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Learning from inspiring experiences of boundary pushing planning practitioners

20 March 2017 Author: Tuna Tasan-Kok

Sao Paulo Mural

While planning students are taught to be the guardians of the public interest, in the face of power relations shaped by market dynamics, planning practitioners usually lack the power to fulfill that role. How does this make them feel? And how do planning practitioners respond to an urban development model informed by private sector involvement in large-scale projects?

A recent Planning Theory and Practice Interface shows that this system brings in new positions and space for planners to manoeuvre within their technocratic project management roles and bureaucratic boundaries. Moreover, despite the challenges, ‘boundary pushing practitioners’ exist around the world who explore new planning practice methods following their own coping mechanisms, activism and creativity to get around barriers and problems. The Interface collects the experiences of these boundary-pushing practitioners and their messages to planning educators.

Giving the voice to practitioners from different parts of the world (Sweden, Turkey, Israel, Brazil, Belgium, South Africa and the Netherlands), the Interface shows that we can learn from the coping mechanisms of the practitioners about new methods, instruments and ways of thinking. The invited authors are practicing planners from different backgrounds, professional stances and career paths, reflecting on the learning practices that they consider should be included in planning education. What unites them is their desire for social and environmental justice. But how do they do it, and what can planning educators learn from these experiences?

Planning practice is full of unforeseen challenges, which are usually too vague, too dynamic, or too difficult to grasp at once. Through the small window into the practitioners’ world provided by this Interface, we learn several coping mechanisms that practitioners use to deal with challenges they face. First of all, practitioners agree that the ability to take a proactive stance to step outside bureaucratic limits and explore alternative paths in order to deal with issues is a key feature of the practice today. Although sometimes the position of the planner can feel restricted, practitioners believe in the power of staying optimistic. However, they suggest, practitioners should be aware of the reality. This does not mean accepting the conditions as they are, but on the contrary,being adaptive and responsive to the realityto safeguard the public interest.

Practitioners agree that making achievable plans is a key to success in this respect. However, there is no prescription of how this can be achieved.

“The most fun part of being a spatial planner is fitting societal ideals into actual achievable plans.” (Jimme Zoete, Dutch practitioner)

Most of planning practice is about learning by doing, and academic education can only provide the essential tools. The rest is up to the practitioner to build up.

“There are no short-cuts in this road to becoming a planner. The academic education provides essential tools for analysing and producing policy papers and plans but eventually you must constantly enrich your knowledge and expand your expertise as part of your daily practice.” (Hila Lothan, Israeli practitioner)

Practitioners are also very enthusiastic about giving some clear messages to the planning academics and educators. Firstly, they ask academics to teach students to be strategic in their actions, tounderstand which battles are important. This also requires a good understanding of the variety of roles they can take up in society. Education should challenge students to take a stance and at least prepare them to engage in dialogue with local actors, stakeholders and civil society. However, they indicate, planning educators should not shy away from stimulating an entrepreneurial spirit, which does not necessarily contradict a social agenda. On the contrary, it asks them to be proactive and politically active outside the workplace.

Activism appears almost like a collective and unspoken agreement among the practitioners from different parts of the world as an aspect to be included in planning education. Practitioners call for engaging students with the real city and its politics by stimulating them to be part of public debates and social movements by teaching them to think outside the box. Practitioners also suggest that education should teach students to channel urban social movements into place-making activities. This, however, requires facing the messy reality, already there during education, by forcing students to step outside the academic comfort zone. Aside from these societal dimensions, practitioners also underline the importance of the direct exposure to practical work experience within both the public and private sector in early stages of education. For instance, in order to be facilitators, they emphasise the importance of understanding the basic dynamics and consequences of land ownership in both financial and legal terms.

This Interface not only shows how planning practitioners experience the daily reality by ‘pushing boundaries’ but also offers clear suggestions to add new dimensions in planning education. In summary, practitioners, in the eyes of the authors, should be taught skills to both know and implement the rules nicely, but also be prepared to fight back when needed, as the title ‘float like a butterfly, sting like a bee’ suggests.  

Tuna Tasan-Kok

Tuna Tasan-Kok

Dr. Tuna Tasan-Kok is associate professor at the University of Amsterdam.