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Winter 2003/2004
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Northeastern Illinois Planning Commission Regional Planning

210 Cities Paint Their Future With GIS

By Max Dieber, Director of Research Services, Northeastern Illinois Planning Commission, and Eliot Allen, Principal, Criterion Planners/Engineers

  click to see enlargement
With a touch-sensitive monitor, users in northeastern Illinois draw parcels and apply land use "paints" to create growth scenarios.

The Northeastern Illinois Planning Commission (NIPC) has completed what it believes is the largest interactive use of GIS for regional planning ever conducted in the country. NIPC is the regional planning agency for metropolitan Chicago and the surrounding six counties, containing a total of 272 municipalities. One of NIPC's primary responsibilities is maintaining a 30-year growth forecast that underpins regional transportation investments and other infrastructure planning. NIPC has a unique tradition of bottom-up, collaborative forecasting using in-person consultations in each of the affected 272 cities. These are critical sessions in which local officials and NIPC staff share development information and preferences for growth boundaries and future land use patterns.

In the past, this process was accomplished manually with participants drawing on paper maps that were converted into population and employment estimates for eventual reconciliation with regional forecast totals. Although this approach was solidly grounded in local collaboration, its manual nature was cumbersome, inefficient, and prone to error. That's when NIPC decided it needed an interactive GIS tool that could be taken to local meetings and used on the fly to capture stakeholder spatial inputs. To fulfill those specifications, and after investigating various products that could fill the bill, NIPC selected the INDEX planning support system offered by Esri Business Partner Criterion Planners/Engineers of Portland, Oregon.

A custom version of INDEX called Paint the Town was created as an ArcView 3.x extension. NIPC has used ArcInfo and ArcView for more than a decade in managing and disseminating regional information, so putting Paint the Town in place as an ArcView extension was a natural fit with its GIS activities. According to Ron Thomas, NIPC's executive director, "We've been a GIS user for many years at the regional scale, and we knew that the technology was becoming more portable and interactive, so it was a natural choice for our process."

Paint the Town is designed as an interactive tool that allows users to draw growth boundaries and "paint" land uses during public meetings. As areas are painted, the tool simultaneously calculates new households and jobs that are being added to a community. Painting is accomplished with a "palette" of land uses that offers different choices of development style and intensity. Over the past year, "painting sessions" have been held with 210 of the region's 272 municipalities in which local officials were able to use a touch-sensitive screen to literally draw and paint their preferred growth scenarios. The objective is to give the user as much freedom and creativity as possible within the bounds of standard GIS functions and data.

At the conclusion of the outreach meetings, NIPC staff have a comprehensive digital record that can be left with local officials and analyzed further at NIPC. Ultimately, individual community scenarios are aggregated into the multicounty growth forecast.

"This is a great example of a relatively simple piece of technology making a world of difference in an important job for hundreds of communities," says Thomas. NIPC staff have been able to conduct the outreach meetings with a two-person team, one laptop running Paint the Town, and about two or three hours of time with the local officials. The initial round of sessions using the ArcView 3.2 version of Paint the Town provided operating experience and enhancement ideas for a subsequent ArcGIS 8.3 version that was recently completed.

NIPC has demonstrated that a GIS-based explanation of forecast information and on-the-fly scenario creation by nontechnical local officials is not only feasible but also equally important as an engaging technique for interagency collaboration. The positive experience of participants has led 45 of the communities to ask for their own copy of Paint the Town.

For more information, contact Max Dieber, NIPC director of research services (tel.: 708-567-0400, e-mail:, or Eliot Allen, principal, Criterion Planners/Engineers (tel.: 503-224-8606, e-mail:

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