Tuesday, November 18, 2014
State of Plains - by Jessica A. Shoemaker
On this theme of public participation in land use planning and creating community-driven solutions to ecosystem-level challenges, I want to take this post to share a bit more about a particular tool that I have been working on developing called Plainsopoly. Plainsopoly is a land use simulation “game.” Participants engage around a large game board made up of an image of a hypothetical landscape that looks similar to, but is not exactly, a real space within the Great Plains region. We call the hypothetical space of the game the “State of Plains.” The State of Plains is depicted on the board by an amalgamation of aerial images including the edge of a large city, several small towns, both irrigated and dryland farming areas, the foothills of a larger mountain range, sensitive sandhills habitat, a winding river, and a recognized federal Indian reservation. Participants play the game in small, randomly assigned groups of four to six people and are assisted by a table facilitator. Players roll the dice, move the game piece to a correspondingly numbered geographic square on the game board, and then answer and discuss an open-ended question that poses a specific land use challenge for that particular space.
The questions are intentionally wide-ranging. I developed the question set last year with invaluable input and feedback from a great and generous interdisciplinary group of law students, graduate students, professors, and other experts from across the University and beyond. We incorporated a range of disciplines, including law, planning, natural resources, applied ecology, business, and economics, and as a group, we worked hard to make sure the most difficult and provocative current land use challenges in the Great Plains are incorporated into the game. (Two of my students, Jerry Jefferson and Preston Peterson, were particularly instrumental in this process.) In the current question set, there are questions and challenges relating to urban growth; rural depopulation; infrastructure needs; drought and other climate issues; tourism; new energy siting, including fracking, renewables, and transmission line expansion; invasive species control; water quality and quantity; jurisdictional conflicts; and many other topics.
In addition to covering a wide spectrum of substantive issues, the questions are designed to touch on four bigger themes: (1) Values (values choices as reflected in land use), (2) Making Connections (who should make decisions about land use and land use planning and at what level), (3) Ecosystem Services (how public benefits from private land, especially environmental benefits, are valued and accounted for in land use ordering and landowner decision-making), and (4) Temporal Perspectives (which timeframe land use planners and landowners should consider in assessing the consequences of any land use decision). These four themes are not explicitly addressed during game play; however, the questions are designed implicitly to provoke thinking and dialogue around these larger issues.
This Plainsopoly project came about only because of Professor Alister Scott and his group’s original idea for a land use planning, decision-making, and visioning game that they call Rufopoly. Rufopoly is a game focused on the unique landscapes of the rural-urban fringe spaces of Europe, and the themes of our questions grew out of Professor Scott’s work with stakeholders in this context. In developing Plainsopoly, we collaborated closely with Professor Scott of the Birmingham School of the Built Environment in the United Kingdom and Professor Richard Wakeford, who is currently directing the Kazan Centre in Russia and was previously the Chair of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Rural Working Party.
As many readers of this blog may know, the use of games or other simulation exercises is an area of increasing scholarly interest in a range of disciplines, including public engagement and political science studies, natural resource management and applied ecology, psychology, business, and behavioral economics. (For a few brief examples, particularly in the natural resources sector, you might look here and even here.) Although our Plainsopoly tool has been used purely for informal discussion facilitating at invited events to date, it may also have broader potential. My sense is that the game could be used to speed participants’ learning about complex land use interactions and may provoke a valuable period of self-reflection regarding resource and planning challenges across the region. As one participant in one of the Plainsopoly games at the Rural Futures Conference last year said, the game forced him to think not only about his “little piece of land” but also about everyone else’s lands around him: “I was forced to give opinions on what somebody else should do with their little piece of land. You have to challenge yourself at that point and say, if it’s good for them, maybe I have to relook at my opinion about others giving opinions about my land. It’s a very interesting way of taking a landowner and suddenly forcing me to reevaluate my position regarding my piece of ground.”
I have also found that the experience of engaging in a shared, civil dialogue around the game table on hypothetical (but still very realistic) topics that are otherwise highly charged and sometimes difficult to discuss (like private property rights, community planning, and actual land use conflicts) may have significant value in and of itself. There is something very provocative about talking about these actual resources issues in the context of just a slightly modified hypothetical game setting that seems to really liberate people to have a much more open and comfortable conversation on these issues. If we could effectively shape and harness this, I think games like Plainsopoly and Rufopoly could have very useful applications in assisting particular groups in solving real-world problems or developing consensus around specific planning challenges, and in an action-research model, these games might be used to help inform future policy making.
I’ve noticed two big themes in the few times we have played Plainsopoly to date. First, overwhelmingly, participants envision a land use future focused on a very long-term view of sustainability and a vast appreciation for the non-economic values of natural resources. At least in this hypothetical space, a vast majority of participants seem to prefer decisions that are not made based on short-term economic gains and that consider not just one square parcel of property but rather look to an entire region’s interlocking resource dynamics. Of course, in this game space, immediate things like grocery bills and retirement savings accounts do not exist, and the transaction costs of considering issues at a regional level are dramatically reduced. But still, how do we, or could we, translate what appear to be relatively broadly shared values like this into more actual community action?
The second major notable point of interest for me, so far, is implicit in how we designed the game, but it also comes up very often in participants’ reactions to the questions. This relates to the extreme breadth of the range of factors that potentially influence an individual landowner’s decision-making about how he or she uses his or her land. Often, we might think more simply of land use planning and zoning as the relevant forces; however, the game reminds us that so many different law and policy instruments influence landowners—including, as just a few examples, our crop insurance structures, property tax systems, and energy markets. A much harder issue is not only how do we develop a shared vision for the future of these shared spaces but, more importantly, how do we execute it? A persistent theme emerging anecdotally from the game play to date is the way in which top-down strategies have a host of unintended and mix-matched interactions that complicate decision-making and implementation at the ground level. How do we better coordinate these influences?
Happily, we have the opportunity to explore the potential of games like Plainsopoly and Rufopoly to address these and other issues in a more concentrated way over the next year or so. We are just embarking on a new partnership with Professor Scott and several others on a Knowledge Exchange Opportunities grant that we just recently learned has been approved from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) in the UK. The goal of the new grant is to learn from the existing models of Rufopoly and Plainsopoly and another sister game in Sweden and think intentionally about all of the possibilities of this kind of planning, visioning, and decision-making tool. One end goal is to try to develop a flexible resource kit that maximizes the potential of these tools to assist in planning processes and that hopefully is adaptable to a range of settings.
As I am entering this new work, I’ve become an eager student of some new areas of scholarship. For example, I’ve been doing some great reading on critical planning theory as it relates to whether we currently include all of the relevant voices in our typical planning processes and how, if we did achieve greater inclusiveness, such careful collective decision-making about the future of our shared spaces may be powerfully transformative. I have also been looking at the work of others on effective and innovative new governance models. This list includes, for example, Professor Beth Noveck and The Governance Lab at NYU; the procedural justice and group engagement work of Professor Tom Tyler; and the thinking on deliberative democracies and the capacity for informed “bottoms up” decision-making by Professor James Fishkin and the Center for Deliberative Democracy at Stanford. It’s all fascinating stuff, which I also read with a healthy and growing awareness of the potential framing influence of the person who poses the questions – as reflected, for example, in the “nudge” work of Professors Cass Sunstein, Richard Thaler, and others.
I would more than welcome any other thoughts, comments, or ideas as we embark on further work on this endeavor. I’m eager to see where it takes us.
(This last picture has nothing to do with the game, per se, but it's my little girls running in a preserved prairie not too far from our house. One of many special places in the Great Plains worthy of some intentional thinking for its future.)
- Jessica A. Shoemaker