IS THERE A ROLE FOR THE PLANNER?
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 first question in the survey was as follows:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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 surveys ranking of skills:
As the Table shows:
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:
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