This website uses cookies so that we can provide you with the best possible experience. If you continue to use this site we will assume that you are happy with this. You can find out more about how we use cookies here. If you would like to know more about cookies, or how you can delete them, click here.

Is planning research serving the needs of practitioners? - A response

28 August 2015

William Sparling

In a previous RTPI blog looking back on the AESOP (Association of European Schools of Planning) annual conference, Dr Michael Harris discussed the link between academia and practice. I would like to ask the same question here, partly as a reflection on AESOP, partly in response to his blog post, and to give a personal account of the issues raised.

Is planning research serving the needs of practitioners? The starting point for me is that asking this question is an important step in itself, something for which we don't stop to think about, or value enough. Planning is constantly responding to changes in wider societal level political shifts. This is where we are now. We are reflecting on how we as a profession of diverse individual roles can respond to the huge political pressure and broadly accepted demand for economic growth. With local authority planners facing resource shortages, increased competition and 'measurement' in academia, planning deregulation, and uncertainty in private practice, the scope of the discussion is huge.

It is a healthy profession that promotes and undertakes discussion about itself and organises accordingly. Taking into account a combination of the profession's reflective nature and the diversity of skills (and individual identities), I feel planning is largely operating on a linear scale of time, with fluctuating identities of the social, economic, environmental and cultural. Herein lies the issue; this largely ignores the political. At the same time, planning remains at the mercy of political ideals. How many politicians are 'planners'? How can planning influence popular opinion?

Planning research seems to still be coming to terms with and responding to very broad political concepts such as neoliberalism, resulting in critiques which may appear to be alien and abstract to many practitioners. Research attempts to operate within the environmental and social identities, whilst planning practice is dealing with, is responding and has responded to, political shifts that have already taken place. Academia prefers to operate in the currency of societal changes and influence at the highest level, be this through institutional, publishing or personal preferences. Absolutely there is a place for this. 

Research certainly does inform practice in some way, as demonstrated by Professor Simin Davoudi's story of Alan Turing, followed by the discussion during the RTPI's own roundtable discussion at AESOP. There is room, and therefore should be a place, for influence on a range of different horizontal 'levels' of academia, reflexively responding to each other. Removing an implicit hierarchy of research would also help to move closer to one another quicker and more comfortably.

Perhaps a reframing of the question is required to demonstrate how the original question is asking planning research to change identities. To ask if planning research is serving the needs of practitioners is to ask are planning researchers serving the needs of practitioners? This is why I feel research is struggling. Ultimately this questions the values, desires and ethics of those individuals carrying out the research.

If we are to develop a shared research agenda, and this is to be owned by planning research academics, first we need to make best use of the formal and informal structures that are currently available. Then develop new ones where needed, based on funding and measurement which reflect all of planning's identities, not just the economic.

Measurement in academia may also represent part of the problem, and also part of the solution. Much has been passionately written and said on measurement in academia in the UK. Articles can be found that explain in detail the way in which academia is measured, including the Research Excellence Framework (REF) exercise, and details of the use of more 'business' like models. Perhaps changes to the measurement of research impact, more use of Knowledge Transfer Partnerships (KTP), changes to publishing, and increasing the use of split-funded practice/academic positions between planning practice and universities could all be part of the solution. 

Knowledge Transfer Partnerships, for example, create partnerships between companies and universities and are administered by the Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS). Government contributes between half and two thirds of the project cost, with the private company or voluntary body contributing the remaining amount. I'm not best placed to discuss the finer details of KTP, nor their use within planning research, but they are measured by the REF.

In a more localised example, Neighbourhood Planning in Leeds also represents a formal and informal way in which barriers between research and practice are broken down and boundaries blurred. A new way of working between local government and academia has been created, in that a Neighbourhood Planning Steering Group for the city has been set-up. Spawned by engaged and positive individuals coming together, the group's remit is to meet ad hoc, discussing issues and a way forward for Localism in Leeds from a range of perspectives.

Engaging with and learning about the Neighbourhood Planning process from both practice and academia is very important for creating added value through planning. Many of the issues raised within Neighbourhood Plans in Leeds cover the protection of heritage, environment, and good design for example. All are positive visions for creating sustainable places, despite the economic growth and pro-development focus of Neighbourhood Planning. 

Despite how we as planners might feel about the current localism agenda, the steering group is a clear example of how the boundaries can be blurred. The problem is that whilst this is a significant positive step, it operates outside of formal salaried academic role. It isn't measured in itself. To make it worthwhile both professionally and to the business of the university, in light of academic measurement, the researchers must use this to publish. How much time does one person have? How close does a researcher want to formally become? 

If we are to develop a shared research agenda, and this is to be owned by planning research academics, first we need to make best use of the formal and informal structures that are currently available. Then develop new ones where needed, based on funding and measurement which reflect all of planning's identities, not just the economic.

As someone at the very beginning of what might well become a research career, it seems that this discussion has been taking place for a long time. The problem stems from the unwillingness of planning academics to 'get close' to practice, which would see them become too aligned with the prevailing political wind. Understandably so too, because this opens the whole planning system up to challenge from politicians, media and popular opinion when it is perceived as having gone wrong. And this happens all too often. The RTPI commissioned work on a shared research agenda is welcome and will hopefully encourage further discussion.

Will is a PhD candidate within the School of Built Environment and Engineering at Leeds Beckett University, researching Neighbourhood Planning in Leeds. He is on Twitter @will_sparling