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Why are planning awards important?

29 March 2016 Author: Peter Geraghty FRTPI

Planning in the modern age is about the exercise of professional judgement in a political context, and yet the political context today is in many ways inhospitable to modern planning. This is epitomised by some policymakers’ overwhelming focus on the speed of decision-making, a marginalisation of public participation, and an antipathy towards strategic and long-term decision-making.

As a profession we have somehow allowed ourselves to be characterised by process and to become synonymous with bureaucracy. In her 2007 gold medal address, Professor Patsy Healey said that she had come to the view that ‘government activity had swallowed up the planning project.’ She went to say ‘And the project we are engaged in, despite the regular avalanches of criticism against ‘the planners’ or ‘the planning system’, grows in importance rather than diminishing.’

[Planning awards] ...highlight professional good practice and present an opportunity to showcase the practical outcomes of the art and science of town and country planning.

This political assimilation began as early as the 1950s, when RTPI president Bernard Collins was moved to say in his 1957 presidential address: '…the planner is accused of bearing responsibilities he does not bear, possessing authority he does not possess, failing in duties which, in fact, are not his, and in which he is saddled with vague political opprobrium, a sort of darkly hinted totalitarianism which is so wide of the mark that he has found it difficult to combat.'

Patsy Healy is right in that the importance of planning grows rather than diminishes, and if there is anything that the current housing crisis highlights more than anything it is that proper planning is as important now as it ever has been.

The challenge for modern planners is how to demonstrate the value of planning practice in a context where an anti-planning ideology holds such sway. I believe planning awards provide part of the means of meeting this challenge. They highlight professional good practice and present an opportunity to showcase the practical outcomes of the art and science of town and country planning. Awards are given for exemplary practice free of political or ideological baggage. They celebrate the particular skills and expertise that planners have and the varied contexts in which those skills are applied.

This year, the RTPI has introduced an international award, as part of its annual Awards for Planning Excellence. This is particularly welcome because it demonstrates the international nature of planning practice. On arriving in the US in 1911, the Institute’s first president Thomas Adams described planning as ‘a world-wide movement’. The shortlisted entries epitomise the global nature of planning; they span eight countries and encapsulate the range of professional planning practice. For example, the renewal initiative in Addis Ababa combines land-use planning with transportation planning to direct development to transportation nodes in order to address the issue of sporadic development. The entry for San Vincente, on the Island of Palawan in the Philippines, concerns the master-planning of a coastal region to enable it to balance the needs of a growing tourist industry against environmental impacts, an important aspect of which was the extent of community involvement and engagement.

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Picture: Addis Ababa, Urban Renewal Initiative (submitted by Arup).

Another facet of planning practice is highlighted in the entry for the reconstruction plan for Caojia village in Sichuan, China. Planning for rebuilding following a natural disaster is an important and pressing activity. The reconstruction of Caojia is a great example of how planning can facilitate local communities in developing resilience to natural disasters by encouraging capacity building at a local level.

In the case of the entry for Semporna Marine Spatial Plan, it exemplifies another facet of planning in which the Malaysian government worked with the World Wildlife Fund to plan for the marine environment. The Kenyan entry for the Tana River Delta Land Use Plan and Tana River Delta Strategic Environmental Assessment shows how planners balance the needs of the environment with economic growth whilst engaging with the local community. The Tomorrow Plan, from Des Moines, demonstrates the skills of planners in finding solutions and negotiating satisfactory outcomes to bring forward development. It highlights how planners can create a vision for a collaborative, vibrant and dynamic region of lasting value and diversity.

The Seychelles Strategic Land Use and Development Plan provides a spatial framework for the future of the archipelago. It is an inclusive plan founded on extensive engagement and robust evidence base. The entry for Future Proofing Aluva in Kerala is a project which provides an integrated framework combining local city knowledge and international expertise to increase resilience and guide the town’s sustainable growth.

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Picture: Community engagement as part of the Seychelles Strategic Land Use and Development Plan (submitted by Abu Dhabi Urban Planning Council).

The Institute’s Awards for Planning Excellence embody why as a profession we should be proud of our practice. These awards are not about self-aggrandisement but about self-confidence, not about process and procedures but about outcomes.

Previous winners of the Institute’s highest awards, such as the Channel Tunnel Rail Link (2009), the Wales Coast Path (2013) or the Thames Tideway Tunnel (2015), show the range and richness of planning practice and the diversity of outcomes. The entries for the 2016 Awards continue to demonstrate the richness of planning practice. We should all take pride, not only in the winning entrants but all those short-listed. They illustrate the beneficial effects of good planning, which is why of course planning awards are so important.

The views expressed here are my own and not necessarily those of my employer.

Peter Geraghty FRTPI

Peter Geraghty FRTPI

Head of Planning and Transport at Southend-on-Sea Borough Council
Peter Geraghty has experience of working across all sectors – public, private and voluntary. His previous roles have included Chief Planning Officer for Brentwood Borough Council and Head of Planning and Conservation at Broadland District Council. He was Chair of the RTPI Board of Trustees in 2012 and President of the Royal Town Planning Institute 2013 to 2014. Peter is currently chair of the International Committee of the RTPI.