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New Data-Driven Software Tool Assesses Environmental Impacts

A new partnership between the software developer UrbanFootprint and a conservation group could help city planners and others decide where and how to build with minimal impact to natural environments.

Urban planning and nature conservation aren’t always overlapping goals, but a software developer and a preservation group have partnered to reconcile the two.

In a news release, Berkeley, Calif.-based UrbanFootprint announced that its suite of analytics now includes the "Conservation Module," which they designed in collaboration with the Nature Conservancy, a global organization dedicated to preserving natural resources. Only available in California so far as a component of UrbanFootprint, the module is a natural-resource accounting tool to help urban planners and communities gauge a proposal’s environmental impacts on four key metrics: water resources, habitat, agriculture and carbon sequestration and storage.

With this information, planners and communities can decide where development is best suited, where it should be avoided and how to build more sustainable cities.

"By including environment analytics early in the planning process, shrinking the costs and timeline of key environmental analyses, UrbanFootprint allows planners and policymakers to focus their efforts on building more sustainable, resilient and equitable communities — rather than struggling to clean and curate disparate datasets," said Joe DiStefano, president and co-founder of UrbanFootprint, in a statement. "We expect the ability to quickly assess existing conditions and project future outcomes with advanced scenario planning will encourage much needed, data-driven policy conversations around conservation and urban planning.”

DiStefano told Government Technology that UrbanFootprint uses data that the average city planner might not know how to track down, from the Nature Conservancy, departments of conservation, departments of agriculture and dozens of other state, regional and federal sources.

“It allows for a more holistic conversation about the impacts [of development],” he said.

Facing wildfires, a housing crisis and climate change, California needs to build more housing, and DiStefano said it will also need data to answer the public’s knee-jerk reactions to development proposals.

“If someone is arguing against intensifications downtown, for example, the alternative to that … is grow on the edge. It’s important to be able to at least understand the impacts of growing on the edge,” he said. “How does that impact the ability of the land to sequester carbon? How does that impact habitat connectivity? How does that impact water supply or agricultural production? That, sitting alongside other critical impacts like traffic congestion, or vehicle miles traveled, or energy use, rounds out the storyline.”

Elizabeth O’Donoghue, director of infrastructure and land use for the Nature Conservancy, said her organization partnered with UrbanFootprint because UrbanFootprint recognized that it lacked tools and expertise to assess the non-built, natural environment. More than just crunching numbers, she said the Conservation Module they built together helps tell a broader story not only about what resources are nearby, but also why they’re important.

“If you may be impacting a landscape that contains water, you’ll want to know that you may be impacting water quality or water supply, so it may be harder to provide water to communities in the future,” she said. “What we’re hoping to do is have that be easily available and accessible, so not only do [planners] know the potential results of actions, but why they may need to care about it. What benefits does nature provide to communities?”

According to the news release, in a 2016 pilot program with the Sonoma County, Calif., Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District and the Regional Climate Protection Authority (RCPA), the Conservation Module analyzed potential housing scenarios and their impacts on natural and working lands. By standardizing land cover types, reference data and calculated model inputs across California, the module illustrated the costs and benefits of different scenarios, from lower-density suburban growth patterns to higher-density options.

The news release indicated that UrbanFootprint is looking to release the module in other states in the future.

Andrew Westrope is managing editor of the Center for Digital Education. Before that, he was a staff writer for Government Technology, and previously was a reporter and editor at community newspapers. He has a bachelor’s degree in physiology from Michigan State University and lives in Northern California.