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A Paper By

David Cadman and Simin Davoudi

University College London

"The world has changed: can planning change?"

asked Manuel Castells in his paper to the ACSP (American Collegiate Schools of Planning) Annual Congress in Austin in 1991.

The question embraces the growing concerns about the role of planning in rapidly changing societies. The debate on the future of planning system and its role in shaping the trajectory of spatial change is now widespread in the UK, Europe and overseas. The arenas of debate include the whole spectrum from public and private sector organisations to academic and professional institutions.

It was within this context that in December 1996 the Bartlett School of Planning (BSP) at University College London, embarked on a strategic review of its role as one of the leading schools in planning education.

The review emerged from the wider concerns about the need for a better understanding of the nature of current and emerging issues to be tackled in urban development and land use planning; the changing role of the ‘planner’; the type of skills required to fulfil that role; and the way these are or should be developed within planning education and research.

We sought the views of over 30 leading practitioners and academics in the UK, Europe and overseas on the above issues using a series of interviews and written responses. Whilst such an analysis must to some extent be impressionistic, given the knowledge, competence and experience of those approached the views expressed carry a high degree of authority.

We believe that the outcome of this study, completed in March 1997, is not only of benefit to the BSP in helping to focus its future strategy and direction, but also is of value to all with an interest in planning practice, research and education. By disseminating the findings of this study we therefore intend to stimulate further discussion on developments in the planning education and on the planning system as a whole.

The Issues

The first question in the survey was as follows:

What are considered to be the major current and emerging issues to be tackled in urban development and land-use planning, with particular reference to the UK and the rest of Europe?

There is a broad spread of issues that are thought to be important, to some extent reflecting the different ‘constituencies’ of those surveyed. However, in summary, they are as follows:

Perhaps the strongest responses centred around what has now become categorised as ‘sustainability.’ These include matters related to: the relationships between economy, environment and society; transport and mobility; congestion and pollution; and the assessment of the impact of development.

Thought to be of almost equal importance, is the question of housing. Here the issue is to understand and offer solutions to: the changing demand for housing that arises from new kinds of household formation; the supply response; the debate concerning the relative merits of ‘brownfield’ and ‘greenfield’ development; and the special needs of ‘social housing.’

Often referred to are the interacting issues of economic vitality and individual and communal quality of life.

Others pointed to problems of scale, related to not only domestic but also pan-European regions. Here the issues are concerned with understanding the workings of, and the dynamic relationships of, these large areas, dominated as they are by their urban form, and the impact of European integration on the patterns, processes and regulation of spatial change.

Related to this, is the need to understand the workings and the dynamics, of cities, particularly the network of European cities. This includes concerns as to the quality, design and regeneration of urban areas.

In the background, but often referred to, are issues that relate to ‘governance,’ regulation and the formulation of policy, and to the proper understanding, evaluation and representation of different needs and interests, perhaps what have now come to be referred to as ‘stakeholders.’

Underlying all of these issues is a sense of the scale and pace of contemporary change and the impact that this is having upon habitat. This is a reality of great uncertainty which requires a quickness, flexibility, breadth and clarity of mind and an ability to be able to encompass and give expression to divergent and, at times, conflicting needs, interests and, above all, relationships, in this case, relationships that are rooted in rural and, especially, urban land use and development.

The Role of the Planner

The second question in the survey was:

Given these issues, is there a role for a ‘planner’ and, if so, what is that role? How is the role changing and what particular skills does it require?

…is there a role for a ‘planner’?

The response to this question was a universal "Yes."

All respondents thought that there was a role both for planning and for the planner. Indeed, those representing commercial interests particularly emphasised the need to be able to work within a given set of "ground rules." This is not to say that everyone is satisfied with the manner in which planning is presently operated. They are not, and there is clear evidence of differences of view and emphasis, both generally and in respect of specific issues and cases. Nevertheless, the notion that the private sector wishes to operate within an ungoverned environment is entirely false.

…what is that role and how is it changing?

Without exception, the respondents referred to the core role of the planner as being competent and involved in the management and articulation of the planning system:

with its framework of regulation;

with the processes involved in plan making and revision;

with the procedures involved in the consideration of planning applications;

and with the system of planning appeals.

However, it was clear that the respondents regarded these core skills as no more than the minimum threshold of competence.

Again and again, and from all quarters, the respondents referred to the key role of the planner as being concerned with the strategic formulation of plans and policies, providing what Andreas Faludi has referred to as "frames of reference." Indeed, perhaps surprisingly, a number of non-planner respondents referred to this role as being concerned with ‘vision,’ albeit a vision that is founded upon a thorough understanding of the practical needs and interests of different domestic and commercial communities.

It was clear that nearly all respondents were aware that the role of planning and planners had changed and changed again in the post-war period: starting with what might be referred to as physical master planning, concerned especially with zoning and layout; passing through a phase of almost corporate systems thinking; in the 1970s a phase of social engineering; and in the 1980s the planner as market facilitator. There was also a recognition that land-use planning had lost ground in the laissez faire environment of the 1980s but that, perhaps with the new concern for ‘sustainability’ and, of course, the 1991 Planning and Compensation Act, this ground was being recovered. Mindful of the Act, some respondents, in particular, referred to the restoration of a "plan-led" environment.

Reinforcing the universal recognition of the need for planning, and thus for planners, there was generally a sense that we may be experiencing a rebirth of planning, but this time planning on a multi-dimensional scale, incorporating a thorough understanding of relationships and the dynamics of change, with particular reference to major urban areas and the impact that such change has upon habitat.

Flowing from this and a number of respondents referred to this role as being that of the "urbanist," meaning someone who understands the workings of cities and their relationships both to their own city-region and to the network of cities to which they are related. In this context, the spatial focus is best represented by the city region and the scope of understanding includes both the public and private dimension, both markets and policy and regulation. This might be referred to not simply as ‘planning’ but as ‘urban development and planning.’

….what particular skills does it require?

The question of the skills required by planners was partly covered in general comments by the respondents and partly in relation to a list of skills originally put together by the RTPI and which the respondents were asked to score.

Dealing first with the respondents’ general comments:

As has been suggested above, there was a universal recognition of the fact that planners are expected to have a basic knowledge of the workings of the planning system, including a grounding in planning law and regulation.

They are expected to be familiar with the management of this system, whether this be from a private or public sector perspective.

This is regarded as a minimum threshold.

Beyond this, some respondents referred to the need to be able to understand and contribute to policy making at all levels of governance.

Others pointed to the need to be able to understand and give expression to both social and economic needs and interests, including a better understanding of the way in which urban property markets work.

Most importantly, many respondents pointed to the need for skills that come within the broad category of ‘vision’ or ‘strategy’ - the ability to take the wide view and to understand, and be able to communicate, the diverse network of relationships that give life to place.

These are the skills of the generalist.

This is not, of course, to say that there is not also a need for specialist skills, for example in relation to transport, housing, urban regeneration or environmental regulation. Rather it is to suggest that the ground from which these specialisms are developed is the ground of broad conceptual understanding, problem solving and communication.

It should be noted also that there is some danger in simply stressing the general problem solving skills of the planner, as many other disciplines would claim that territory. These skills, therefore, must be set within the important, relevant and, indeed, topical context of their reference to land use and development.

Turning now to the specific scoring of the ‘RTPI skills,’1 The following Table shows the survey’s ranking of skills:



Conceptual/intellectual and problem definition


Collaborative problem solving


Synthesis and application of knowledge to practice


Written, oral and graphic communication


Quantitative and qualitative analysis


Research and data collection


Information technology competence


Aesthetic awareness


Generic management skills


As the Table shows:

The highest scoring skill is the ability to identify and understand the nature of a problem.

Next come a set of skills that enable the planner to make effective connections between the diverse needs, interests and disciplines of land use and development; to work collaboratively; and to communicate.

General management and IT skills, and the ability to gather information

together are rated as less important.

Aesthetic awareness also carries a low score.

These findings reinforce the earlier analysis.

Perhaps, here, we should recognise that one of the strengths of planning as a discipline, along with other professional disciplines such as medicine, law and engineering, is:

that it requires the practitioner to be able to bridge the gap between theory and practice, between concept and action.

Undoubtedly, this brings with it the problem of defining the scope that can be covered within any course or school but, the foundation of theory and practice should give especial relevance to the individual planning schools and enable them, where appropriate and possible, to link into other disciplines within their respective universities and beyond. The existing diversity of planning research and teaching within most planning schools is seen as their major strength. Within this diversity, the important task is to identify and encourage particular areas of excellence.

Finally, it is becoming increasingly clear that problem solving in planning and land-use crosses conventional boundaries of discipline. In this context, there are real advantages to be found in developing specific working relationships across disciplines, preferably around particular projects, adding strength through collaboration that is focused upon particular problems and issues.

For us in the Bartlett, this survey has provided much to reflect on and will inform our strategy and action. For the profession, it represents a positive confirmation of the significance of planning and of the important role it has to play, particularly in understanding and expressing the network of divergent needs, interests and relationships that constitute the built environment.

David Cadman is a visiting professor and Simin Davoudi is a lecturer in the Bartlett School of Planning at University College London.

Acknowledgement: A slightly different version of this article was published in Planning, 4 April 1997, pp. 16-17


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