Allowing Planning to be Praised Pupil, not Dejected Dullard

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A recent article in The Guardian beseeches us to make town planning as cool as architecture, for the sake of our cities.

The author, Tom Campbell, makes a compelling argument, pointing to the desperate need for better planning given the current state of affairs. Whilst he focuses on England, the same arguments for the need for this paradigm shift could be applied to many, many countries and certainly here in Melbourne, Australia where barely a day passes without editorial content spilling out of local papers on urban planning and how badly we’re currently tracking.

But this is an interesting point, and brings me to mine. Aside from the fact that everyone seems to have an idea of what Melbourne (or indeed, other cities) should be doing, planners themselves are forbidden from doing what they do best: namely, plan. If the same professional disregard was afforded to medical practitioners, our health would be even more woeful than what our bursting bellies and belts already tell us it is. Similarly, if we neglected the advice from scientists regarding climate change…oh wait, I live in Australia. Bad example. Move on. The point here is that – for the most part – we respect people in positions that we know nothing about, even when we claim we do, and let them get on with their job, safe in the knowledge that they have studied and worked in a field for longer than us and therefore are infinitely better equipped to solve problem X, or at least better placed to discuss it.

Not so with planning. Planning has become the most forlorn child in the career classroom. Always relegated to the back of class, it sits there dressed in forever beige, bruised and bereft, despondent and desperate, eyeing it’s more fashionable friends of design and architecture, vying for teachers attention. But what is so desperate about this pitiful image is that planning could be incredible if it was allowed to be. Brimming with brilliance and bright ideas planning it has been beaten into submission but that does not mean its ideas are any less fantastic, any less valid.

What seems to happen in planning is that people enter the profession and find themselves not only not being brave, but not allowing to be. A friend of mine recently joined a large planning firm where he had to find fault with a perfectly good submission for a medium rise development. I asked him if he had sold out. His embarrassed, awkward smile spoke louder than any words that followed. Sadly, he has become that child at the back of the class.

It’s not up to us, as planners, to make planning ‘cool’ again as the article implores us to. It’s up to politicians and better forms of governance to allow us to do our job. Planning is already cool. Planning has the ability to get you to work on time, or not. It enables you to ride a bike to school, or not. It ensures you have green space near you, or not. It provides security, safety, better amenity. Or not. But what planning has become is a diluted, impoverished version of itself. People, you’re not seeing what its potential actually is.

I can’t help but wonder what the world would look like in if planners were actually encouraged and allowed to do their job. It would save people from having to tweak the edges and muck about with quick fixes. A recent post on Planetizen entitled ‘How to Crowdfund a Bike Lane’, is an excellent example of this. Heralded as a positive outcome, I can’t help but ask ‘What have we become that we virtually have to hand around the hat and take donations for built infrastructure to make our cities safe and the sort of places we want them to be? Why have we failed so much and ignored solid advice about how to plan place and space?’ I’m all for participatory planning and a keen advocate for it, but planning like this is just, well, sad.

Again, tirelessly, I say: if things were working and everything was awesome and the environment and our physical health was optimal I’d say ‘As you were – keep prohibiting us from proper planning’. Sadly, we’re not in such an enviable position. But we could be if you just let us get on with our job.

Still in doubt? Then ask yourself this: why would planners want to make the world worse? After all, we live here too.

 

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5 comments

  1. The big problem with planning is our social positioning relative to power. Our clients are governments. The space for private enterprise planning is negligible, especially in the third world where planning critically matters. So we always find politicians and technocrats somehow deciding and compromising decision taking by simply trimming budgets. And yes, everyone and his aunt thinks they know planning and can join in taking actions flippantly in seconds, and they often do. Thats because damages are not immediately comprehended or are detached from consequences.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Mohammed and thanks for your comment! You have pointed to pretty much everything that I was trying to get across. The impact of bad planning decisions is completely relevant, so thank you for adding that in. I always think there should be 3D modelling for any structure built (both aerially but also at the ground level) so people can comprehend the impact it will have. Sadly, there are few countries that afford their citizens such a luxury.

      Thanks again!

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  2. I think the biggest problems I see stem from the uncritical acceptance of the doctrines of traffic engineering and of the “free market”. In North America they have combined to produce some of the worst urban development imaginable. Yet anyone who points out the errors that have created the suburban sprawl, the increasing inequality of our cities or the significant impact on human health is regarded as eccentric at best or some kind of extremist. We have known for years that our obsessions with exclusive zoning, separated land uses, ludicrous minimum parking requirements, level of service standards for urban roads and all the rest of it are the problem. Yet the general public continues to defend the worst current practices because of their largely irrational fears of property values falling if current planning practices are abandoned. Just yesterday a leading news item on the Vancouver TV news was of a protest in North Vancouver against the proposed provision of sidewalks! This is in the province of BC, Canada which is determined to increase the amount of freeways in its major urban area while at the same time undermining the provision of adequate public transport. Despite the experience of Australian cities, our politicians still think P3s are a neat idea.

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    1. Hi Stephen and thanks for your observations. Firstly, I think that poor urban development outcomes are can be found everywhere, sadly, and they’re not just found in North America. I think there is a lot of misinformation about cities that the average person takes as gospel, without realising that the information is poor or incorrect. I think the other thing is that because so many people reside, work or have at least been in a city or urbanised area, they feel they are well positioned to comment on development without perhaps understanding the bigger picture (such as more roads lead to less traffic, or such lunacy). I wonder if people were better educated on planning, they would demand more from politicians and planners would therefore be able to do their job more affectively and create better outcomes.

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