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Towards a new urban paradigm or business as usual?

03 March 2016 Author:

Why should a town planner from Basingstoke, Brisbane or Beijing care about an international conference that’s taking place 9,000 kilometers away in Ecuador in October this year?

I am a planner. I know the challenges we face as a profession – for example in the UK, this means spending cuts, changes to the planning system and the sometimes negative perceptions of planners from some politicians and commentators.

But I am also a citizen and a resident of my city. How my city provides for my needs and manages to adapt to rapid changes like increasing populations and dealing with natural or man-made disasters affects my health and determines where I live, work, socialise and feel safe, both now and in future.

As we know, climate change and rapid urbanisation is a global reality. Most people now also live in urban areas compared to rural areas, and so the biggest threats and solutions to such major challenges are to be found in our cities.

So how my city adapts to natural and man-made disasters, plans for permanent and temporary citizens, and indeed how I practice as a planner, will all be greatly influenced by what is currently being negotiated and agreed to by our national leaders in some of the most important conferences to be held in more than a generation.

Three of these major events include Habitat III, COP 21 and the World Humanitarian Summit. It is hoped that the outcomes from these will include legal commitments on tackling climate change, global urban sustainable development, and agreement on global action for refugees including rapid adaptation strategies and rebuilding efforts.

In some circles there is a feeling that this is all leading to a global paradigm shift in the way we operate, plan, adapt and rebuild our cities in future.

Certainly, at the moment these are high level meetings involving international agencies and national leaders, and so somewhat distant from the planners on the ground. But we've already seen legal commitments to tackle climate change, the new global sustainable development goals (SDGs) and a new urban agenda, and action on those who have been displaced. Commitments at the international level take time to filter down to the local level, but this is where implementation will take place - and town planners will be at the forefront.

As a result, global commitments will change how we do planning in future - for example, creating compulsory rapid adaption policies strategies for our cities, basing planning decisions on climate change impacts, increased policies implementing the SDGS and what we take into account when undertaking Strategic Environmental Assessments.

[H]ow I practice as a planner will be greatly influenced by what is currently being negotiated and agreed to by our national leaders in some of the most important conferences to be held in more than a generation.

So what am I and the RTPI doing to influence these agendas?

Two weeks ago I was fortunate enough to attend the World Urban Campaign’s (WUC) 25th Urban Thinkers Campus (UTC) event in Mannheim, Germany. The RTPI is a member and actively involved in their activities. The WUC is part of UN-Habitat and is sourcing citizens’ views from all over the world on the type of city we need to be adopted by our national leaders. This is the first time civic society has been involved in the biggest global conference of the United Nations and national leaders - Habitat III. These views will all fed into WUC’s ‘The City We Need’ document which will be presented at Habitat III and calls for a more just, healthy, socially inclusive, well planned, walkable, transit friendly, economically vibrant and safe city.

Is this not what planners advocate for?


Above: Mannheim Urban thinkers Campus Event inviting all to attend (picture: author’s own).

At Mannheim I was able in my own small way to contribute and give my own views, not only as a professional but also as a citizen and advocate for planning to be central to development.

This inspirational city is adequately coping with thousands of refugees from Syria to Somalia and so the UTC theme - 'Urban Citizenship in a Nomadic World' - was very apt. With 60 million refugees globally fleeing in the past year from both natural and manmade disasters, the discussions were pertinent in identifying how ‘arrival’ cities can adapt quickly to rapid changes and ‘exit cities’ rebuild after its citizens have left. It is predicted that more conflict and natural disasters will see rapid influxes of people to cities in future.

Approximately 500 people attended, from the Mayor of Mannheim who opened the event, ordinary citizens, refugees and those helping them, to social workers academics, mayors, entrepreneurs and built environment professionals.


Above: Dr Peter Kurz, Mayor of Mannheim opening the Urban Thinkers Campus Event (picture: author’s own).

Participants were divided into workshop groups including research and academia; children and youth; the private sector, industry and trade unions; local authorities, government and parliamentarians. Discussions centred on who comprises refugees, their needs and the challenges they face including finding accommodation and integrating into new societies, utilising their skills and accessing employment, and the bureaucratic processes encountered. It was agreed that there is a critical need for integrated decision-making and finances to be devolved to the city or local level.

However, preparing and adapting the built environment is also crucial in being able to deliver on what is required. Therefore I highlighted the importance of having mixed use developments and strategies that transcend political timeframes. I also stated we need enough built environment professionals such as town planners, architects, engineers and environmental scientists to help politicians and communities plan for and build the cities we need in a rapidly changing world. I am pleased these views were included in the final Mannheim UTC background reports and will feed into the final City We Need report.


Above: Mannheim City Centre (picture: author’s own)

Planners act on behalf of the public interest, promote sustainable environmental, economic and social development and take into account competing aims. We are at the heart of development and part of the solution. But at the moment, being able to do all this and get the city we need may be a problem. There is a worldwide shortage of skilled professional planners, a misunderstanding of what we do, and many planning systems are outdated and unable to quickly adapt and provide for our needs.

If we truly want our cities to adapt, provide for our needs, deliver and adapt to our new urban future, we all need to demand good planning, we need good legislation, we need political will and we need more people to train as planners.