RTPI Scotland’s annual conference, which took place on 2 October, laid down the gauntlet for planning with regard to:
- Resilient places;
- Rural places;
- Communities who feel excluded and unheard;
- Mixed evidence on the link between new transport infrastructure and economic growth;
- Economic growth while tackling inequalities;
- Lack of health infrastructure in remote places; and
- The move to zero carbon.
Should planning be seen as the silver bullet to every challenge?
As a planner it is hard not to feel slightly overwhelmed. Should planning be seen as the silver bullet to every challenge? Is it really possible for planning to solve these challenges? And if so, what do we need to do better?
Following the conference it strikes me that the way that planners work - using technology and collaborating better with others - will have a large impact on the future of Scotland’s built environment.
Technology: a double-edged sword
First, technology. What opportunities exist and should Scotland’s planners be exercising caution?
Technologies are evolving rapidly which can facilitate the job of a planner, however they also pose threats to our effectiveness and priorities.
The double-edged nature of technology was a common thread during the conference. It is deemed useful to gather data and communicate with the wider population and stakeholders, but warnings are issued that we cannot rely on it to actually plan and deliver.
Data overload and other warnings
Technology companies profit from gathering data and make our lives so convenient that increasingly we are unable to cope without them. More and more data is being gathered. Information overload makes it hard to single out the essential information which can help us, for example, to allocate housing and infrastructure where needed.
When it comes to processing data for decision making, we have to bear in mind that computer programs and technologies do not have a degree in planning! Equally, we should not let technology get the upper hand about when, what and how information is delivered to us. This applies as much to gathering technical data as to gathering public opinion on planning and development proposals.
The exploitation of data to influence people’s views and opinions has recently been criticised by many. Social media is very good in streamlining one opinion and could make people feel like there is only one option which they need to get behind – for example opposing development in principle. This can mean that the complexities of land use and development decisions can be lost in the debate. Planners need to act in the public interest and we need to ensure that public debate is based on the fullest information available, not just easily digestible snapshots.
Make technology serve us, not the other round
That said, social media can reach millions of people and is a great way to engage people across generations. Scotland’s Place Standard Tool app which assesses the quality of space using 14 different categories such as transportation, identity and belonging, natural space, is a great example that has been promoted using social media.
Once data is collected, how can planners make sure that it is effectively to influence decision making for the better? Software does not (yet!) replicate expert human learning and experience. Personal, face to face communication is irreplaceable. It vital for understanding the needs of stakeholders and communities, negotiating, and ultimately achieving better results.
It is clear that planners need to keep up to speed and start planning for increasingly automated procedures – both in terms of the planning process, and the places for which we are planning. Perhaps we need to decide if a few of us are going to specialise in the application of technologies to planning, and/or if we invest in helpful partners who can advise us on current trends and how to filter the data and tools available.
Planners cannot do it alone
Which leads me to my second theme: collaboration. There is a lot to tackle and across the different disciplines planners are doing their best to help address these issues, although limited resources no doubt impacts their ability to do so. By learning that we cannot solve these issues on our own and that we should collaborate even more with other professions and specialisms, we may achieve better outcomes.
Community Planning Partnerships were introduced in Scotland in 2003 to push for a more collaborative approach to local governance. Too often, however, planners have not been involved in either the Partnerships or the Local Outcome Improvement Plans they produce. We planners need to get more out there and show off our knowledge and skills, making the case for being involved in corporate decision making in local government and beyond.
It is up to us, planners, to think about how we can shape opportunities brought about by technology and collaboration to create great places for Scotland.
Anne Krippler is Project Intern Officer at RTPI Scotland and completing her undergraduate studies in Urban Planning and Property Development at Heriot-Watt University.