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Increasing collective knowhow for planning will transform cities

13 December 2017 Author: Sara Dilmamode

The design of cities is a collaborative process, or at least it should be. Planning should be a process that engages communities and those tasked with designing places.

However, some people are alienated by planning processes. Their experiences of planning are often abstract, complicated and occasionally baffling!

At the World Design Summit in Montreal, I heard Jan Gehl, drawing on Jane Jacobs’ seminal work, speak with hilarious clarity about the way in which the design of cities too often ignores people. He did acknowledge though that planners and architects are gradually following the example of Copenhagen and are finally thinking more about people, with a renewed focus on creating liveable, sustainable and healthy places.

Engagement with and understanding the way that people use and experience space is at the heart of this. Some innovative methods of engagement are emerging and already in use.

JTP Architects are innovators in this field. At Planning Out’s recent event on ‘Cutting Edge Consultation’, Charles Campion shared how they used a 3D block building game, Minecraft, to create a model of Holloway Road in London, enabling children to design changes. Their ideas were immensely creative and socially minded, ranging from public art galleries and colourful graffiti on walls of buildings to the provision of refugee and homeless shelters.

This range of tools and methods of engagement, along with neighbourhood planning which gives planning powers to communities, also have a potentially transformative role in the way places are designed.

Spreading urban planning knowhow is key

But at a fundamental level I think there is still more to be done to help people understand planning. Many people still do not understand how planning decisions are made or even know that a local plan exists. This means they are effectively shut out of understanding the ‘bigger picture’ of development and critically, the opportunity to influence it should they choose to.

It is also true that many allied professions in the built environment and beyond, such as transport engineers or education providers developing facilities, find the planning processes they need to engage with confusing and opaque.

The challenges of designing cities are highly complex – and they demand the collective intellect of the many, not the few.

This led our team at Citiesmode to think about this question: what if everyone knew more about urban planning processes? And what if everyone with a job linked to the design and development of cities could implement or navigate these planning processes with greater ease?

We think part of the answer is increasing knowhow. If people understand planning process they will be able to engage with these more effectively – and this has the potential to lead to better design outcomes.

At Citiesmode, we are doing our bit to spread planning knowhow and to illuminate and explain planning processes.

Making planning understandable

We are doing this in a number of ways. A couple of years ago we created a series of animations to illuminate some of these statutory planning processes in the UK, outlining the fundamentals like a Development Plan, a section 106 agreement and more. We are in the process of updating these ‘planimations’ and creating other learning resources that explain planning practice or highlight innovative projects.

We have also teamed up with Denton Planning and Public Law team on our Planning TV series which goes right from technical issues about the interpretation of planning legislation to the use of tech in planning. Look out for our new episodes in early 2018 as these have quite a different vibe to previous episodes.

We are creating these resources to enable people to better understand and influence planning processes, be they local residents or professionals with a role in the future development of places. Why? Because the challenges of designing cities are highly complex – and they demand the collective intellect of the many not the few.

If everybody knows how planning processes work then this can help them to understand limitations and to be able to identify opportunities for improvement. We think that this in turn increases the likelihood of designing beautiful places that are liveable, sustainable and healthy and, as Gehl urges, people centred.

This blog is based on a presentation and workshop delivered at the World Design Summit in Montreal 2017.

Guest blogs may not represent the views of the RTPI.

Sara Dilmamode

Sara Dilmamode

Sara Dilmamode is Director of Citiesmode, an urban planning research and training consultancy.