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A new modelling tool to help build strong, sustainable communities

June 30, 2016
Professor Ann Dale - launches Places and Spaces modelling tool

Historically, municipal infrastructure has been referred to as ‘pipes and roads’, but now city planners  talk about ‘ideas and systems’. A newly developed model – the first of its kind in Canada – promises to break new ground on sustainable development decision making for municipal and regional governments to allow them to dig into those ideas and scenarios well before any ceremonial shovels touch the earth.

Places+Spaces is a comprehensive new computer-based platform that allows users to input various development factors including buildings, transportation, energy, water and land-use, economic and employment, education and health care. These factors are then integrated to calculate their interdependent relationships to produce various sustainability scenarios.

“Communities are faced with a gamut of wicked problems,” says Professor Ann Dale of Royal Roads University who led the project. “We needed a wicked solution to support more sustainable community decision-making and that’s where systems dynamic modelling like Places+Spaces comes in. This approach allows us to quantify relationships that are too complex to understand using mere intuition.”

The three-year project, funded by the Canada Foundation for Innovation and the British Columbia Knowledge Development Fund brought together for the first time a private sector modelling company, whatif? Technologies, with a worker’s cooperative, Sustainability Solutions Group, to help create this unique sustainability tool for local government decision makers.

Dale says in addition to their traditional sphere of responsibility for land use, taxes and services, municipalities are increasingly engaging on a wide spectrum of issues from economic development to climate change adaptation and mitigation. “Armed with more comprehensive information, and integrated outcomes, local leaders can be confident they are making more effective long-term decisions on behalf of their constituents,” she says.

“We have used the lens of sustainable development to create a tool to assess the impacts of community-scale decisions across interrelated social, environmental and economic indicators,” says Michael Hoffman, co-founder and CEO of whatIf? Technologies. “It weaves together many threads from our more than 30 years’ experience doing modelling work.”

Places+Spaces was tested in three communities: in Tofino, the impact of a growing seasonal population on water consumption was evaluated; infrastructure and service costs of planning scenarios were analyzed for the City of Moncton; and the model calculated indicators for transportation, land use, energy and population in Colwood.

“The process of collecting the data for each community was a learning experience in itself,” says Yuill Herbert, a director of SSG. “Data varies from province to province, city to city and there were many gaps identified, but we persisted and were able to build models despite these data gaps.”

The beta version of Places+Spaces has been released as an open source tool and is available as a free resource for use by all regional and municipal staff and elected leaders.

“Right now the tool is in the realm of dedicated users and we hope that over time by releasing it as open source, we anticipate developing version 2.0 which will be more user friendly,” says Dale. She adds development of the next version will be led by a new private/public sector partnership between SSG and whatif? Technologies.

“There were many hands involved in this project and people I’d like to acknowledge, including Ralph Torrie of Torrie Smith Associates who provided expert advice and two of my colleagues and graduates of the MEM program at Royal Roads, Chris Strashok and Rob Newell,” says Dale. “Although one of my most challenging research projects, I am now proud of what we accomplished due to everyone’s work and what will be achieved in the future for local government decision-making.”