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Future proofing with future thinking

21 August 2013

Gayle Wootton, Research Officer (Centenary), RTPI

It was back in April that the research process began for the first of five policy reports to mark the RTPI’s Centenary year in 2014. Entitled ‘Future Proofing Society’, the two areas of focus for this report are climate change and demographic change - not straightforward, uncomplicated themes by any stretch of the imagination. The five Centenary reports tackle some of the most challenging issues that we in the planning profession have to deal with: economics, spatiality, governance, population growth as well as environmental pressures. They will form a showcase series documenting how planners are facing up to these challenges, including highlighting case studies from around the world, but also show what still needs to be done.

One of the first sources that really caught my attention was a paper by Tony Matthews of Griffin University in Australia called ‘Institutional perspectives on operationalizing climate adaptation through planning’[1]. It’s clear from the title that this is not bedtime reading, but Matthews' point, that we should forget about planning for climate change and start planning in climate, change really struck a chord with me. From my environmental background I'm aware that globally we are already witnessing the impact of a changing climate, from the 2007 Gloucestershire floods to Hurricane Sandy last year. And yet, we still tend to believe that climate change is something that will happen in the future, for future generations to worry about. Do the inhabitants of those low lying Pacific islands think the same?

Two other facts that really surprised me: taking population density into account, south east England currently has less water per person than many hotter countries such as Morocco and Egypt[2] and that of all the European member states, the UK is projected to have the largest population by 2060[3]. Yes that’s right, the largest population – predictions indicate that there will be 79 million inhabitants on these islands, with France second with 74 million. 2060 is a little way off and I may or may not be there to see it, but if parts of the country already have water shortage problems and those parts are where the population is growing the fastest, well, the challenge is obvious.

So what can be done? A regular reader of the excellent Atlantic Cities led me to discover this US town’s plan to raise the level of their town out of reach of the flood risk. A genius solution costing $200 million to lift the entire town 11 feet over two years. Simple! But this is not feasible everywhere and may not buy the town its safety forever. Additionally, some may ask why the town developed there in the first place if the flood risk is so great.

I was recently fortunate enough to travel to Singapore (not on expenses I’ll hasten to add). What struck me there was the history of the ‘concept plan’ that was initiated by Lee Kuan Yew’s government back in 1971, and the level of adherence to which the current Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) have implemented the plan. There’s a great quote on the URA’s website which exemplifies this: ‘By 1989, much of Singapore's infrastructure as envisaged in the 1971 Concept Plan - new towns, expressways, the MRT system and the renewal of the Central Area - had already been put in place’. These are not words that we read very often in different contexts.


Figure 1. Possible land use allocation in Singapore beyond 2030. Source: Ministry of National Development

Certainly, Singapore is a wealthy city and billions can be spent on new developments and road infrastructure. It's also a very different political context. But crucially for me, right from the start, land use planning and transport planning have been integrated. Its long term vision has always been to create a high density urban area with extremely limited private transport and a world-renowned public transport system. Roads are now being moved underground to release valuable land for development and make the central business district more walking friendly. Of course there are issues; the proliferation of vast malls full of escalators and brilliantly lit shops fuels emission use and consumer-driven lifestyles, but the vast majority of people do not travel far on a daily basis and live in small apartments where emissions are kept low (the latest comparable figures are from 2007 and show CO2 emissions per capita in Singapore were 8t compared with the UK figure of 8.9t[4]).

In terms of social cohesion, the ethnic integration policy and associated residency quotas ensure that each neighbourhood is a cultural mix. Ethnicity is much more of a talked about subject, with your category stamped on your residency card, and the government are actively managing the situation to avoid some of the tensions of the past. Tensions still exist and have resurfaced with the new plan to actively seek more long-term immigrants, but National Day is still celebrated by Singaporeans of all backgrounds.

Clearly a straight comparison between the two nations is neither fair nor feasible, but the question that developed during my visit is where is the long-termism in UK planning? Our four nations all do things differently and some are arguably better at thinking strategically than others; further, who is to say that by thinking strategically they are tackling the issues around climate change or demographic change any better than a governance structure thinking more reactively? But with recent headlines about the scrapping of plans for 3,600 homes near Stevenage, UK planning being the ‘most difficult in the world’, the planning process preventing energy efficient modifications to homes, out of town developments gaining permission over town centre ones and escalating costs of high speed rail, I think it’s a question worth asking.

We will be holding stakeholder engagement events in the autumn and spring to address some of these topics and try to identify great examples of best practice both in the UK and beyond. We are also looking for input as to what the profession should be doing differently, and very much welcome members’ and non-members’ input.

If you would like to get involved with the Future Proofing Society report, or any other of the Centenary Policy Futures reports please visit our website for more information or email

About Gayle Wootton

Gayle Wootton is RTPI Research Officer for the Centenary Projects. She joined the RTPI in 2012 firstly as England and Wales Policy Officer building on her background of environmental policy in a Welsh planning context. Gayle previously ran a £10m European funded Regeneration Programme for the Welsh Government, but has also worked for the Countryside Council for Wales for seven years and the Environment Agency Wales in their Strategic Unit. She is currently completing an MSc in Social Science Research Methods and will embark on a PhD in the autumn. Gayle can be contacted at


[1] Matthews, T. 2013. Institutional perspectives on operationalizing climate adaptation through planning. Planning Theory and Practice 14(2), pp.198-210.