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Why we need to shout about planning

03 February 2016 Author: Rebecca Hildreth

Megaphone

As a non-planner and still relatively new to the world of planning, I’ve been struck over the past few months by two things. One is that planning is a vital and exciting profession. The second is that planners are, almost by nature, reluctant to shout about it.

Perhaps the latter is because planning is by definition a collaborative enterprise. Planners get the community and other professions onto the same page to deliver something good, but this means that they are perhaps too shy about promoting themselves and their achievements compared to architects, builders, engineers and others. Large sections of the public may only be reminded of planning by the notices fixed to lamp posts and occasionally the formal brown envelopes dropped through their doors regarding this or that proposed scheme or building in their area.  

One personal example. Five years ago a decision was taken to redevelop a large local hospital close to me. It was a beautiful art deco building situated in attractive grounds, and local groups were up in arms. The planners were noticeable by their absence in local media and when they did appear they seemed defensive. During the works to demolish the building there was nothing published about what the vision for the area would be other than woolly statements like “community health services will be provided, a new school will be built to answer the rapid growth in the number school age children” etc.

What has been built however is an attractive state-of-the-art health centre with plenty of parking and a bus stop in lovely landscaped gardens which retain all of the old trees. A similarly attractive new primary school has also been built on the site, and for the first time there is a footpath which leads directly to the station through the area (this shaves five minutes off my daily commute). It is a triumph – it is heavily used by the groups which previously complained about it and has probably boosted local businesses too.

Whereas architects are often the first to promote themselves when they’ve designed a great building or won a big contract, it seems to me that it’s rare that planners invite the media in to see what they do. In short, we need more egos, more self-promoters.

Of course, I’m sure most people in the area have given no thought to who made this all happen. Amongst all the local history information points in the development which show the many uses the land has been put to over the past 200 years, there is nothing that describes the planners’ vision, the process for creating what we experience now, or who was behind it. Why?

I am privileged to see all the entries to our annual Planning Awards as they come in and my reaction as a non-planner is often “Wow! That’s so cool”. Whereas architects are often the first to promote themselves when they’ve designed a great building or won a big contract, it seems to me that it’s rare that planners invite the media in to see what they do. In short, we need more egos, more self-promoters.

Beyond planners’ natural reticence, another thing that doesn’t help is our use of jargon and vague terminology. I recently sat through a presentation which constantly talked about “cliff edges” and “high density European vernacular housing” in relation to an urban regeneration project. It meant nothing to me and I switched off. I also see too many documents which talk about planning being the “making of space or place” (something reflected in our own logo of course). Again, to the non-planner this means little and doesn’t help to communicate the science and art of planning, let alone its positive effects.

This isn’t just about PR of course – it makes it easier for some policymakers to depict planning as unnecessary process and ‘streamlining’ planning as “getting rid of bureaucracy”.

We all need to own this. Planners need to be much more proactive in promoting their work at both a local and national level through the media, as well as using all of the ways they can to engage the public in plan-making. Many already do of course – here’s just one recent example of the latter from the West of England’s Joint Spatial Plan and Transport Study – but we need to do much more of both.

I have some personal experience of this. Many years ago I was hired to create a huge community project for a borough council and was placed in the planning department. When I called up the local press to talk about it the journalist was surprised to hear from me, saying “No-one in the planning department ever rings me”.)

So let’s get on the front foot. If you’re creating a plan, why not invite a local journalist in to show them how you go about it and how you are trying to make the area better? Personalise the process – make it human, and demonstrate the passion many planners have for improving their communities. Publicise data – on quality of life, the local economy etc – to show how planning has helped to transform areas. And create the story (as in my local hospital example).

The RTPI also has a critical role to play of course. We’re currently collating our annual review which will highlight just some of the ways in which the Institute has been working to defend and promote planning over the last year – from our award schemes including the recent England’s Great Places initiative, to reports and publications, our media work, national and regional events, engaging with policy- and decision-makers across the UK, and our International activity (especially important in the run-up to this year’s major UN Habitat III conference). But we’re always conscious that there’s much more to be done, especially with planning under pressure in the way it is at the moment.

Fundamentally, what we need to remember is that not many professions (if any) can claim to have the vision and responsibility for actively transforming communities for the better in ways that affect us all – from health and wellbeing, to the economy and population change – let alone helping to preserve and protect our collective future.

That’s something to shout about.

Rebecca Hildreth

Rebecca Hildreth

Head of Marketing and Sponsorship, RTPI