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Why the twenty-first century could be an age of planning

24 November 2014

Michael Harris

Last week we published the final two papers in our Centenary Planning Horizons series of papers, on Creating Economically Successful Places and Making Better Decisions for Places. The RTPI’s Planning Horizons papers have been one of the ways in which we have marked the Institute’s Centenary year and one hundred years of professional planning, in this case by looking to the future and to the major challenges that will shape the twenty-first century.

So what have we learnt, and what does it mean for the future of professional planning?

The Horizons papers have taken a long-term and global view of planning and the contribution it can make to responding to major challenges we face in the twenty-first century – from the fundamental threat of climate change, to large-scale social and demographic shifts such as rapid urbanisation and ageing populations. We’ve examined the coming global urban health crisis, and hyper-competition and technological disruption in a globalised world economy. But our underlying argument across the papers has been the same: that the neglect of place – how we use land and the interactions between different uses – in much policy- and decision-making is harming communities, causing ill-health, undermining growth and development, and destabilising the environment. This lack of spatial thinking not only produces negative consequences for people and places now; it undercuts our ability to respond effectively to the challenges we face in the future. It has also contributed to a global crisis of trust and legitimacy in policy-makers and institutions – after all, if politicians and governments can’t solve big, collective problems, what are they good for?

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The RTPI was established 100 years ago, and was part of a broader response to the major challenges of the day. In one sense, our societies face many of the same challenges now as we did a century ago – the need for better housing, improved public health, and balancing the growth and development of towns and cities with protecting the environment. These were the social conditions that drove the development of the planning profession in the first place. In other respects however, we are now confronted by a wholly new set of challenges – the ones we’ve focused on in the Planning Horizons series – that are historically unique in their scope, scale and complexity. This is why we’ve argued, despite the supposed ‘death of distance’ that comes with the increasing reach and sophistication of modern transport and communication links (especially for those who live in the developed world), that place and space still matter, perhaps more than ever before. In a sentence, we’ve argued that the future of planning is critical to our collective future.

If we knew this at the start of the series, what have we learnt by examining these major challenges over the last year? Here are five things that stand out.

1. The sheer scale and pace of the challenges we face

We all know about climate change, but reading through IPCC reports and related commentary is more than sobering, it’s increasingly terrifying. Some of the fastest-growing cities in the world (many but not all in the developing world) will be subject to increased flooding and adverse weather conditions. Not only will millions of people be affected, but there will be a very significant impact on the global economy; the damage to these cities alone will be in many tens of billions of dollars every year. In terms of health, we’re all aware of rising obesity, but it comes as shock that half of the Chinese population is now pre-diabetic and that the country has a higher diabetes rate than the US. Seven million people died as a result of air pollution in 2012 (the vast majority in South East Asia and the Western Pacific region), making it the world’s largest single environmental health risk. And did you know that the UK is projected to have the largest  population of all EU countries by 2060, with 79 million people? These are just some of the trends that we examined in the Planning Horizons series, and they leave no room for complacency. Indeed, it is clear that the costs of acting now – such that they are – are much lower than the costs of acting later (or not acting at all).

2. These challenges are all closely inter-related

The theory and practice of spatial planning emphasises inter-relationships of course, so in one sense this is no surprise, and everything is ultimately relatable to anything else. But what examining these issues makes clear is just how inter-related they are, and so how ineffective or even self-defeating largely un-integrated responses to them will be (which, in practice, remains the norm). For the sake of comprehensibility and manageability, our papers were organised by familiar issues (the environment, health, the economy), but it proved impossible as well as undesirable to separate these issues to any extent. Spatially unbalanced and inequitable growth means that some cities and regions suffer from over-population and overwhelmed infrastructure and services, creating pressures for sprawl and degrading the environment as rural and agricultural areas are lost. Such conditions foster inequality, poor health and greater vulnerability to environmental hazards including climate change and pollution. Meanwhile, other towns, cities and regions are losing population and slip into a vicious circle of decay and decline, forcing more people to migrate to growing places in search of economic opportunity and a better life. Another way of putting this is that the central challenge remains the same as it always was: how to ensure sustainable, more equitable growth and development in a fast-changing world.

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3. The strength of the evidence base for taking action

In the Planning Horizons series we’ve tried to draw on the best available research but to make this accessible to a wide audience, including by using pictures, charts and diagrams. In some fields, we can know relatively little about ‘what works’. But in relation to many of these issues, we do largely know what we need to do (and avoid doing). For example, as we noted in our paper on healthy towns and cities, we know that sprawl correlates with higher rates of obesity, more traffic fatalities, greater ozone pollution, less social capital, higher vehicle miles travelled, lower physical activity, and higher residential energy use. So why do we continue to produce and even encourage more and more of it, at least in some places and countries? We can also learn the lessons from places that have got it right, for various reasons. The Planning Horizons papers have included numerous examples of cities and places that have planned for sustainable success, economically, socially, or environmentally (and often more than one at the same time). So why don’t more places learn these lessons? These are of course questions of implementation rather than evidence – of policy, incentives, interests, leadership, skills and capabilities, resourcing, and the ability to work across institutional and professional boundaries – and crucially, as we argued in the final paper on governance, the levels at which we make decisions. (As an aside, this also raises questions about how impactful the so-called ‘smart cities’ and ‘big data’ agendas will be, given that we aren’t even using the evidence we have at our disposal now).

4. The public and planners want the same fundamental things

Alongside the papers, we commissioned a UK public opinion survey to understand what people want from the communities in which they live. The results suggest that much of the public values what planners value – hardly surprising perhaps, given that planners are people too, and that planners seek to deliver ‘public goods’ in the wider public interest, but important to remember in an age when planners are often on the defensive. Most people want a greater say in how their communities develop. Most people also like where they live, but think that their local area offers too few economic opportunities. They think that the factors that make places attractive are local amenities, community safety, green spaces and walkability. They also think that the best way to grow their local economy is to invest in local services and amenities and make the area attractive, rather than merely trying to recruit businesses to the area. The public doesn’t have much faith in the preparedness of national and local political leaders for the major economic challenges facing countries such as the UK, but they do believe in places. Planners can, and need to, do more to harness such views, especially if they are to find ways of working with communities to help them to navigate the challenges they will face in the future.

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[I]f not planners – if not a profession with a core responsibility to consider how decisions taken now will affect the future – then who?

5. Taking action will require planners to step-up

Numerous case studies included in the papers – from Malmö to Medellín, Johannesburg to Copenhagen – demonstrate that when planners take a leading role, they can produce the places and results that everyone wants and needs. Planners don’t and can’t act alone, but the successful towns and cities we include in the papers simply won’t be what they are without planning and planners. Inevitably, to do this planners and planning need to be recognised, invested in, developed and supported. But as the RTPI’s code of professional conduct also states, planners should “fearlessly and impartially exercise their independent professional judgement to the best of their skill and understanding”. The challenges we face desperately require both impartiality – the people who are not afraid to state the facts as they are and where we’re heading – and fearlessness to do something about them.

And if not planners – if not a profession with a core responsibility to consider how decisions taken now will affect the future – then who?

To its critics (often small in number but equally often rather vocal), the twentieth century closed on the ideological defeat of ‘planning’ – that is, if you disingenuously conflate the demonstrably successful organisation of towns, cities and rural areas for public benefit, with the discredited faith in state-led economic planning. To everyone else, it’s obvious that the twenty-first century needs to represent a new age of planning if we are to secure a more successful, sustainable and just future.

The full series of Planning Horizons papers can be found on the RTPI website.

We’d like to thank everyone who contributed to the series, including of course colleagues in the RTPI's Policy and Research team, but also other colleagues, members, academic researchers and organisations.

About Michael Harris

Dr Michael Harris is Deputy Head of Policy and Research at the Royal Town Planning Institute, where he leads on the RTPI’s research activities. Previously he was a senior associate at the new economics foundation (nef) think tank, and Director of Public and Social Innovation at Nesta (the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts). He has also worked in local government and academia. Michael has an on-going interest in localism, health and wellbeing, and community engagement.