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Planners can act as inspirational civic leaders

10 April 2017 Author: Robin Hambleton

Augustenborg ,_Malmö ,_2014

Augustenborg, Malmö. Picture credit: Jorchr.

A new dividing line is emerging in modern politics, here in the UK but elsewhere too, and it has important implications for the practice of planning.

Stated simply, we can anticipate that a major conflict in the coming decade is going to be between place-less power and place-based power.

Place-less leaders, by which I mean people who are not expected to care about the consequences of their decisions for particular places and communities, have gained extraordinary power and influence in recent decades. There can, for example, be no denying that the growth in the power of place-less, multi-national companies in the last thirty years or so has been spectacular.

Some neo-liberal commentators even argue that, given the requirements of global capital, the erasure of the significance of place is inevitable. They argue that localities must serve the interests of international big business or go to the wall.

Place-based leaders, and I include here principled professional planners, reject this anti-democratic argument. This is because they attach importance to the power of place, and work day in and day out to show that local people can, and should, shape the quality of life in the localities where they live.

This is partly because planners place a high value on democracy, but it is also because they know that place-based planning and decision-making can deliver much better societal outcomes.

Malmö: an example of inspirational civic leadership

While researching my recent book, Leading the Inclusive City, I discovered many examples of inspirational place-based leadership in other countries, and I provide seventeen profiles of civic success drawn from fourteen different countries.

In many of these case studies city planners are making a remarkable contribution to place-based leadership. In cities like Copenhagen, Curitiba, Freiburg, Malmö, Melbourne and Portland, city planners are in the lead in taking on place-less power.

Christer Larsson, Director of City Planning in Malmö, provides a good example, and it will be an honour to join him and Marvin Rees, Mayor of Bristol, in a conversation about place-based leadership at the RTPI Planning Convention in London on 21st June.

The good news is that, largely unsung by the modern media, planners in a large number of countries are advancing the power of place in the face of place-less power.

In 1994 civic leaders in the City of Malmö were faced with a formidable challenge. The traditional industries of the city, notably shipbuilding, were in steep decline and, in effect, the long established economic structure of their city was in a state of collapse. The elected leaders, with the support of their officers, responded with great imagination to the difficulties they faced.

Under the leadership of Ilmar Reepalu, then Mayor of the City, a new vision for the future of Malmö was developed, one that imagined a thoroughly modern, environmentally aware city.

In an interview with me for my book Mr Larsson explained the role of planning in Malmö’s governance: "The structure of the city is crucial to our approach to climate change. Through careful planning designed to ensure mixed-use developments close to railway stations we can reduce the need for car travel enormously and, at the same time, improve access for residents to job opportunities".

A sophisticated Comprehensive Plan for Malmö was adopted in 2000 and this was updated in 2014. The plan is designed to grow the city, but with the smallest possible environmental impact by emphasising ‘inward expansion.’ High quality development is concentrated around public transport nodes, and the plan aims to create an appealing quality of life, one that advances equity in the city while, at the same time, being environmentally and economically sustainable.

Themes to explore at the Planning Convention

What lessons can we draw from inspirational city planners in other countries? Three stand out.

First, elected local authorities need constitutional protection from an over-bearing central state. In England we have, over a period of time, created a super-centralised state, one in which the powers of local government have been seriously damaged.

In other western democracies, and Sweden provides an excellent example, elected local authorities have the freedom to do things differently. This emphatic decentralisation of power leads to high voter turnouts in local elections and far more effective city planning and urban management.

It follows that we need to bring about a radical rebalancing of power between the central and the local state within the UK. Planners need the freedom to plan.

Second, professional planners can exercise an important civic leadership role by working closely with other civic actors, particularly elected politicians, to effect change.

Mr Larsson takes the view that planners can make a valuable contribution to civic leadership: "Good planning involves facilitating a process where different views, opinions and interests are integrated into a balanced result creating new buildings, public spaces and living environments for all."

Third, and this might be a bit of a challenge. International lesson-drawing should be central to local planning practice, not a nice ‘add on’ if we have time. This is because exposure to public policy innovations in other countries can stimulate fresh thinking in the home environment.

Elected in May 2016, Mayor Marvin Rees is strongly committed to the value of international city-to-city learning. He is, for example, playing an active role in the Global Parliament of Mayors, a rapidly-expanding organisation that is strongly committed to advancing the power of place in our globalising world.

The good news is that, largely unsung by the modern media, planners in a large number of countries are advancing the power of place in the face of place-less power.

Robin will be speaking at the RTPI Planning Convention on 21st June 2017.

Guest blogs may not represent the views of the RTPI.

Robin Hambleton

Robin Hambleton

Robin Hambleton is emeritus professor of city leadership, University of the West of England, Bristol and Director of Urban Answers. His latest book is Leading the Inclusive City published by Policy Press.