Scenario Based Planning as a Foundation for Developing Comprehensive Municipal Plans

By: John Smit BES MCIP RPP (former Director of Economic Development and Long Range Planning – City of Ottawa)


Preparing and maintaining a comprehensive municipal plan is foundational to city planning practice.  These plans are developed through a public process to set a policy framework intended to provide direction for how a city will evolve and grow.  The underlying focus of these plans is to ensure the long-term prosperity and social well being of the city, with an emphasis on the city’s physical attributes and how these may need to change over time to support the development of strong, sustainable and resilient communities, a healthy environment and a competitive local economy. Because these plans are developed with a high degree of uncertainty, to remain relevant, they are subject to ongoing review, usually every 5 years, and adjustment to reflect changing objectives and priorities.    

In Canada, the responsibility for planning within municipal jurisdictions is conferred by the provinces to local municipal councils through legislation that sets out the authorities and responsibilities of a municipal council for planning within their jurisdictions. All provincial legislation enabling municipalities to undertake planning provides for municipalities to develop comprehensive municipal plans with many also setting out the matters that can be addressed in such plans. 

Traditional practice for developing or up-dating comprehensive municipal plans focuses on understanding what has occurred in the past and extrapolating that into the future, also known as forecasting, to determine the focus of policy directions that need to be established to set direction for managing a municipalities continued growth.  More recently, the development or up-dating of municipal plans has been focused on engaging with various stakeholder groups to develop a vision for what the municipality aspires to achieve over the period of the plan and using this vision as the basis for developing policies and directions towards achieving that vision over the life of the plan.   In practice, the forecasting and visioning approaches are commonly merged where the visioning is informed by understanding how a municipality is forecast to grow with respect to variables such as population growth, employment growth, and infrastructure requirements.    

Scenario Based Planning is emerging as a new means for cities to begin to understand how to position their comprehensive municipal plans to effectively respond to the rapid changes that are influencing the matters that municipalities need to consider to effectively develop policies to guide and manage growth within the increasingly complex world of the 21st century.  Scenario based planning deviates from the two more traditional approaches that have been the mainstay of planning practice.  It is focused on identifying possible or plausible futures, rather than forecasted or desired futures and is directed at understanding both positive and negative aspects of potential scenarios.  The purpose of scenario-based planning is to lay a foundation for understanding what the municipality needs to do to be adaptable and resilient to known, somewhat known and unknown influences or drivers of change that will impact cities within an increasingly complex and connected world.  The following capsulizes the main differences between the more traditional forecasting and vision approaches and scenario-based planning.


Scenario based planning can be characterized as a type of long-range planning that purposely deals in a high degree of uncertainty where it is unknown if the current trends will continue to hold, and where the impacts of change, whether economic, environmental, social or technological, are difficult to understand given the rapid rate of change on many fronts that cities are facing globally.

Scenario based planning is a strategic planning tool to define and examine different plausible future outcomes for cities.  This in turn helps to inform the policies and directions that cities should be setting out in their comprehensive municipal plans to be resilient and adaptable to differing future conditions as they emerge. Scenario based planning acknowledges the uncertainties inherent in long-range planning, including emerging disruptions and drivers of change that can be global, national, and local in scale and/or impact.

Forecasting, as an approach to long-range planning, becomes problematic when rapid uncertain change drivers begin impacting the trajectory of current trends and the increasing risk of disruptors.  Visioning exercises, as an approach to long range planning identifies desired futures that a plan aspires to achieve. Like forecasting, seeking to attain a desired future based on qualitative objectives defined at a point in time can become problematic where new disruptions arise that may undermine the qualitative objectives underlying the vision

In response to the inherent challenges for long range planning with forecasting and visioning, scenario based planning is directed to presenting a more balanced account of the future and allows a municipality to consider (and respond to) plausible events that it may or may not wish to see materialize. The scenario based planning process is purely descriptive and outlines what the future may hold as well as possible planning considerations that may need to be addressed through comprehensive municipal plans. In this context, scenario based planning does not recommend specific policies or identify priorities. Rather, priority setting and policy development would take place through the development of a municipality’s comprehensive plan and other corporate and strategic plans that are informed by an assessment of the possible scenarios that have been identified and the nature of policies and directions that might need to be adopted to help decision makers determine how to adaptively manage change and growth in way that can capitalize on opportunities that may present themselves and mitigate against adverse impacts. 


The use of Scenario based planning in long-range city planning, while gaining interest amongst the planning profession, is very much evolving with some jurisdictions beginning to explore how scenario-based planning could help inform the development, or up-dating, of comprehensive municipal plans.  The City of Ottawa is one such jurisdiction where a decision was made to explore how to develop a new Official Plan for the City that breaks away from past practices of having the plan developed using forecasting and visioning techniques, to identifying possible scenarios for what the City could plausibly evolve into over the next century. Part of the driver for taking this approach was to change the conversation from quantitative and qualitative considerations to be addressed through the official plan to considerations that derive from examining known, somewhat known and unknown drivers of change and disruptors in setting a foundation for developing a new official plan for the City.  The scenario based planning study undertaken by the City was referred to as Ottawa Next: Beyond 2036.   

The underlying goal of the Ottawa Next: Beyond 2036 study was to identify the forces that will shape Ottawa over the next century, recognizing that the city is expected to double in size within the next century, and to help position the City to build both resiliency and adaptability into the next Official Plan. In order to carry out this goal and to address the high level of uncertainty of the city’s long-term future, the Ottawa Next: Beyond 2036 scenario based planning study focused on:

  • identifying the main drivers of growth (not just trends), drivers of change and disruptors dealing with social, economic and environmental considerations among others (shorter and longer term) that will or can be expected to influence the city beyond the typical 20 or 25 year planning horizon used for comprehensive municipal plans;

  • identifying possible future scenarios, which extend beyond the normal planning time-frame and that arise from the identified drivers and disrupters (these as noted might be known, somewhat known or may not yet be known, but could be contemplated (global pandemics or global geo political shifts can fall into this category); and

  • identifying planning considerations that will allow the City to continue to create complete communities and be resilient and adaptable to future change regardless of where it many be coming from – social, economic, geo-political, environmental.

The study involved undertaking a critical review of the municipality’s  growth management principles and practices to determine if they provide the City with the tools to successfully adapt to future change in an increasingly complex world and to successfully manage a doubling of the size of the City within the next century. Future scenarios where then developed based on identifying key drivers of change and disruptors to understand possible emerging social-economic futures, emerging technologies and their impacts on future conditions, and changing environmental conditions to highlight three key areas of focus.  These scenarios helped to identify areas that the municipality would need to address to be responsive to potential future change – known, somewhat known and potentially unknown. Opportunities to improve responsiveness to these changes serve as the basis for identification of policy considerations in the development of the Municipality’s new comprehensive plan (and its other strategic planning documents such as infrastructure, transportation, housing, greenspace, etc that are outside an Official Plan) to ensure that the City could continue to remain fiscally sustainable, thrive and adapt in each scenario and to inform the broader public discussion and the development of an up-dated growth strategy for the city through its comprehensive (Official) plan.

The City of Ottawa is currently in the process of developing its new Official Plan which is being grounded on five big moves that derive from understandings achieved through the Ottawa Next Beyond 2036 study.

More information on the Ottawa Next Beyond 2036 study and the directions being developed for the City’s new Official Plan can be found on the City of Ottawa web site at    

Ottawa Next Beyond 2036 Report can be found at

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