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Taking the science of planning seriously

02 May 2017 Author:

On Saturday 22 April, the March for Science, a non-partisan movement that “champions robustly funded and publicly communicated science as a pillar of human freedom and prosperity", took place in Washington D.C. as well as in a number of satellite locations including British cities.

It brings people's attention to the role that science plays in improving our lives and advancing knowledge, and promotes principles such as ‘science that serves the common good’ and ‘evidence-based policy and regulations in the public interest’. 

Prior to the EU Referendum vote in June 2016, Michael Gove embodied what some people interpreted as the opposite view when he infamously asserted on Sky News that ‘people [in Britain] have had enough of experts’. The emergence of the March for Science reflects wider concerns about the status and impact of evidence, critical enquiry, and analysis; some government policy is already characterised by a weak evidence base.

Faced with the supposed rise of a “post-truth” era and its threat to academia and experts, we need to reassert the importance of evidence and critical enquiry.

This echoes the RTPI’s mission as a charity whose purpose is ‘to advance the science and art of planning (including town and country and spatial planning) for the benefit of the public’, and our role as a learned society.

When thinking of ‘science’, the archetypal image is that of researchers in the natural sciences in white lab coats handling test tubes (the Atom is the March’s emblem). However, the social sciences – which planning as a discipline mostly falls under – also encompasses scientific methods, both quantitative and qualitative, albeit using different methods than natural science methods. It can also be directly applied to real social conditions. This goes back to John Snow's work on contaminated water sources maps in 19th century London and Charles Booth’s work in mapping poverty, prior to the emergence of professional planning.

This is why RTPI promotes and supports research. As part of this, the RTPI Research Awards were launched in 2015 and are intended to recognise the best spatial planning research from RTPI accredited planning schools and to highlight the implications of academic research for policy and practice. Since last year this also includes research undertaken by experts within planning consultancies. One of the ultimate aims of the Awards is to disseminate (the best) scientific research to practitioners and policymakers audiences.

One of the categories, the Sir Peter Hall for Wider Engagement, aims to recognise the communication of planning research to wider audiences beyond academia, echoing the March for Science’s desire for ‘publicly communicated science’. For instance, the Newcastle City Futures project which was commended last year in this category engaged with citizens in Newcastle about future visions for the city, while also being a project underpinned by rigorous academic research.

The relevance to planning policy and practice – along other including a rigorous methodological approach - is one of the judging criteria for all categories in the Awards. It has been debated on this blog whether academic planning research serves the needs of practitioners. This is an important debate precisely because one of the cornerstones of the Research Awards is the idea that practice should be informed by reflective, critical research.

The research we have received over the past two years from academics, student and consultancies, is also striking in the breadth of geographies and topics it covers – from planning and health, to planning gain, infrastructure, economic growth and affordable housing, issues that have got real life consequences.

Alongside the RTPI Planning Awards (this article by Peter Geraghty explains why they are important), the Research Awards are part of our broader efforts to celebrate excellent research undertaken are a crucial part to celebrate planning as a discipline and to show the value that good planning makes to the wellbeing of society and ‘improving our lives’.

Entries for the Awards are open until Friday 19 May. We are grateful for the support of our sponsors Idox and Routledge/T&F on the Research Awards since their inception.