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Water and planning: The fluid challenge

05 December 2013

Gayle Wootton, Research Officer (Centenary), RTPI

Last month saw the fifth annual online conference celebrating World Town Planning Day. Anyone who has organised a conference will know of the stresses and strains that run all the way from the inception of the idea to the minute when the final delegate leaves the event. This being my first foray into the world of online conferences, I would urge those used to organising 'normal' conferences to consider the difficulties of organising this global, online event that runs continually for 24 hours across all time zones. Luckily, the organising committee consisting of representatives of American Planning Association, Canadian Institute of Planners, Federación Iberoamericana de Urbanistas, International Federation for Housing and Planning, Planning Institute of Australia and the South African Council for Planners have some experience in all this. 

The theme of the conference this year was water and planning, a theme I'm particularly interested in seeing as I would call myself an environmental planner. Most planning schools do not train students to consider our impact on natural resources such as water and as a species we have grown incredibly wasteful of water. There is a need for greater shared understanding between planners, developers, governments and those charged with looking after the water environment but that starts with all of us, whether a professional or a member of the public, becoming more aware of the issues that we face globally.

"...planners [are] in a unique position to tackle issues of social justice - who benefits and who loses out - questions that have particular salience with the topic of water, given that its distribution and use has often been a source of tension and conflict."

Such a seemingly innocuous substance such as water presents us with huge challenges, whether it is too much water during extreme weather events such as recently witnessed in the Philippines, or water shortages faced by many countries as a routine part of their year. In this increasingly populated and heating-up planet, water whether in the wrong place or the wrong quantity will continue to hit the headlines and my own work researching future challenges for the profession to grapple with has revealed some alarming facts about water usage and lack of availability in some parts of this country, exactly where there is the highest pressure for population growth.

Being part of the organising committee, we were lucky enough to be granted some free places for our members which we advertised via our LinkedIn page, the international pages of our website and our water and marine environment interest forum. Those members selected for a free place were asked to write a short piece on the session they attended and these write-ups can be found on our International pages. Presentations ranged from the need to recycle waste water to produce sufficient quantities of drinking water learning from Singapore, restoring and managing natural land cover in an attempt to improve water quality and reduce flood risk and the novel concept of building underground to improve surface water storage capacity.

As Cliff Hague (Commonwealth Association of Planners and RTPI) summed up in the closing keynote, there is a pressing need for the ‘international planning community’ to get better acquainted with issues traditionally considered to be outside of the sphere of the profession. With our climate changing and the world becoming more urbanised, we are no longer able to take certain basic commodities such as water for granted. Cliff argued that since the days of Patrick Geddes’ mantra ‘Folk-Work-Place’, planning has worked best across boundaries at the ‘fuzzy edges’ of the profession. This places planners in a unique position to tackle issues of social justice - who benefits and who loses out - questions that have particular salience with the topic of water, given that its distribution and use has often been a source of tension and conflict.

I invite you to spend a short while perusing through the succinct and well-written write ups, which enable you to quickly get up to speed with the challenges and some of the potential solutions available to us. I am grateful to those members that attended for engaging so well with the event and the debates, and urge all members to use the WTPD online conference as a convenient way of updating knowledge of good practice from planners around the world.

About Gayle Wootton

Gayle Wootton is RTPI Research Officer for the Centenary Projects. She joined the RTPI in 2012 firstly as England and Wales Policy Officer building on her background of environmental policy in a Welsh planning context. Gayle previously ran a £10m European funded Regeneration Programme for the Welsh Government, but has also worked for the Countryside Council for Wales for seven years and the Environment Agency Wales in their Strategic Unit. She is currently completing an MSc in Social Science Research Methods and will embark on a PhD in the autumn. Gayle can be contacted at gayle.wootton@rtpi.org.uk