August 12, 2020

Tipping Point Planner tool, course help communities prioritize and protect natural resources, especially in Great Lakes states


WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Set a glass at the very edge of the table and a nudge may send it crashing to the ground. While slight, the nudge was just enough for the glass to reach its “tipping point,” go flying and end up shattered on the floor.

In nature, tipping points are junctures where rapid and irreversible changes in an ecosystem may occur, frequently due to human-induced ecological stresses. Purdue University, Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant and partners have a new online course to teach almost anyone involved in land use planning or water quality issues how to use a web-based tool designed to identify and address tipping points before critical thresholds are crossed.

The online Tipping Point Planner decision support system, aimed especially at Great Lakes states’ communities, is a mature tool developed and refined by Purdue and two dozen collaborators, with Purdue Extension and Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant leading outreach efforts.

The new online course to train users on how to employ the Tipping Point Planner is intended to expand use of the tool and to facilitate training, usually conducted in person, at a time when a pandemic makes on-site workshops untenable. The self-paced course is free. For more information and to register, visit

“It's a great tool that we want to make sure reaches as many communities as possible,” said Daniel Walker, Purdue extension specialist in community planning.

People who take the course learn how to use a tool that guides them through a process of identifying land use and water quality issues, prioritizing management practices and policies and developing an action plan. Taking the course also connects them to the Tipping Point Planner team, which can provide further assistance.

“We're helping communities apply the best available science to their local planning processes to maintain or improve quality of life, including economic and social well-being, without adversely affecting environmental conditions,” said Kara Salazar, assistant program leader and extension specialist for sustainable communities.

The Tipping Point Planner features dashboard-enabled data modeling and visualization functionality from watershed basin to local levels with the ability to test what-if scenarios when examining issues. The tool gathers information often not readily accessible in one place and now includes data snapshots down to the county level for every county in every Great Lakes state, allowing users to look at things such as land use forecasts, open space resources, prime farmland changes, water quality, impermeable surfaces, nutrient runoff and more.

“It's like a one-stop-shop of different kinds of data that tells you about your environmental quality,” Walker said. “You can test different scenarios. You can draw in different developments or different potential futures for the community and see how those impact its natural resources. That's one of the valuable things I think the program provides planners – and it helps foster discussion.”

Engaging stakeholders, and facilitating data-and science-based discussion among them, is a key purpose of the tool, ultimately leading to a better understanding of the issues, some consensus on how to address them and the development of priorities, goals and action items that can be incorporated into local plans. The online course teaches people how to use the planner and how to make use of the information it generates in developing comprehensive plans as well as land use, watershed, parks and recreation, and other types of plans.

“This is designed to support community planning, either at town, city, or county levels or also watershed,” Salazar said. “It helps the community have a better community engagement process for their local planning efforts. They're using the tool to look at trends and different types of research and then they're blending that into their local planning needs.”

The free Tipping Point Planner course can be valuable for a broad spectrum of people concerned with the health of local resources and communities’ quality of life, including but not limited to:

  • Community leaders, government officials and their staffs throughout the Great Lakes basin.
  • City, county and other planners and plan commissioners, including planning coordinators, directors and managers, as well as environmental and watershed planners.
  • Community and economic developers.
  • Stormwater and floodplain engineers and managers.
  • Natural resources, parks and tourism managers.
  • Representatives from nongovernmental organizations.
  • Water resources engineers and managers.
  • Citizens who want to participate in decisions on natural resources.

The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Great Lakes National Program Office are major funders of the program.

Writer: Greg Kline, 765-494-8167,

Sources: Kara Salazar,

Daniel Walker,

Purdue University, 610 Purdue Mall, West Lafayette, IN 47907, (765) 494-4600

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