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Looking into LUCI's Crystal Ball

Computer simulation model forecasts growth and future urban development


2040_dataThe Land Use in Central Indiana model may not be as all-seeing and mysterious as a crystal ball, but its forecasting powers are changing the face of Indiana’s urban landscape. Called LUCI by its designer, John Ottensmann, professor in the Indiana University School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, this powerful computer simulation tool was developed to help planners, policymakers, and citizens in Central Indiana’s 44 counties recognize the impact of policy and planning decisions on urban development.

“The bottom line for me is to help people better understand the context in which they make choices,” says Ottensmann, who is also director of Urban Policy and Planning for the Center for Urban Policy and the Environment. “I developed a tool that helps them make more informed choices by giving them better information.”

2000_dataIn 2000, with support from the Lilly Endowment, the Center began to study Central Indiana land use and urban development. The Center collected LandSat satellite imagery of the area showing existing development and growth. With interpreted images from 1985, 1993, and 2000, Ottensmann formed a base of data to which he added figures on population density, employment by ZIP code, available transportation and utilities infrastructure, and school quality.

The resulting simulation model predicts future urban development and the resulting population density in five-year increments through 2040. Users can change the set outcomes of the model by changing more than 50 variables in 13 categories that include factors like land development restrictions, transportation improvements, and new employment. For each scenario, LUCI generates bold, colorful maps that clearly illustrate the impact of different policy choices.

Putting LUCI to Work

Though there are other urban simulation models available, LUCI is uniquely user-friendly. “I had the idea that we could develop a model that really any one could use,” says Ottensmann. “Thanks to the Lilly funding for the Center, I have been able to produce something that is useful, not academic. It’s also free and we encourage people to download and play with it.”

The model has already been put to use by organizations like the Indianapolis Metropolitan Planning Organization, the Indiana Department of Transportation (INDOT), USFilter, and Hendricks County. Representing the second-fastest growing county in the Indianapolis metropolitan area, Hendricks County Department of Planning & Building Director Don Reitz used LUCI to finalize the Hendricks County Comprehensive Plan.

“We wanted to evaluate different policy decisions and see what would happen if we instituted urban growth boundaries,” says Reitz. He used LUCI to illustrate different growth scenarios for the Comprehensive Plan Steering Committee. The model proved to be an effective way of getting different points across.

“It’s one thing to say that the county is going to grow by 100,000 people in ten years and another thing to have a map in front of you that shows population density in big red blotches,” says Reitz. “LUCI shows you in bright images what is going to happen if we don’t do something different. The Comprehensive Plan is now more realistic thanks to LUCI.”

Taking LUCI Statewide

ottensmanOttensmann is currently working with the Indiana Department of Transportation to adapt the latest version of the model, the luci2 Urban Simulation Model, to create a statewide model. With more options for estimating development impact, the new model will be one of only a handful of full-blown statewide simulation models available in the U.S.

“One thing we have learned at the Center is that you can start a project and not always be sure where you are going with it. Then along the way, you start to see new possibilities. That is what is happening with LUCI,” says Ottensmann. “We are just trying to stay a step or two ahead of our users so we’re developing tools they need before they even know they need them.”

Kathy Gutowsky


John Ottennsmann's specialties include urban spatial structure and special dimensions of urban policy, computer applications in planning, and Geographic Information Systems (GIS). He teaches an array of courses from mapping and analysis for public safety to statistical techniques. He is a member of the Indiana Land Use Consortium, and won their Model of Success Award for his Land Use in Central Indiana Model.