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Guest blog: Could long-term city visioning reinvigorate strategic planning?

24 May 2016 Author: Corinne Swain

In this guest blog, Corinne Swain, an Arup Fellow, considers the potential of foresight techniques to support and inform strategic city-regional planning.

Strategic planning frameworks are back in vogue as part of city-regional and county-regional devolution deals. But how can their production avoid needless concerns about a return to regional spatial strategies?

To my mind, the answer does not lie in clarifying their legal status or endless discussions about their influence in the planning system, but rather in differentiating their role by focusing on longer and wider horizons, and producing a light touch form of plan with a strong vision and set of guiding principles.

City foresighting techniques may well have a useful part to play in the preparation of such frameworks. For example, thinking about the different roles that a range of cities within a city-region may play in imaginary long-term futures is a 'space' in which elected members may feel 'safe' in discussing strengths and weaknesses and common identities, a process which may even help to reduce historic rivalries.

An interactive workshop format using creative techniques such as postcards from the future or goals mapping can be much more engaging to a wide range of people than traditional planning consultation processes. Such exercises may well prove helpful in creating a strong vision and buy in for an incoming Metro Mayor – a prospect which, in some areas, is less than a year away.

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Stimulating new relationships through city foresight

For anyone wishing to undertake long-term city visioning, there is now a useful toolkit available as one of the outputs from the Future of Cities foresight project led by the Government Office for Science (the RTPI made its own submission to this project). This draws on lessons learnt from nine pilot local foresight exercises, supported either by part funding or staff time through the project. The toolkit illustrates a range of techniques to assist in visioning, analysis, designing and testing alternative futures, and identifying 'levers' to affect change. It also provides advice on practical ways of setting up and facilitating workshops, and those that might contribute in kind to the process.

Experience from the Future of Cities project demonstrates that foresight techniques can be applied at different spatial scales. Newcastle's work, for example, embraced the wider city-region in terms of evidence collection, including establishing a database of research relevant to the future of the city and region, its use of Delphi techniques to identify key uncertainties, and its stakeholder workshops.

Extending the foresighting approach to adjoining districts is currently under investigation by the dedicated City Futures Director seconded by Newcastle University, with potential to strengthen devolution negotiations with national government. By contrast Lancaster's work focused on engaging school children and young people in a competition to draw or describe the future they would like for the city itself. This led the Chamber of Commerce to set up a Youth Chamber as a continuing forum for engaging them in local policy issues such as education and housing.

Visioning can be particularly helpful to cities struggling to re-create an identity in a post-industrial era. Rochdale, for example, was able to create a narrative to challenge the status quo of being considered merely as a centre for distribution industries within Greater Manchester. A more clearly articulated vision should now give them a stronger voice in negotiations at a city-regional level, including on spatial and funding priorities.

There is a risk however that cities focus only on their aspirational future. In order to sense-check emerging thinking, a series of 'what if' national scenarios are available off-the-shelf, together with a workshop template which encourages participants to imagine various aspects of what life in their cities might be like under different assumptions.

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Hypothetical scenarios of national population distribution developed as part of the Future of Cities project

Encouragement to undertake long-term city visioning is endorsed in forewords to the toolkit by the Head of the Cities and Local Growth Unit at DCLG and the Leader of Milton Keynes Council, as well as by myself on behalf of the Future of Cities lead expert group.

So having embarked on long-term city visioning, what form of output might be helpful to the planning process? Could it inform longer-term planning for major infrastructure, and hence provide an advocacy tool in investment negotiations? Could it be some form of flexible 'roadmap' giving a clear direction of travel to provide confidence to businesses and residents, but which could be linked to a mid-term spatial framework? Would it matter the vision was never formally adopted, as long as it provided a set of core values and targets to influence subsequent thematic strategies including the statutory planning process, as happened for various reasons following the Glasgow 2061 visioning exercise?

The answer must be that it is for individual areas to identify the form of plan that best suits their particular needs. But at the end of the day, might we discover that the process of plan making is just as important as the product itself?

Corinne Swain

Corinne Swain

Arup Fellow
Corinne Swain, OBE, MA (Cantab), MPhil, FRTPI, FAcSS is a former Director and Head of Planning at Arup, and now holds an Arup Fellowship focussing on knowledge sharing and research. She has established a strong personal reputation on strategic policy issues and planning procedures, at the interface between economics, demographics, transport, environment and urban design from a career spanning nearly 40 years. She was one of eight lead experts on the Government’s Future of Cities Foresight project, and was until recently a member of the Mayor’s Outer London Commission. She has previously been a member of government advisory committees on planning research, transport, property and professional standards.