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How can planning future-proof itself?

28 December 2018 Author: Mark Tewdwr-Jones

At the UK-Ireland Planning Research Conference 2018, RTPI Research Officer Daniel Slade hosted a roundtable which brought together four academics at the cutting edge of research and practice on the topic of leadership in planning.

In the second of a 5-part blog series, Mark Tewdwr-Jones FRTPI makes the case for diversifying planning practice, embracing place more than process, and working more closely with non-planning organisations.

Different types of planning leadership

As Robin Hambleton set out in his recent blog, there are different types of leadership that occur within and affect planning.  There is leadership of institutions, such as local authorities, and there is leadership of planning to address place needs and opportunities. 

Good planning leadership recognizes the importance of place, politics and governance, spatial change and flows, and the art of the possible. Add to this mix issues related to the need for transparency, accountability, effectiveness, and systems thinking, and you begin to create a unique set of skills that the planning profession already possesses to lead and manage place change. 

But there can be a world of difference between planners leading the institutions and processes of planning, and planners taking a lead in recognizing, managing and bringing about meaningful futures.

Innovative place solutions need institutional change

In many ways, I see the latter set of skills and broader notions of planning’s role as necessary for effective place-based leadership. Planning operates an essential role to coordinate, broker, facilitate, align, collaborate, overcome impediments, and shape delivery that often involves multiple agencies, dealing with complex sets of issues in a particular time and space, stretching beyond the remit of any one institution.

Planning is often criticized for its inability to respond rapidly to market needs or to the needs of communities. But without the leadership skills of planners, managing change would be much more difficult to achieve.  Here we have a dilemma: planners need to be adept, agile, responsive and synoptic but, increasingly, the ability of planners to be more innovative are straightjacketed by the very institutions of planning that employ them. 

Large public organisations, in particular, have constraints on their ability to think and act differently, caused by legal, democratic, political, performative and procurement parameters.  Whilst all these issues might be a normal part of the landscape of planning these days, they increasingly jar against the world we are trying to manage. 

Places are changing

Disruption is now a hallmark of places.  This might be caused by various trends: a society that prefers social media participation than traditional consultation or ballot box mechanisms; digitization of services and its impact on traditional land use and development silos; fragmentation of delivery agencies; or the production and display of live data about places by the nanosecond rather than through a planner-controlled, long-winded survey-analysis-plan approach.

All these issues will challenge the shape and trajectory of places, and should also lead us to rethink forms of planning.  But to what extent have planners recognized this emerging world, and have our tools and methods changed to reflect those trends? 

What should planning do?

As planners, we have a choice: we can throw up our arms in despair and lament that politicians, businesses and communities are not respecting our historical role and systems that allow us to lead and manage change. Or, we can utilise our unique knowledge and skillsets to make the case for planning’s role in understanding, communicating, visioning and leading agendas in the messy future of places.

First, planning has to become much more multiple in its forms, beyond single systems and narrow short term development delivery. It has to be agile and dynamic, performing a significant place-based role beyond a plan or strategy or performance metric, and certainly beyond elected local government.

Secondly, planning needs to embrace place more so than process. That involves making  planning visible and meaningful beyond the world of institutions and professional planners, addressing how places are seen by diverse communities, in a language that is accessible to all.

Thirdly, planning needs to be of value to non-planning agencies that require place-based help. In part, planning needs to become much more of a mechanism of convenience for them, offering a more nuanced understanding of place and space to help them to deliver their own agendas, for example in health, education, transport, digital, social services.

Does this challenge the type of planning that now exists?  Yes, certainly, but it is not that far away from what planning has sought to do in the past, nor is it a million miles away from the sort of planning that could be fit for purpose in the future. 

As places becomes more disruptive, complex and socially and economically polarized, there has never been a greater need for planning to be proactive.  But future planning leaders need to step up and be counted - who’s with me?

Guest blogs may not represent the views of the RTPI.

Mark Tewdwr-Jones

Mark Tewdwr-Jones

Mark Tewdwr-Jones FRTPI is Professor of Town Planning and Director of Newcastle City Futures at Newcastle University, UK.