PRACTICE | Culturising Planning

Posted on 23/10/2009


I’ve been quiet on PlaceBlog lately because I’ve been reading and researching for an article. At present, I’m looking at  place management and the cultural grounding of planning – this text represents the beginning of my reading and thinking about these ideas. Both of these ideas are, in a way, indicative of a shift in planning/urban practice and more broadly in our thinking about our cities. Through the course of my reading, I’ve found a number of references to a ‘crisis’ in planning partly due to the position of planning within Councils and development, which in turn inflects in the construction of professional identity, and signficantly due to tensions between modernist, neo-modernist and postmodern positions or dispositions. Perhaps these indicate that an ontological inquiry is needed, not only in terms of professional identities (or the sense of purpose a professional identity purportedly imbues) but also in terms of cities and the construction of planning itself, particularly as it interfaces with other practices such as design, community development, economic development and cultural development.

In a 2004 editorial in Urban Policy and Research (v. 22, n. 4), Carolyn Whitzman considers the situation in planning as a ‘crisis’ given a shortage of planners and retention issues, particularly of women. It’s interesting to note that such a crisis is occurring at the time when there is what seems like unprecedented attention on our urban environments. One of the points she makes is that there is a need for values and ideals in planning. She says that planning should be more idealistic, giving planners both a sense of mission and practical tools for city-making. Brendan Gleeson (Urban Policy and Research, v. 22, n. 3) proposes a more participatory and collaborative approach to planning, a shift away from programmatic approaches to social formations, like ‘community’. He poses the question of whether community, for example, can be masterplanned. If it can be then it is easy to deliver as a commodity, with an attendent focus on infrastructure rather than relationships. In proposing another model, he suggests “a different sort of masterplanning might focus less on physical infrastructure (or at least its instantaneous provision) and more on building networks, relationships, capacities and possibilities for social interaction”. In other words, planning, and this applies to urban design too, should not deliver a stage set but be conducted as a living project favouring collaboration and participation.

While these ideas have been rehearsed for some decades, scripted by prominent advocates, they present a platform from which to evoke other kinds of urban practices and possibilities. It seems somehow incongruous that planning, given that cities are foundationally cultural formations or cultural artefacts, has not found a cultural footing or asserted a cultural role. Yet, given the tendencies of silos and guilds, it is equally understandable. As stated at the commencement of this text, planning is languishing and in order to revive, Greg Young (Reshaping Planning with Culture, Ashgate, 2008) suggests, “planning first needs to capture something of the true dynamism of culture”. He proposes, where culture connects, planning has disconnected: “Culture’s capacity to connection, and to transcend the frame of planning forms, has an unrivalled ability to promote joined up planning, and to deliver planning transformations”. Young describes the need for culturised planning which involves the ethical, critical and reflexive integration of culture into planning and potentially other areas such as public administration, corporate strategy and development thinking. It calls for a practice of continuous interpretation across spatial and strategic practices.

Place management also seems to step off the platform in a way that speaks to those ideas of possibility and practice. I’d initially started to write and read about place management with a view to unpacking some ideas about its relation to cultural programming and production. It seemed that the localities which were being somehow place managed were also providing opportunities for artistic and cultural development, ranging from events to cultural hubs to community art to markets to public art. It seemed that place management was one avenue through which to realise an integrated cultural agenda for a city or community that didn’t necessarily marginalise cultural development as a bundle of inured and disconnected artforms and institutions – somehow foundational for economic development agendas of creative industries and tourism – in the way that some local cultural planning and policy has done.

On the one hand place management offers a segue for cultural activation in city making and on the other it can seem to concentrate resources in areas that might otherwise be more evenly distributed. In other contexts, grabbing at cultural activation is a way of artifically inflating the profile of a location: giving people something to do, creating a veneer of activity or acting as a short term attractor, rather than reflecting that which is deeply ingrained in a place or not connected into other dimensions of the planning, identity or community of a place. Place management is, of course, a much more complex ecology of practices than cultural activation. On the Institute of Place Management website, place management is defined as “the process of making better places … successful places, those that pass the test of time, evolve to meet the changing needs of those that use them. Increasingly, attempts are being made to manage this evolution through some type of proactive intervention process”. It imbues a way of doing things in and with places that ‘gets things done’. That is, by renegotiating the public administration and service delivery preoccupations from outputs to outcomes, it engenders a concern with ends (see John Mant, Mark Latham). It offers both a critique of current public administration and an alternative to it. It also aims to recapture public governance from the guilds, professions and silos by offering a horizontal engagement for customers in a place based or locality focused way. That is, services and opportunities are provided where and how they are needed rather than enmeshed in the vertical structures of government which many find inaccessible. Effectively place management is a response to the systemic problem – perhaps failure – of public governance and its focus on ‘functional structures’.

In isolation, planning, design, cultural development and community development cannot address these concerns and an integrated response and systemic approach is required. Rather than refer to a holistic approach (which can often manifest as a God’s eye view), I’ve noted this has been described elsewhere as ‘joined up’ (noting that Young also refers to ‘joined up planning’), a term that evokes a hybrid, connective, recombinant, inclusive and multiplying process. In my life as a cultural critic, I have had cause to address artistic/interdisciplinary collaboration, which has been described as ‘third culture’ (CP Snow) and ‘the third hand’ (Charles Green). Clearly, these ideas of a ‘third’ indicate that there is a need for something ‘other’, something beyond what we already know and do, something that is dynamic and alive. Perhaps this can also be considered in terms of habitat/habitus (Pierre Bordieu) and in so saying it’s important to recognise that much of what we do in the urban realm is predicated on representation and interpretation. Without deferring to ideas about spatial determinism – place making being formative of our material circumstances – the cities we make have a way of making us. If planning can be embedded within a living practice (or within a composite of living practices), then perhaps it is better equipped to deal with a living community, a living economy and living systems. Place management is only as effective as the knowledges and priorities that drive it: for example, place management can be corporatist or neoliberal, and it can be delocalising (despite the edicts of ‘place branding’ that say ‘keep it real’). For me, the term place management doesn’t sit right. connoting efficiency, control and organisation – places are messy, loose and networked. However, a place management linked into agendas such as Equitable Development (or Responsible Development) seems to offer another trajectory or depth for making the world and engaging cultural meaning.

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