Urban visionaries

John and Scott Fregonese are visionaries. They look at a cityscape and imagine the possibilities. The father-son duo of the Portland-based Fregonese Associates urban and regional planning have carved a niche for themselves by creating innovative software that helps planners visualize potential changes to communities.

They also ensure that the members of those communities have input during the entire planning process, and use visualization tools to help paint a picture of the future.

“It’s hard for people to look at a map and envision what will be,” Scott said. “When people are asked to imagine their environment changing, they don’t typically imagine good things.”

Fregonese Associates is being honored this month with Oregon State University’s Orange Spotlight Award, which highlights businesses and organizations either operated by OSU alums and faculty or who employ a large number of Oregon State graduates. These businesses demonstrate a dedication to community service, sustainability and innovation.

Fregonese Associates employs 15 people and the company has done planning in places ranging from Denver and Salt Lake City to Chicago and Los Angeles. The company provides stakeholders and community members with videos that re-imagine the landscape for them, allowing their vision to be translated in a very tangible way long before any changes are actually made. Called the “Envision Tomorrow Tool,” their scenario-building software helps planners to alter the landscape virtually, and adjust for different benchmarks or indicators, allowing planners to measure the long-term impacts of land use changes. The software is now used by planners around the country.

“We’ve tried to keep the office young and not traditional and let the young people lead,” John said, and said the advent of video gaming has influenced their work. “If you look at our visualization you can tell we used gaming tools to create some of them.”

Having a long-range vision is essential to urban planning, and John Fregonese has long been at the cutting edge. He was director of Portland’s Metro Growth Management Department in 1992 when the Metro 2040 regional growth plan was first created. Metro 2040 was groundbreaking because it took into consideration regional planning, looking beyond the city boundaries of Portland to include 24 cities and three counties in its plan.

“We did something in the 2040 plan that hadn’t been done before,” John said. “We modeled the region in GIS (geographic information system) using the tools that I’d learned at OSU. It gave us the ability to do something other planners couldn’t, because we had those technical skills. We had the ability to do the modeling, and we’re still among the best in the country to do that, and our software is used nationally to model regions.”

John was a graduate student at Oregon State University in the mid 1970s when he changed his plan to become a hydrologist and got involved in land use planning. When he worked on the 2040 plan, much of his background in geography came into play as he considered the landscape as well as the land use aspects of the Metro region.

His son Scott also attended Oregon State, but originally had a degree in forestry in mind. But having grown up playing, and then working, in his father’s office, he soon discovered that his heart, like his dad’s, lay in urban and regional planning. He switched to geography and graduated in 2000.

Like John, Scott realized that having a solid grasp of geography has been essential to his work.

“We look beyond city limits and look at the landscapes of the region,” Scott said. “We’re not confined by borders or political boundaries. The software we’ve developed models several possible futures and helps us pick the best aspects.”

John likens their view to looking at a landscape from space. City limits aren’t visible, but there are distinct delineations in the land itself that separate metro areas. By using GIS analysis in their planning, and coupling that with their Envision Tomorrow Tool, Fregonese allows government officials, non profit agencies and community members to see what might happen to their region once changes take place.

And the focus isn’t just on bus routes and buildings. Fregonese Associates is able to provide clients with a measurement of how changes to transportation plans will impact greenhouse gas emissions. They take into account the natural environment and emphasize green planning, such as creating LEED certified buildings.

But even before that happens, the team at Fregonese Associates spends a lot of time in the community gathering information about how people currently utilize their cities and how those needs might change in the future. They hold town hall meetings and invite input and discussion, as they did recently in southern Louisiana for planning efforts following the destruction of Hurricane Katrina.

“We do a lot of brainstorming around maps, and set it up like a Monopoly game. They’re using their intuition.” John said. Participants are able to get a really hands-on approach to urban planning and help planners understand what it’s like living in the community, and what needs to change. This invests them in the process.

“You get people hooked on it,” John said. “And then they follow what you’re doing and become interested, involved and knowledgeable.”

“If a plan is developed with a lot of public knowledge and input, it has much more chance of success.”

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