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How should planning practice evolve in the urban century?

29 October 2018 Author: Cliff Hague and Christine Platt

Planning is now identified by the United Nations as a key means to deliver prosperity for all and sustainable places in this “urban century”. 

The wider context, of course, is the scale and pace of urbanisation, and the recognition that so many of the world’s concerns such as climate change or poverty alleviation depend on making cities better.

What is new is the recognition that unplanned urbanisation has failed and widening urban inequalities are a threat to future security, and so urban and territorial planning not only has to be central to these 21st century issues, but also must be refocused.

A new vision for urban planning

The UN Habitat’s International Guidelines on Urban and Territorial Planning (IG-UTP) was the first initiative to pull together on a truly global scale a set of principles to inform and revamp planning practice. Experts who prepared them were drawn from all corners of the globe and represented all Habitat partner groups, including national and local government, civil society, the profession, academia and international agencies.

The IG-UTP are intended to be “a framework for improving global policies, plans, designs and implementation processes, which will lead to more compact, socially inclusive, better integrated and connected cities and territories that foster sustainable urban development and are resilient to climate change.” Amongst the key messages are that plans need to be integrative, participatory and responsive to the voices of the poor.

Although they have not been promoted in UK, where most practitioners remain unaware of them, the IG-UTP have been downloaded more than 100,000 times and translated into more than 19 languages.

In approving the Guidelines the Governing Council of UN-Habitat called on “international financial institutions, development agencies, and UN-Habitat to assist interested Member States in using and adapting the Guidelines to their territorial and national contexts, where appropriate, and further developing tools and monitoring indicators”.

The relevance of these guidelines is demonstrated in a series of case studies, “Inspiring Practices”, which are collected from very different countries and show where these principles are already being put into practice.

Leading change

The IG – UTP are of necessity a distillation of the key principles agreed by the experts. Therefore, they could not reflect the rich discussion which underpinned their formulation. The book Leading Change: Delivering the New Urban Agenda through Urban and Territorial Planning captures and expands on some of the most critical issues.  

It builds on the IG-UTP to advocate the case for strongly aligning planning practices to address outcomes sought in the New Urban Agenda. Its style emphasises the urgent need to refocus planning. It celebrates the contribution of planning, for example, in the post-1945 recovery of Europe, but also takes a cold, hard look at failures where “planning has become the handmaiden of developers, and its over-arching and integrating capacity has been drained, reducing it to just another regulatory silo.”

Leading Change advocates a human-rights based approach to planning, highlighting internationally agreed social and economic rights, and not just the political rights that are more familiar to us.  There is a Manifesto for Planning. As in the IG-UTP, messages are directed at national governments, local governments, civil society organisations, and professionals and their associations.

The focus is global, while recognising that the messages need to be adapted to fit different development situations and institutional contexts. However, there is also a strong theme that planning needs to be linked to budgets and that major infrastructure should be integrated through the plan.

“Humanity has never lived like this before”

A key argument is that too often planning systems and practices have failed to keep up with change. Many of the conventions on human rights post-date the design of planning systems. So, much planning practice remains unapologetically gender-blind, yet the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and Girls imposes obligations on governments.

The book shows how gender is a factor to consider in planning for transport or small business development, for example. Similarly, climate change adaptation and mitigation are still not explicitly addressed in most planning legislation; food security and urban agriculture need to be on planners’ radar, but rarely are.

The concluding chapter in Leading Change sums up the urgency, scale and magnitude of the challenge – simply put, “Humanity has never lived like this before”.

Planning needs to be simple and clear to address inequality

It argues that planning needs to be simple and clear because “urban development is a very uneven playing field, and the passion of the poor and vulnerable is unlikely to be a match for the lawyers that the rich and powerful can hire to argue their case through formal systems of appeal and review.” This applies in rich countries as well as poor countries: the need for greater equity is universal.

Examples in the book show that innovative actions are being implemented in cities as different as Portland, Oregon and Durban, in rural Indonesia and in cities in Mozambique and Argentina.

Planners are rising up to the global challenge: it can be done and must be done, but time is short, and we each need to decide what part we can best play.

Leading Change can be downloaded free. 

Guest blogs may not represent the views of the RTPI.


Cliff Hague and Christine Platt

Cliff Hague and Christine Platt

Cliff Hague is Past President of RTPI and of the Commonwealth Association of Planners Christine Platt is Immediate Past President of the Commonwealth Association of Planners