizes environmental pollution, homelessness, and other challenges.

drone technology

Developments in drone technology allow for reliable surveying and real-time mapping of cities. Drones can be used by planners for surveying and real-time data collection. PAS Report 597, Using Drones in Planning Practice, is a deep dive into the existing and potential future role of drones in urban planning and design practice.

Dynamic planning

The availability of massive volumes of data (or big data) in real time allows planning to become more agile. Plans can be updated more frequently, which will allow planners to pivot and adjust more swiftly. Today, extended reality and digital twins are mainly used for visualization of plans. However, these tools can make planning more dynamic. APA's PAS Report 599, Smart Cities: Integrating Technology, Community, and Nature, explains how.

hybrid community engagement

The adoption of virtual meetings and online public engagement has been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic and the related need to physically distance. While this has resulted in more inclusivity in some cases, it has also created additional challenges related to the lack of equitable access to internet. It will be imperative for planners to consider a wide variety of needs of specific community members, including elderly people, people with visual or hearing impairments, non-English speakers, people who don't have access to broadband, and people who can't attend in person, among others. Both the challenges and benefits of the move to virtual community meetings from the perspective of planners in Fayettville, Arkansas, are discussed in the APA podcast, "Moving Planning Commission Meetings Online During the COVID-19 Pandemic: A Mid-Sized City Perspective."

ICT-enabled co-creation

Information and communications technology (ICT) enables those with internet connections to become "citizen planners" and more actively engage in planning, allowing them to directly shape their communities. This will make planning more complex and less predictable, but also more inclusive. We are seeing a global trend (driven by the development of ICT) toward increasing social self-organization, including in planning. Planning 3.0 is about citizen planners using ICT for crowdsourcing, employing open data platforms and open-source digital twins to actively participate in shaping their community's future, and planning for the individual needs and identities in the community. Even TikTok has become a place for open discourse on planning. As planning is becoming more user-driven and decentralized, planners must make sure that those who don't have internet connections can participate as well. New approaches will be needed to allow for hybrid and inclusive co-creation to make sure no one will be left behind.

Increasing complexities

With increased shifts and changes in all five trend categories and the high potential for continuous disruption, planning challenges and the task of planning are becoming ever more complex. The number of professions and industry sectors that affect the built environment is growing (e.g., ICT sector, public health, and others). For successful cross-sector collaboration, planners will need to adjust processes to allow for more interdisciplinarity, build a network of subject matter experts outside of the planning profession, and be open to explore and accept other disciplines' approaches and processes, including their professional language and jargon.

Increased need for agility

During the COVID-19 pandemic many land-use decisions had to be resolved faster than the usual processes would allow, which was made possible through emergency orders. The increasing need for agility in planning reflects the importance of considering continuous change in planning as well. Integrating foresight approaches into planning and emphasizing the use of scenario planning or design thinking methodologies are examples of how more agility can be added to planning processes. For brief overviews on agile processes that can be used in planning work, see PAS QuickNotes 90, "Design Thinking," and PAS QuickNotes 94, "Planning With Foresight." For a more in-depth exploration of design thinking, see the September/October 2021 issue of PAS Memo, "Design Thinking in Planning Practice."

Institutionalizing imagination

Constant disruption seems to be the new normal. It doesn't have to be that way, though. Disruption usually occurs due to a lack of preparedness, reactive actions instead of proactive actions, and the absence of imagination as an integral part of planning. Futures literacy and the ability to imagine multiple plausible futures, interdisciplinary collaborations, the inclusion of diverse perspectives, and the ability and openness to question dominant narratives and existing systems can help link the present and the future together more tightly and mitigate the impacts of disruptive events on our communities.

People-centric planning

The increased complexity of community challenges also affects how planners communicate with the communities they serve and the increased need for inclusion and equitable solutions. The connection to the individuals of a community is the most important link to success. Concepts such as citizen planners and participatory co-creation for more active and equitable ways of community engagement are gaining ever more traction. For one city's approach to people-centric planning, read PAS Memo 112, "The Baltimore Planning Academy: Community Empowerment Through Civic Education."

Planning for a hybrid world

Many industries have started to think about how to incorporate a hybrid world into what they do. This blend of online activities with activities in the real world seems to have become the new normal post-COVID-19. Office workers are still trying to understand what the right mix of in-office work versus remote work will be. Certain activities are best done in-person, such as team-building activities, workshops, and some meetings. Other tasks, such as desk research, in-depth focus work, programming, or similar activities, can easily (and in many cases more efficiently) be done alone at home or wherever the employee wants to work.

People-first planning and hyperlocal approaches

Learning from the past, we acknowledge that the focus of our plans should be the people who live in our communities instead of specific domains that were once defined as the traditional comprehensive plan elements. People-first planning focuses on human beings and the systems that serve them, including school systems, policing systems, food systems, and others. New comprehensive plan elements might be needed. Informal, community-based knowledges (or tacit knowledge) can help to define new focus themes, especially in underrepresented communities. Everything is interrelated, and systems thinking can help to understand the different connections between needs and community assets. To be able to include community-based knowledge in planning equitably and effectively, hyperlocal solutions are needed. Hyperlocal zoning concepts created new opportunities for housing in Sacramento; Portland, Oregon; and Minneapolis. The Swedish concept of the 1-minute city provides a hyperlocal perspective on street design and related co-creation. Planners will need to upskill and learn about people-first planning approaches that use community-based knowledge (see for example PAS Quicknotes 97, "Asset-Based Community Development") to make planning more inclusive and people-centric.

Virtual reality and game engines

The market for virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) is expected to grow substantially within the next decade. VR and AR tools can be useful to enhance the visualization of plans and policies and to make complex conditions understandable through experience. These tools can be used to help planners understand the variety of ways community members experience their city, neighborhood, public spaces, or public transit. Putting themselves into other people's shoes by experiencing their daily hurdles and constraints in virtual settings will bring planning closer to all community members and can train planners to practice empathy. Read more about VR and AR in PAS QuickNotes 98, "Extended Reality for Planning."

Zoning Reform

States and communities around the country are passing laws to loosen single-family regulations and permit alternatives such as "missing middle" housing. Planners and practitioners nationwide are discussing how this change may impact the future of zoning and housing affordability, especially how they relate to equity. To learn more about this trend, see the May 2021 APA blog post "Advocating For Zoning Reform" and the January 2018 issue of Zoning Practice, "Why Can't We Make Zoning Simpler?" For an example on how to use zoning to solve a specific equity issue, see the May/June 2021 issue of PAS Memo, "Advancing Racial Equity Through Land-Use Planning." And for information on using zoning to address trends in housing, see these issues of Zoning Practice: "Balancing Jobs and Housing in the New Economy" (October 2018), "Housing Reform Through State Legislation and Local Zoning" (June 2019), and "Modern Family: Zoning and the Non-Nuclear Living Arrangement" (May 2020).


APA's foresight research is made possible in part through our partnership with the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy.