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Is planning research serving the needs of practitioners?

17 July 2015 Author: Dr Michael Harris

This year’s Association of European Schools of Planning (AESOP) research conference, held this week in Prague, had the subtitle ‘Definite space - Fuzzy responsibility’. Apparently this referred to the question of who should take responsibility for how cities and regions are changing as a result of economic, social and environmental challenges, although this explanation is equally fuzzy and didn’t really define the range and diversity of research presented at the event.

It’s easy to mock academics for the impenetrable jargon they sometimes use. The more substantive issue is not obscure language however, but whether from the perspective of the planning profession the research community is investigating the issues that matter most to practice. As in previous years, at this year’s AESOP the RTPI in partnership with its academic journal Planning Theory and Practice organised a roundtable event on the relationship between planning research and practice, and in particular how we might develop a shared research agenda that both academically rigorous and practically useful (the roundtable write-up is available here).

This is an issue that reflects the Institute’s role as a membership organisation but also a learned society. It also reflects the founding objectives of Planning Theory and Practice, with its aim of challenging theory and changing practice. In neither case should these objectives be mutually exclusive.

When it comes to research however, it sometimes seems like the prevailing assumption is that cutting-edge work is necessarily removed from the concerns of day-to-day planning practice, and that research that is led by these concerns would lack the ‘critical distance’ that academia is meant to provide.

As an attempt to illustrate why none of this should be the case, and to prompt more research on issues that matter to planners and policymakers, we shared a discussion note with participants at our roundtable on why we need more research on the economic value of planning.

As we tweeted during the conference, the research community does regularly consider the economic context of planning, but has a tendency to do this too abstractly and too pessimistically:

Tweet

In the current context, and not only in the UK, we urgently need the academic community to help us demonstrate how planning can produce better, more efficient markets for local development, in ways which promote growth and meet social and environmental objectives. The RTPI’s research programme on the value of planning is one way in which we hope to correct this.

There are numerous reasons why such research might be lacking – from a lack of funding to the ‘publish or perish’ demands heaped on academics. All of them need addressing, but so too do the questions that researchers choose to focus on, and whether they allow themselves to be co-opted into privileging flashy theory over more grounded and applicable empirical work.

This is why we’re working to set out what the research priorities are from the perspective of planners and policymakers. For example, in May as part of the National Planning Forum we organised the first of a regular series of meetings of a Research Group comprising Forum members (a note of the discussion is available here). As you’d expect, the call was more research that is reliable, robust and timely, on topics ranging from the impact of current planning policy to the economic benefits of sustainable communities.

Another way to prompt more of the work we need is to break down some of the barriers between research users and producers (this is why it’s disappointing that academic conferences such as AESOP don’t do more to try to engage non-academic audiences). Beyond this, there’s also no reason why more practitioners shouldn’t participate directly in research, and to this end next year we’ll be launching a new fund to support practitioner-led research.

Contrary to the concerns sometimes expressed in academic circles, a more engaged scholarship informed by different priorities could produce better research as well as better practice and policy. For this to happen though, there needs to be lot more interaction between these often separate worlds. If we are to defend and promote better planning, the boundaries between research, policy and practice need to become a lot more fuzzy.

Dr Michael Harris

Dr Michael Harris

Former Deputy Head of Policy and Research, RTPI