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Is International Planning still relevant in the 21st Century?

19 December 2014

As the sun sets on the RTPI‘s centenary celebrations, perhaps it is time to reflect on whether  planners should be interested in what’s happening in other countries than their own.   

During the 20th century planners embarked on the art and science of town planning and helped set up new systems; and implement layouts and concepts all over the world.  However well-intentioned, these superimposed ideas often had little regard for local issues - often causing more harm than good. 

After decades of reflection and going through one of the worst global economic recessions should contemporary planners  consider international planning in the 21st century?  Should we only focus on tackling local issues within our unique cultural environments and leave others to work out their own solutions?  Surely we know what’s best for our own cities, regions and countries?

This month’s Scottish Planner has a 6-page spread outlining the Scottish Plannerimportance of international planning and reporting that planners both in the developed and developing world are exchanging ideas and assisting each other.  Articles include tackling outdated planning systems, dealing with climate change impacts, housing and infrastructure crises; rapid urban developments, the importance of planners and updating skills.  Issues familiar to planners in both developed and developing countries. 

In Climate Change Down Under, Professor Barbara Norman reports on Australian planners producing very creative climate change adaptation solutions by collaborating with each other.  They are also sourcing and sharing knowledge, expertise and best practice with other countries. This is being spurred on the unwillingness of some politicians to make climate change impacts a priority or update old-fashioned planning systems.  The result: unique local responses to an international issue and collaborative relationship building. Just a thought…perhaps there are some solutions on the duty to co-operate for planners in England; or adaptation techniques for those working with coastal communities along Japan’s coastlines?

Peter Cockhead reports on the Zambian government welcoming international volunteer planners to assist in upskilling, capacity building and community engagement. The 1947 British planning act is still being used but has been inadequate in dealing with local issues. An effective, and more importantly, an appropriate planning system is recognised by the national government who are looking at applicable international best practice whilst incorporating local requirements.  Under a programme run by VSO, a  London based charity,  planners from 9 different countries have been assisting  local, regional and national government . A new university course has also been created which includes informal settlements and the use of African techniques e.g.  South Africa’s integrated developing planning method.  Africa is looking to its own and to other countries for appropriate best practice.   

In 2022 the beautiful game will make  its debut on the Arabian Peninsular. Qatar will be hosting the FIFA world cup and is building new stadia at an impressive pace.  However, in a country where rapid developments change the skyline on a daily basis, it is grappling with how best to plan for the spatial and economic implications of such a global event whilst implementing a new, more sustainable masterplan (QNMP 2030) which includes international best practice.  Allison Taylor comments that quick development in the West Bay area of Doha has proved the country can deliver large scale urban developments at an impressive speed. Butthis is unstainable development which has resulted in a fragmented public realm, a proliferation of car-dominated one-ways and minimal pedestrian provision. The fear is that this approach will continue in order to deliver the World Cup on time but permanently affect Doha’s inhabitants.   A successful games requires a legible landscape - something which planners are good at.  The country is therefore looking at successful global sporting events which accommodated rapid quality development.  Watch this space…perhaps the London Olympics, a successful planning-lead project, may prove to be a best practice case for Qatar.  

Major urbanisation, climate change, outdated systems and global sporting events all demonstrate that we are facing enormous challenges; that planners are needed and that we need each other.  Superimposing ideas is not always best but finding and swapping ideas on innovative solutions to every day, occasional and once-off events from elsewhere can be effective if local context is taken into account. 

So, in terms of international planning what’s the RTPI’s direction for the next 100 years? Is the Institute interested in what’s going on in other countries?

Well, we will continue on our original mission: to champion the art and science of town planning, support our members and promote and develop policy affecting planning and the built environment.  As my article reports,  with 1100 members in over 80 countries and major global challenges, the Institute  feels that  international planning and international issues also play an important part in the RTPI’s work..  This is an embedded approach here and is reflected in in our Corporate Strategy; International Strategy, International Committee, relations with sister institutes and other global planning organisations.  During our Centenary year international perspective were embedded and in our policy and research work (see this year’s Planning Horizons). here at the RTPI we are committed to playing our part in achieving a more sustainable world through spatial planning and will continue to advocate the value of planning and planners. 

If you’re interested in international planning, there are numerous ways to get involved – just check out our website for further details.

The result of all this?

Forward thinking, proactive planners implementing sustainable development, improved place-making, promoting the public good AND adapting to rapid change . 

Sounds like a good idea.  Perhaps in the 2st century being interested and active in international planning does have a place after all….

Marion Frederiksen is the RTPI’s International Policy and Research Officer.  She is a chartered town planner specialising in environmental and international planning issues.  Marion has worked in the UK and South Africa and understands both developed and developing world planning perspectives.

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