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Why we need to promote the best in planning research

24 September 2013

Michael Harris

The week before last we attended the UK-Ireland Annual Planning Research Conference, hosted this year at the University of the West of England. What did the event tell us about the state of planning research? In short, that there’s a lot of good research doing conducted and much to celebrate, but that the planning research community needs to do more to engage with practitioners and policymakers in planning and beyond – and promote itself a bit more.

Professor Gavin Parker (Director of Professional Standards and Chair of Planning Studies at the University of Reading), Wendy Ellis (Lifelong Learning Officer at the RTPI), and myself represented the RTPI. On the first day of the conference, Gavin chaired an RTPI roundtable discussion which posed the question ‘How can we strengthen the relationships between researchers, policymakers and practitioners?’

This is a potentially sensitive subject for academics. With the Research Excellence Framework exercise taking place next year, the perennial difficulty of securing funding for projects, and all the talk about ‘evidence-based policy and practice’, it’s right to be aware of concerns over academic freedom and the research agenda being ‘dictated’ to academics.

At the same time, this is a critical and high profile time for planning – a profession ‘under attack’, the planning system blamed for everything from the housing shortage to the lack of social mobility, practical and research expertise being derided and dismissed in some quarters, and of course squeezed resources, especially for public sector planners. There’s never been a more important time for the planning research community to engage with policy and practice, and to defend the very notion of ‘planning’ while critically examining how planning operates on the ground and the outcomes it produces.

Our panellists at the roundtable were suitably forthright about what needs to happen. Professor Robin Hambleton, Professor of City Leadership at the University of the West of England, promoted the idea of the ‘engaged scholar’, and how this is critical to the ‘public service’ remit of researchers which universities need to do more to recognise and reward. Dr Sue Brownill, Reader in Urban Policy and Governance in the Department of Planning at Oxford Brookes University, shared her experience of how Brookes engages with practitioners but the difficulty of getting funding for this kind of work. Jo Talbot, an independent planning and economic development consultant and Director of JOHT Resources, emphasised that researchers need to promote their work in ways that busy practitioners can engage with – it needs to be quick and easy to find, containing clear messages that have a practical application, and which indicate the appropriate geographical scale for their application.

On the second day of the conference I presented on the RTPI’s research agenda and some of our current projects, including our Centenary Policy Futures projects, our Small Projects Impact Research (SPIRe) awardees for this year, and our plans to promote planning research through the RTPI website, including a ‘research repository’ of projects and findings that are particularly relevant to policymakers and practitioners.

As demonstrated by many of the papers presented at the conference, there’s certainly work that should be promoted – from the health and wellbeing impacts of positive planning, the (still) largely neglected issue of how planning needs to respond to an ageing society, to planning’s role in economic development and how neighbourhood planning is working in practice. All of this work, and more, deserves a wider audience with policymakers and practitioners – and over the next few months we’ll be doing more to promote it.

Inevitably, there are also significant gaps in the evidence base, most notably a broader and balanced analysis of the economic value of planning. Engaging with these questions isn’t a sign of the planning research agenda being ‘dictated’ by policymakers – rather it’s engaging with the questions that they are grappling with day in, day out. Effectively absenting ourselves from these debates surely only allows the ‘anti-planners’ to continue to advance their arguments (often on a small and partial evidence base) without contest.

Talking of promoting planning research, in the evening we presented the RTPI’s Education & Lifelong Learning Awards for 2013. Planning education and training is obviously vital in producing skilled, expert planners who contribute to the profession and to the creation of high quality places. The RTPI’s Planning Awards highlight excellence in this area from teachers, learners and employers. This year there were three categories for the awards: Excellence in Spatial Planning Research (Academics); Excellence in Spatial Planning Research (Students); and the Employer Award for Excellence.

The Academic research award was presented to Colin Jones from Heriot-Watt University and Mike Coombes from Newcastle University, for work looking at Housing Market Areas (pictured here).

Award 1

Standards were equally high in the students research award (open to both undergraduate and postgraduate students on RTPI accredited courses). The joint winners, pictured below, were Janine Loubser of the University of Cape Town and Lora Zhu from the University of Sheffield (mention should also go to their respective supervisors, Dr Nancy Odendaal and Dr Glyn Williams).

Janine Loubser’s dissertation entitled “The Fringe and Beyond: Cape Town as a Creative City for All” examined the spatial implications of the promotion of the creative industry sector in Cape Town. The judges thought that the piece was well presented demonstrating good urban design skills, fused with strong social science awareness. The relevance to practice was clear and pertinent to today’s planning issues in Cape Town.

Award 2

Lora Zhu’s dissertation was entitled “The Role of Non-Government Organizations in Heritage Protection in China: a case study in Beijing”, and looked at the role of NGOs in heritage protection in China. The submission was considered an outstanding piece of work. It exhibited a good research methodology, including qualitative data analysis. The judges appreciated the cultural challenges presented by the work in terms of examining approach taken towards heritage protection in China.

Award 3

On the basis of our awards, and despite the challenges we face, there’s reason to be optimistic about the future of planning research.

For further information about the Education & Lifelong Learning Awards 2014, please contact Wendy Ellis, Lifelong Learning Officer at the RTPI: wendy.ellis@rtpi.org.uk

About Michael Harris

Dr Michael Harris is Deputy Head of Policy and Research at the Royal Town Planning Institute, where he leads on the RTPI’s research activities. Previously he was a senior associate at the new economics foundation (nef) think tank, and Director of Public and Social Innovation at Nesta (the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts). He has also worked in local government and academia. Michael has an on-going interest in localism, health and wellbeing, and community engagement.