Systems Thinking for City Planners

21 August 2019

The job of a city planner is a challenging one.  It is critical to plan over the long term—at least 25 years–  because physical infrastructure elements have long lives and decisions about them made in the present have consequences far into the future.  All of the factors need to be considered in conjunction with each other in an integrated framework. How will each of the factors interact with the others?  How will factors outside the boundary of the city systems (e.g., the national economy) influence its own plans? A systems perspective is essential to performing the functions of a city planner successfully in today’s world. 

Demographic aspects:

  • 25 years out, will the city’s population grow or shrink?  How much?
  • What fraction of the city’s population will be from the local area versus those coming from outside?
    • Will newcomers be people fleeing areas that are becoming uninhabitable?
  • What will the city’s population’s age distribution look like?
  • What will the city’s ethnic/cultural distribution look like?
  • What will the city’s education distribution look like?
  • What will be the city’s ratio of workers to non-workers?

Resident economic aspects:

  • In 25 years, what will be the employment opportunities in the city in an era of widespread AI, robotics, and automation?
    • Which of the jobs remaining will provide a comfortable income?
    • Can those jobs be sustained over the longer term?
  • What will be the cost structure for a typical resident to live in the city?
    • What will be a resident’s typical ratio of income to fixed expenses?
  • Who will be able to afford to live in the city?  Can city workers live there?

Residence need aspects:

  • In 25 years, what will be the city’s distribution of owned versus rented dwellings?
  • What will be the city’s desired ratio of family homes versus dwellings for singles and childless couples?
  • How will the city make available housing for its lower-income workers and their families?
  • What will be the city’s needs for K-12 schools?
  • What will be the city’s needs for senior facilities?
  • What will be the city’s needs for other resident support resources (e.g., physical and mental health care facilities, correctional facilities, etc.)?

City economic aspects:

  • Over the next 25 years, what will be the evolution of the city’s economic base?
  • What will the city’s budget need to be to provide the services needed?
  • What will the tax structure need to be to support that budget?
  • What assumptions should the city make about the rate of cost inflation and the rate of return on investment of its assets?
  • What subsidies will the city need to provide to various enterprises, both for-profit and nonprofit?
  • How will the nonworking population be supported?
  • How will the city deal with benefits costs (pensions, health care, etc.) for city public employees?
  • How will the city balance its budget and avoid building up debt that compounds over time?
  • How will the city fund its reserve account to keep its facilities always up to date and in good repair?

Resources aspects:

  • In 25 years, how much water will be available to the city?  Where will it come from?
  • What natural gas will be available to the city, considering the need to reduce carbon emissions?
  • How much electrical energy (e.g., in terms of megawatt-hours per day) will be available to the city?
    •  How will it be produced?  Where will it be produced?  How will the supply vary with time?
    • Will the electrical capacity be increased sufficiently to take the place of fossil fuel energy?
  • Where will food come from?  How will it be transported?
  • Where will manufactured goods come from?  How will they be transported?
  • What constraints will limit the city’s size (e.g., capacity for waste disposal)?

Environmental aspects:

  • In 25 years, what will the city’s climate conditions be like (e.g., high and low temperatures, precipitation, etc.)?  
    • How will they change from present conditions?
  • What natural hazards will the city face (e.g., drought, wildfires, hurricanes, severe storms, flooding, earthquakes, tsunamis, etc.)?  
    • How will these change from current conditions?
  • What impacts will sea level rise have on the city?
  • What pollution problems will the city have?

Infrastructure aspects:

  • In 25 years, what fraction of the city’s buildings will become obsolete and need to be replaced (e.g., due to energy inefficiency, seismic risks, etc.)?
  • What fraction of the city’s service infrastructure will become obsolete and need to be replaced (electrical distribution systems, water distribution systems, etc.)?
  • What will the city’s transportation infrastructure have to look like?  What modifications to the city’s roads and highways, parking, light rail systems, airports, etc. will need to be made?  
    • For example, consider the impacts of a transition from owner-driven gasoline-powered cars to shared self-driving electric vehicles.
  • What system hardening will the city need to undertake (e.g., protection against cyberattack and terrorism)?

Other aspects:

  • In 25 years, how will the city deal with its challenged populations (the homeless, the mentally ill, the cognitively impaired, the addicted, the severely impoverished, those with criminal records, etc.)?
  • What will be the nature of the inter-group tensions in the city?

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