EXPLORE | Planning change, changing planning

Posted on 29/04/2012


I’ve had my head down in my studies of late with a couple of projects addressing urban challenges and change. I continue to feel my way through this massive field of urban studies, recently commenting to a colleague when we participated in a forum on the digital economy that I am not studying planning to become a planner. Rather, I am more interested in the way in which our learnings about new fields and dynamics might change planning or create new opportunities for planners as interdisciplinary practice.

Planners can seem to plan themselves into corners as new orthodoxies overwrite the old. Foster argues that the current planning hegemony (or consensus) of consolidatation-containment-centres can seem like wishful thinking, and not well aligned to the complexity of our urban centres:

There are two key concerns about the direction of the current strategy consensus. The first concern is the continued adherence to the concept of neatly structured suburban development organised around centres and selfcontained urban realms. The hope is that such a structure, together with higher residential densities, will deliver significantly lower levels of dependence on the automobile and therefore greater environmental sustainability But the research reviewed earlier suggests that patterns of economic development, labour force participation and journeys to work continue to grow in complexity and are unlikely to fit this neat pattern … The second key concern is that the new metropolitan strategies may recognise the issues of housing affordability and social exclusion, but they all fall well short of addressing those issues in a convincing manner … Given that all the strategies are based on restricting suburban expansion and therefore inevitably driving up the cost of land, the issues of housing costs for lower-income households and the emergence of new concentrations of disadvantage cannot simply be left to chance. Overall, the metropolitan planning strategies suggest an inflexible, over-neat vision for the future that, however well-intended, sits dangerously at odds with the picture of increasing geographical complexity that emerges clearly from recent research on the changing internal structure of Australian cities since the early 1990s.

Where this might take us is to the stark realisation that the rifts are greater than we might think. The extent of our urban challenges is reflected in the recently released COAG Reform Council’s Review of capital city strategic planning systems, which states:

Australia is at a watershed point for its capital cities and their strategic planning. Population growth, demographic change, increasing energy costs and the shift to a knowledge economy have changed the assumptions underpinning the shape and development of Australian cities. Strategic planning of capital cities must change … to ‘re-shape our cities’. In the panel’s view, this must also include reconsideration of Australia’s settlement pattern .

These are the kinds of issues that require new forms of urban governance and participation as well as interdisciplinary urban and regional practice. The churn or grind of cities sometimes just feels like market forces changing gears. There also seems to be cracks in the discourse where new growth is emerging. Some of the more interesting points I have noted from my readings include speculation about new opportunities for planning and planners.

Durack proposes a “more open, indeterminate urbanism that recognizes discontinuities and inconsistencies as life-affirming opportunities for adaptation and change, offering choices for the future in accordance with the true definition of sustainability”. The inflexibility of some urban projects, where comprehensive planning is approached in a prototypical or even stereotypical way can undermine sustainability and adaptivity. New roles for planners might also be possible or desirable. Hansen proposes the “role of planner as a ‘cultural entrepreneur’ and ‘cultural story-teller’ … as potential tool to push through new agendas or ideas, such as more sustainable transport [and other] solutions.” Here, it seems that the processual divide between planning, as method, and futuring, as discipline, becomes apparent. Ratcliffe and Krawczyk explore this divide, stating that “maybe the real value of a futures approach in the field of city planning is not in discovering new factual knowledge about sustainable urban development, but in producing perceptions and insights to that body of knowledge and ‘imagineering’ novel ways of addressing city sustainability.”

I don’t have a clear picture of what this involves – that is the adventure that I am presently on – but perhaps this kind of practice might be more akin to a highly engaged, relational and ‘in the field’ process of place management or regional development that recognises the complexity of a place. Perhaps it’s planning and planners working in webs or more meaningfully folding back other practices like futuring, curating and public participation.

COAG Reform Council. (2012). Review of capital city strategic planning systems. Sydney: COAG Reform Council.
Durack, R. (2001). Village Vices: The Contradiction of New Urbanism and Sustainability. Places Journal, 14 (2), 64-69.
Forster, C (2006). The Challenge of Change: Australian Cities and Urban Planning in the New Millennium. Geographical Research, June, 44(2). 173–182.
Hansen, C.J. (2011) The role of policy-making and planning cultures for sustainable transport?. European Transport, 47 (2011), 89-108.
Ratcliffe, J. & Krawczyk, E. (2011). Imagineering city futures: The use of prospective through scenarios in urban planning. Futures, 43 (2011), 642–653

Posted in: process, theory, thought