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Mark Tewdwr-Jones: Taking stock of planning research potential

Mark Tewdwr-Jones is UCL Bartlett Professor of Cities and Regions, at the Bartlett Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis [email protected]


The publication of the latest version of the RTPI’s Research Strategy marks a chance to take stock of the changing and changeable position of planning research, its trajectory, its context, its uniqueness, and its impact.

For anyone who expects the story of planning research to be largely the same as it was 10 or 20 years ago, you are in for a surprise. The focus for planning research has changed demonstrably over time, as has the funding of research, who undertakes research today, what is regarded by funders as the priority themes, and where it is published.

Being creative with limited research funding sources

As an academic who has been in the game for more than 30 years, I have been confronted occasionally by practitioners who question, indeed complain, about the focus for planning research. Much like the infamous scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian where the characters ask, ‘What have the Romans ever done for us?’, practitioners have sometimes asked what planning research has done for them.

Over the years, the amount of funded research that is devoted to the planning system, and to the effectiveness of planning policies and processes, has shrunk to a miniscule level of activity. This is not due to a lack of interest by planning academics, but rather to the funders of research who have either moved their priorities or lack the means to commission it in the first place.

Even though, in the context of the Sustainable Development Goals, we would make the case that planning is at the heart of these issues, it is not highly ranked in how the funding is divided up and allocated.

To access the limited funding available, planning researchers have to be more adept at creating links to much wider substantive fields. In the UK, the government research funding body UKRI had a budget of £7.9billion in 2021-22. ‘Planning’ however does not have a separate funding pot, and it is up to researchers to bring a planning flavour to projects and claim budget lines in these large-scale projects. There are opportunities for planning researchers to develop a spatial, governance, participation, policy, creative or methodological angle to projects, knowledge and skills sets that those other disciplinary researchers may lack.

This is a much more convoluted route to planning research, and it has meant that planners pursuing these research projects are sat alongside other disciplinary and professional experts, making the case for planning but placing planning in a much wider context.

Seeing planning research as a broad endeavour

What this has also meant is a change organisationally of who undertakes planning research. Within universities, the large-scale research projects are now pursued by a consortium of researchers, drawn from a range of different subjects and schools, and are often led by someone who is not a planner.

Indeed, Inter-disciplinary research teams have become a standard model.

Within individual projects, the detailed components of the research model have also changed, with an expectation now for: ‘co-production’, where external agencies as the beneficiaries of research, are brought into the design of the research upstream; for ‘dissemination’, a detailed programme of work that channels research results to different audiences through different media; and for ‘impact’, to show how the research project outcomes bring about change in one shape or form.

Where and how we publish research is also changing. The UK, alongside 17 other countries, are implementing much more strident open access policies. This is intended to make publicly-funded research freely available to readers, but it also seems to be about breaking the monopoly and pay-walls of the larger publishers.

These are the benchmarks upon which research at universities are increasingly judged. And, now that much planning research is undertaken by planning consultancies, university researchers have realised that, rather than try to compete for this work, it may be better to form partnerships with these firms.

The RTPI’s Role in the Future of Planning Research

When asked to consider the role of the RTPI with respect to the future of planning research, the following comes to mind:

  • The planning profession needs to become much stronger advocates for planning research external to the institute, and to make strident cases to governments and funders for strategic investment in subjects where planning researchers can make a difference.

  • The role and status of early career researchers need supporting, at a time when university contracts for them are extremely fragile. This may be achieved by further collaboration and partnership, through modest training and travel grants, resources for open access publishing, supporting doctoral training partnerships, partnering for PhD study, and facilitating Knowledge Transfer Partnerships.

  • Enhance the RTPI’s communication, dissemination, and outreach activities for planning researchers, by turning this into a transferable fundable model that could be costed directly into researchers’ funded grant applications. This might cover policy interaction and briefings to practice audiences, or the organisation of dissemination events.

As the RTPI launches its new Research Strategy for 2022-2024, I am pleased to see that the central strategy principles of collaboration, advocation and dissemination echo my above points. And I look forward to seeing how the RTPI turns the strategy into an action programme.

A copy of the RTPI’s 2022 – 2024 Research Strategy can be accessed here.

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