Publication Date

Winter 2019

Degree Type

Master's Project

Degree Name

Master of Urban Planning (MUP)


Urban and Regional Planning

First Advisor

Gordon Douglas


planning software, urban information systems, Santa Clara County/Silicon Valley, public sector planners, urban planning


Software powers the modern urban planning department. However, the majority of academic attention on software in the planning profession has focused on highly specialized land use models, ignoring the importance of common applications that most planners rely upon throughout their workdays. For example, email’s impact on planning has gone largely undiscussed in the literature despite its role as one of the most commonly used software by planners. This report has a twofold purpose: 1) create a protocol for interviewing planners about the software they use routinely; 2) synthesize needs and expectations of planners gathered during interviews with relevant literature on planning technologies into a framework for the future of planning software. The framework presented in this report unifies, for the first time, disparate fields of research on software related to urban planning into a single set of guidelines for developing the future of software for public agencies. This framework provides a research agenda for urban planning software systems that mutually strengthen one another, and a valuable conceptual overview of the diverse information systems involved in the planning profession. Eleven interviews were conducted with mid- and senior-level planners in local governments across Santa Clara County, better known around the world as Silicon Valley. Santa Clara County was selected as the study area for two reasons: well-resourced governments in the area can invest in modern planning software, and to question if the stereotype of the area’s technological leadership extends to its local governments. Senior-level planners were interviewed in a semi-structured format with the interview adjusted based on a short survey about the software most used in the individual’s professional role. Key findings from the interviews informing the framework include: Planners in local governments in Silicon Valley are transitioning into modern software tools, like electronic plan review and permit management systems. There is no special technological advantage in Silicon Valley among public agencies. Planners were eager to fully implement and adopt software features available to them, particularly features that would improve communication about project status with applicants; Planners were unafraid of software automation. Limited automation features available in electronic plan review systems were yet to be fully implemented, and planners embraced the time-saving potential; The volume of email burdened interviewees. This draws attention to the significance of generalized productivity software in the practice of planning; Planners had no immediate need for “big data,” despite the recognized importance of big data in the urban planning technology literature. Perceptions from planners about the software that they use informed key problems and set goals for the framework developed here. Extensive research into emerging software targeting the construction and engineering trades with relevance to planners, as well as software designed to assist creative knowledge workers, informed the development of the future framework for planning software. Features of the framework include: A planning data model that underpins land use codes, development guidelines, and planning department procedures, providing machine-readable logic that underpins rulebased systems in email, project tracking, permit management, electronic plan review, and staff reports; Template-based and data type-aware word processing that encodes standardized practices for writing documents and requires numeric data be stored and represented as such. Electronic plan review systems that assist in checking both objective zoning codes and subjective design guidelines using generalized adaptable rule language; Integrated BIM-GIS supporting both the plan review and permit management process by organizing and visualizing spatial and physical data about the built environment; and Predictable, structured times to respond to email from applicants and the public and process-integrated calendars that recover time for focusing on long-term planning efforts; The generalized productivity software that planners have been using for over thirty years is inadequate for the predicted era of big data generated by networked urban environments. Excel is not designed to support real-time analytics, Word is not designed to assist in describing or associating analytics with textual information, and no application has yet been designed to visualize or organize such data for engaging the public. This framework gives planners and researchers of planning technology insight into the range of software used by planners and develop an innovative class of software fit for stewarding the cities of the coming century.


'honors' designation