URBANA - City planners and developers in the East St. Louis metro area will soon be able to see the impact a new road or a change in zoning might make in the area, thanks to a computer model developed by University of Illinois researchers.
The UI and several state agencies are working together, using the computer model to look at what drives growth in an area and how new growth patterns will affect such things as schools, traffic patterns, existing business districts and the environment.
They will soon begin working on a land-use planning model for five counties in the East St. Louis metro area, which should be available by the end of the year. Those working on the project hope such a model will someday be used by communities throughout the state.
?Development is a complex issue,? said Tom Heavisides, a resource economist with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, one of the state agencies participating in the project. ?It deals with schools, redeveloping downtowns, congestion, protection of agricultural land. It's so many issues wrapped up into one thing. What the model does is help us understand how things interrelate and the pros and cons of particular actions.?
UI researchers used a National Science Foundation grant to develop the computer program, called the Land Use Evolution and Impact Assessment Model. They used Kane County, a fast-growing area northwest of Chicago, as a testing ground.
State agencies that are part of the governor's Balanced Growth Cabinet, charged with helping create and restore livable communities in the state, teamed with the UI to use the computer model for a recently completed land-use analysis in the Peoria area.
?It looks at a region as an entity and tries to discover what are the drivers of growth in the region - economics, geography, utilities, roads, schools,? said Brian Deal, a UI professor of architecture and urban and regional planning, and one of the main researchers working with the computer model. ?There are all kinds of things that cause land use to change, and we try to simulate that growth over time.?
The computer model allows planners to ask ?what if?? about a proposed development and its economic, social and environmental consequences. For example, what if a new road were built? How would it affect traffic congestion, or utilities and city services in the area? Would it lead to more residential growth, and how would that affect schools? Would it draw businesses away from another area? Would it affect water quality or wildlife habitat?
Deal said the first part of the process is seeking information about issues of local importance and learning what has been driving growth from community members such as real estate agents, city planners, school and park districts, developers and environmental groups.
State agencies provide basic information about the area from census figures and economic and environmental measures. Local information is added from sources such as water and soil conservation districts and building permits.
The model divides a region into smaller ?cells,? and it analyzes a number of factors for each cell. As it runs a series of different growth scenarios, the computer model forecasts their potential impact using mathematical probabilities.
A supercomputer at the UI runs the program, which involves an immense amount of information. For example, the Peoria land-use model has about 6 million ?cells.?
?There are hundreds of calculations going on at every time step,? Deal said.
The analysis will help communities understand the tradeoffs they will make for new development, Heavisides said.
?Everyone wants a full economy, equity, open space and a good environment,? he said. ?We want a good quality of life, but how we get to the specifics, that's where the rubber meets the road and there are tradeoffs. (With the computer analysis) we can look at them before things get too far along. It's a little hard to talk about change once the concrete truck is backing up. If we can look at where things are going, we can have that dialogue now.
?It's about locals shaping their region,? Heavisides continued. ?It's not about the state telling you how to grow. It's up to people to decide what's good and bad. If we can't identify what growth we don't want and what growth we do want, we can't solve this. Once we see it and articulate it, we can do a better job of building communities we like.?
Deal added: ?You can ask, ?If it does go this way, are you satisfied?' It's all about planning and decision making and engaging everybody in the conversation.?