PLANNING | Cultural planning – lost opportunities

Posted on 04/12/2009


I am not entirely convinced that the prevailing methodologies for cultural planning necessarily deliver the range of results that cities, communities, cultural interests and economies really need for the purposes of promoting sustainable development. In this post, I am really only thinking about the type of cultural planning that local government undertakes rather than the higher level and integrated policy and planning that state and federal governments should be producing. There is often a focus on infrastructure at a local government level. At a state level, however, there is an emphasis on artform based sector development and infrastructure planning rather than integrated cultural planning and development. I often feel that this field of planning is littered with lost opportunities especially when it comes to accounting for ‘cultural capital’.

In general, my reading of cultural plans is that they tend to overly focus on the arts, cultural events and, increasingly, creative industries without necessarily driving towards a more complex appreciation of the framing of culture in everyday life. That’s not an argument for planning that is focused exclusively on community cultural development or community arts, but rather an attempt to position cultural life as a range of complex interactions, creations and transactions. This becomes vitally important if, as Agenda 21 for Culture states, “the role of culture in sustainable development is mainly about including a cultural perspective in all public policies. It is about guaranteeing that any sustainable development process has a soul.” Wherever we’re producing cultural plans, we’re usually casting something into the future that is really needed or warranted now. There is always a spatial and temporal disjoint in the planning process – yet sustainability has become an imperative. I am keen to understand what sort of innovation or creativity is possible through cultural planning – not just in the plan itself (as a narrative) but also as a result of it – in order to meet the demands of sustainability.

Culture has a role to play in the promotion of sustainable development. In recently released report by Committee on culture of United Cities and Local Governments reflected on the 5th anniversary of the Agenda 21 for Culture some shifts about culture were noted:

In recent years, culture has moved on and is currently included worldwide in local debates related to development, because of its essential vocation to foster human rights, shape the society of knowledge and improve the quality of life of all people, as well as for its more instrumental contribution to urban regeneration or social inclusion. Culture is also one of the aims of current globalisation: intercultural dialogue and the promotion of cultural diversity are great challenges for humanity, and international cooperation programmes increasingly pay greater attention to heritage, the arts and the creative industries.

Taking this broad brushstroke approach, it concerns me that cultural planning does not figure more prominently, formatively or expansively in Australian cities, even thought local and state authorities are reciting the ‘creative cities’ mantra (sometimes it seems like more of a slogan than an aphorism). The Agenda 21 for Culture addressed the following vision:

Local policies for development are usually based on the virtuous triangle of sustainability: economic growth, social inclusion, environmental balance. Today, this triangle is not sufficient. Culture is becoming, partly thanks to the impact of Agenda 21 for culture, in the fourth pillar of sustainable development at a local level. Local cultural policies, based on the intrinsic values of culture (creativity, critical knowledge, diversity, memory, rituality…) are becoming more important for democracy and citizenship.

Having perused a handful of Australian local authority driven cultural plans, I’ve not seen such expansive thinking reflected in those plans. Part of the challenge for cultural planners lies in the conflation of cultural and social dimensions. In carving out the territory of cultural planning (and thus limiting it) to the arenas of the arts, creative industries and cultural infrastructure, there is a misrepresentation of cultural life (others have also noted that cultural policy is often regarded as interchangeable with arts policy).  Yet, this conflation continues in the organisation of professional interests and in the formulation of planning regulation and policy. Some of my thinking has been coloured by the following:

1. The Planning Institute of Australia features a number of chapters. Among them is a social planning chapter and social planning is defined (inasmuch as it can be) to include a range of planning practices including cultural planning, cultural development, community (cultural) facilities, economic development, sense of place/identity and cultural heritage. I believe a strong case can be mounted for cultural planning to be established as a planning chapter in its own right, requiring specialist considerations and methods that are not necessarily wrought out of social planning practice. There are omissions from this scope in that public art planning and creative industries planning are not included. Cultural planning also cuts across recreational planning, governance and urban design. The changes in and around cultural planning make me think it warrants a planning chapter – and therefore professional identity – of its own and this is, in a way, in keeping with the thinking around culture as the fourth pillar of sustainable development. It also highlights the need to ensure that planning processes are informed by interdisciplinary methods and practitioners. Another argument could be that such boundaries between practices are provisional and contingent and the professional body perhaps should give some thought to the structure of its chapters if it aims to reflect the professional needs and drives of those practitioners.

2. An interesting thing is happening in my state of Queensland. The state government has amended the Local Government Act this year to compulsory require the production of 10 year community plans by local government authorities. Without a doubt this is a much needed initiative that endeavours to ensure high levels of social dialogue and community governance at the local level. However, one thing in the regulations accompanying the legislation caused me to raise an eyebrow. The community plans are required to have certain contents and, rightfully, among them is ‘social wellbeing’. However, an example of a related issue in the production of that plan is an arts and culture development. Without a doubt arts and culture development is integral to social wellbeing, but so is culture. What is perplexing is whether this means the community plan will ultimately assimilate local authority considerations of arts and culture, and thus assimilate cultural planning, potentially resulting in a reduction of complexity i.e. will the silo get bigger? Further, cultural planning and/or infrastructure only receives a cursory mention in the various regional plans.

3. I’m not a fan of the social impact assessment process. I’d like to think that it can exert influence in the development context, but it doesn’t seem to. A colleague once put it succinctly when she said that they are undertaken too late in the process to be a vehicle for influencing understanding, responsible development or design. I quite liked her line of thinking because she seemed to be suggesting that if community engagement and social understanding happened well before the planning of development, a much better fit could be negotiated that meant impact was negligible. Drawing cultural impact into the picture or planning process means that change can be negotiated culturally and that cultural innovation might result. If nothing else, the social impact assessment provides a mechanism for understanding some aspect of the communities into which new development is proposed. One the issues that has plagued me since my first encounter with social impact assessment is the inclusion of ‘cultural impact’ in the various policies I’ve read. It strikes me that the generic overture to ‘community values’ and the like stands in opposition to other pressing planning priorities. For example, residents tend to value their low density suburban developments and don’t often welcome the inclusion of higher densities into their local areas.  Many resist growth because it does not reflect their sense of place or community identity. It seems somehow relevant that cultural impacts need to be formulated and considered independently of social impacts – and there have been some innovations in this approach globally. That means applying an impact assessment model to the cultural dimensions of development and planning projects. Potentially that also means ensuring that there are cultural benefits that arise from proposed developments. Some semblance of cultural impact assessment is carried out through heritage studies and understanding the Indigenous significance of places. In this way the cultural benefits and impacts of new development can be considered in an equitable manner. It also reminds developers that they have some responsibility to the cultural fabric, identity and development of a community or locality.

4. A final point is that it becomes necessary to consider the complexity of the planning context. There is a need, as Hawkes proposes, for all government strategies and plans to be inclusive and culturally aware: “just as social, environmental and economic filters are applied to all policy, so should it be for culture”. I also have some admiration for the work of Greg Young who explores the cultural foundations of planning given that planning has a tendency to reiterate, reproduce or replicate our cultural values (specifically in relation to land). The intention shouldn’t be to create a Frankensteinian planning monster, but to weave a planning method that is more akin to a quilt or a carpet. Perhaps carpet is an appropriate metaphor purely because it is laid over the ground, sometimes concealing it and overwriting it. Cultural planning is rarely, if ever, considered in new developments except in expedient ways – there is potential to interleave cultural planning with place management and place branding in unprecedented ways so as to ensure the identity and purpose of a community is expressed and to create dynamic and attractive communities through cultural development and the arts. It means embedding cultural wellbeing within place planning and design. This type of approach requires deeper understanding by developers, local authorities, designers and planners about the opportunities afforded through cultural planning and its importance in the register of corporate responsibility or responsible development.