TALK | Where to now?

Posted on 29/10/2011

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This week I participated in three very different kinds of discussions. The first was a panel discussion at Griffith University (at the invitation of Associate Professor Geoff Woolcock) where, together with Redland City Council’s Roberta Bonnin and Urban/Social Planner/Scholar Laurel Johnson, I spoke about community engagement and community planning with a mixed group of undergraduate and postgraduate students in the urban planning program. The second was a public forum presented by The Courier-Mail about population growth with a panel of experts. The third was an online conference presented by the Association of Professional Futurists which was comprised of presentations about futures and foresight methods, insights from art, design and architecture, crazy futures and building a futures career. What these conversations shared was their overt exemplication of the limitations of current practices to deal with the sheer complexity of urban, social, ecological, economic, governance and cultural dynamics.

When planning is predicated on orthodoxies and when it sets out end states, it can come unstuck. Planning has to be about process and flux. This was stressed in Roberta’s presentation about community planning and the need for truthfulness and recognition. A foundation for Redland was to creatively engage diverse communities to build capacity for a meaningful community discourse. For Redland, there’s a need for an approach to futuring rather than planning. As a planner of considerable experience, it was quite heartening to hear Laurel speak about a range of issues associated with statutory requirements and local government. In fact, often when we blame planning for poor results, the blame rests with decision makers within government – either at its adminstrative or political sides. Planners don’t have the kind of power we tend to attribute to them as they operate within systems of urban governance and management. She also issued some useful warnings for students including the need to not be swept away by groupthink (as a kind of professional blinkering and distancing) and the need to maintain, even nurture, critical thinking. It’s always interesting speaking with professionals who are acutely aware of the limitations of the contexts in which they are working yet retain a conviction for social justice and change – there’s an element of learning survival and intervention strategies. Laurel also made the point that in very heated situations, communities and planning teams can be equally culpable in showing disrespect and eroding trust: “there is evil done on both sides,” she quipped. I spoke about the findings of recent research undertaken by Harbinger Consultants about community attitudes to consultation and engagement. Because I approach my own work as someone grounded in cultural studies (having studied disciplines like communication, history and cultural studies), my thinking about spatial or social sciences is inflected by that.

The main conclusions from the three of us included:

  • Change the conversation and the process of conversation; this doesn’t mean eliminating opposition or conflict but rather driving towards to some better understanding of the relational dimensions
  • Adapt professional approaches including opening up interdisciplinary and inclusive practice and reflecting on practice
  • Improve and engage corporate responsibility – this is applicable for non-profits, government bodies and private organisations
  • Enhance governance recognising that stakeholder or community engagement is foundational for governance

All those changes are fundamentally cultural. I also made the point, as I have done before, that if we do not attend to these matters in a serious and considered way, then we are just creating more problems. We need to recognise that these issues of contested space and land use are showing affinities with culture wars, which are broadly understood as a clash of vision and values. While  may think of that as an overstatement, we need to understand this in the context of massive changes.

Rumblings of that culture war were evident at The Courier Mail’s panel discussion when residents rose from the floor to  voice their concerns about population growth, often using spurious arguments to make claims about capping population and infrastructure funding. As Mayor Bob Abbott from Sunshine Coast Regional Council said, it’s not useful to conflate population and economic growth in ways that befuddle the issues. Others used it as an opportunity to make complaints about local development issues and others sought to throw in modest suggestions about sustainable buildings. This forum is an example of why the conversation needs to be chan and how professional attitudes can be blinkered. What voices were actually heard here? While I applaud the Courier-Mail’s assistant editor Bob MacDonald for suggesting that planners should overhaul community consultation because too often development occurred with only lip service to public input, it’s perhaps misplaced to direct that at planners, who as a professional group do not really control or regulate the dynamics of consultation. Planners often deliver consultation processes in line with inadequate corporate and government expectations or regulatory/policy frameworks – this is a demand to make of elected representatives. We blame planners for things for which they have little or no control.

Also, does population growth really warrant this incessant and hard focus? I tend to agree with those who suggest we have a long history of dealing with the challenges of population growth – perhaps now, however, we need to rise to the challenge rather than deal with it with copybook solutions. Likewise a hard focus on congestion (it’s irksome issue that we talk about Brisbane having a congestion problem rather a car use/dependency problem). A hard focus on a specific problem tends to give us more of the same i.e. Brisbane has a congestion problem, so we will build tunnels and roads. It rarely catalyses the kind of step change needed.

Where, I found myself asking, is the innovation and creativity? Small voices eminating from more radical and enabling thinking emerged, as if struggling for breath in the suffocating anxiety of the status quo. One person from the floor made a plea for adaptive systems while a representative from Transition Towns spoke of adapting our excessive consumerism and wastefulness. The following day, I participated in a futures webinar, listening to Maree Conway talk about the relationships between design thinking and futures thinking and then Richard Slaughter talking about emergent systems. One of the points made, in different ways by Roberta, Laurel and me at our Griffith University presentation, was that planning needs a more tangible connection with futures thinking and foresight rather than reliance on a stream of convenient or expedient solutions to complex problems. I was just reading a document which, quoting Beumer and Martins, called for clumsy solutions to complex problems. As Bruce Sterling says in Shaping Things, “we need a new concept of futurity whose image is not the static, dated, tintype of the past’s future. We need a dynamic, interactive medium.” I doubt the suggestion for a pay-as-you-go scheme for user-pays infrastructure really delivers that; or that the history of governments and planners in dealing with growth was really the whole picture. A critical and creative interdisciplinary practice that weaves the spatial, cultural, social, ecological, political and economic, rather than planning, is more likely to give us the kinds of processes, adaptability and thinking required to make that all vital step change.

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