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Why the best in planning research deserves more recognition

15 September 2015 Author: Dr Michael Harris

Last week we announced the winners and highly commended entries from this year’s RTPI Awards for Research Excellence. You can find more information about the winners and commended entries on the RTPI website. But why are the Awards important to the Institute – and why should they be important to planners?

We know there’s good research out there with critical lessons for practice. The challenge is how to get it to practitioners. The RTPI’s Research Awards are just one of the ways in which that the Institute is trying to promote the importance of planning research to wider audiences.

Most planners don’t have enough time to go looking for the evidence that might help to improve their practice. Even if they did, much research is buried away in journals, and is often expressed in academic language meant primarily for academic audiences. This isn’t to criticise the research community. Career progression in academia nowadays is primarily determined by getting published in the most prestigious journals, as well as who can generate research income for their universities. But it does mean that many practitioners might never hear about research that could help them to do their jobs and serve their communities better.

Certainly some planning practitioners can and do get on with their work without ever reading research, but we can’t be happy with this. All professions need to be evidence-based as well as drawing on personal experience and expertise. The two should complement and challenge each other. This is why a commitment to continuing professional development is at the core of being a chartered planner.

It’s also critical that planners and policymakers benefit from independent research about the major economic, social and environmental challenges we face and how planning can respond to these challenges. Securing sustainable development, managing the impact of demographic and climate change, and promoting social cohesion all require new thinking and an understanding of what works where. While we shouldn’t judge academic research only on the extent to which it informs professional practice, evidence is critical to improving and developing what planners do.

When we re-launched the Awards this year, we had three main aims: to recognise the best spatial planning research from RTPI accredited planning schools in the UK, the Republic of Ireland and internationally, to highlight the implications of academic research for policy and practice, and to promote planning research more generally.

Our experience of the awards this year tells us that there’s a desire among academics to get their work out to a wider audience... It also demonstrates the incredible diversity of issues that researchers are examining.

This is why we’ve increased the number of award categories, including introducing a new category to recognise what we called ‘wider engagement’, where researchers have done something different to communicate their research beyond academia, and even involve communities in the research process. We named this award after Sir Peter Hall, who in so many ways exemplified how academics could combine excellence in research with impact on policy and practice.

We’ve also been kindly supported by our sponsors for the awards – the Idox Information Service and Routledge, part of the Taylor & Francis group, both of whom have a commitment to disseminating research more widely to a range of audiences.

Our experience of the awards this year tells us that there’s a desire among academics to get their work out to a wider audience – we’ve received three times the number of entries from last year. It also demonstrates the incredible diversity of issues that researchers are examining, from the future of London’s high streets and the impact of waterfront regeneration schemes, to how to promote active travel among school children and even how theatre can be used to engage the public in planning issues.

Given this, and the importance of research to both policy and practice, we want to continue to build on this year’s Research Awards – to generate more entries and find new ways to recognise and promote the work being done in accredited planning schools. For the moment, you can read more about this year’s winners and commended entries at: www.rtpi.org.uk/researchawards

Dr Michael Harris

Dr Michael Harris

Former Deputy Head of Policy and Research, RTPI