Those values which have drawn practitioners into the nurturing fields of town or regional planning have varied across time and space, so identifying a set of universal values or principles is well-nigh impossible. Nevertheless here is a crude attempt at my ‘first fifteen’ which fall roughly into two categories – those ‘forwards’ primarily concerning the substance of planning – and the ‘backs’ related to the operation and procedures of planning.
The Eight Substantive ‘Forwards’
- A deep concern with the intrinsic nature and quality of space and place is at the heart of what planning is about. A primary focus is on how we utilise land in our built habitats – from villages to megalopoli – but this is an equally important concern in our approach to sparsely populated or sensitive environments, such as coastlines or wilderness areas. Environments can be valued for their own sake – even without human presence.
- A belief in the improvement of conditions through ‘rational intervention’ in, or alongside, market mechanisms. Creating better places has been a central value of planning from the Enlightenment and Victorian industrial era to the present. Making places work better than if ‘left alone’ is felt to be a desirable thing, particularly where that is not an exclusive, elitist practice – but one which brings wider social and economic gains to a community or nation. It is the reason planners find it difficult to allow areas to decline ‘naturally’ – our instinctive desire is to improve things.
- Facilitating patterns of settlement growth which foster global sustainability – through, for instance, minimising unnecessary energy consumption, addressing urban density and waste impacts, and safeguarding critical nitrogen-fixing forestry – recognises that spatial planning has a critical, yet often underplayed, global role. This is a more recent value, dating from the later 20th century, rather than one emanating from the early pioneer’s of planning.
- The belief in a sense of fairness or ‘spatial equity’ – in the social and economic outcomes across a town, region or nation. This spatial expression of a communitarian ethic means planning is often focused on redressing geographical imbalances of, say, economic opportunity or residential amenity.
- An awareness of the functional connectedness of things – actions and impacts from the planetary to local level. Planning is neither a closed system, nor does it view other systems or processes as disconnected ‘silos’. Rather it is about appreciating the interactions between many different complex systems – economic, hydrological and transport – with a view to making the best judgements for action with the minimum negative impacts.
- The importance of understanding time and the inter-generational dimension. Effective planning accrues quality of life benefits to generations who follow us – as in urban parks, clean air, or transport infrastructure. Equally, exploitative, short terms actions can build up long term problems and disadvantages for towns or neighbourhoods. Good planning bears fruit over time.
- The idea of serving a public interest – for wider benefits – as well as being advocates for certain specific projects which may bring benefit to key client groups, such as occupiers or investors. Seeing the bigger picture, beyond an applicant or developer, should be instinctive to all planners.
- Some appreciation of and aspirations towards better environmental design and visual amenity– even beauty. The notion that one of the purposes of planning is to make places more visually attractive can be traced to Classical and Renaissance civilisations. It means that there has to be a strong architectural and urban design capability within the profession.
The Seven Procedural ‘Backs’
- The need for research, analysis & reflection to inform policy and action. Survey and analysis are important to assist understanding and the rationalisation of what we are planning – and why we are doing so. Basing things purely on political dogma or tradition, may well lead a place in the wrong direction, environmentally or economically.
- Synthesis and integration of disciplines, skills and requisite actions – legal, technical, infrastructural, political. Planners do not have all the answers. We need to draw upon the skills and expertise of other disciplines – some spatial, some not. However, this integrative capability is one of the most distinctive traits of the planner.
- Ideally, planning should be legally represented in formal layers of government. The administration of a planning regime should be transparent and accessible to its ‘consumers’ – with strong links to accountable, democratic bodies locally or nationally.
- Planning may be seen as a positive vehicle for cultural expression. In this respect we should expect some divergence of content – as currently experienced in the UK – to take account of different demographics, economic roles and relationships with the land. A crude ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to planning can be damaging to places and their communities.
- A culture of equal opportunities in aspects of race, gender, age, disability, etc is a central part of the ethic of planning practice – both for those inside the profession, and the communities we serve.
- The roles of heritage in place-making and sustaining identity are key elements of the planning armoury. This involves the notion of carrying built heritage as layers of meaning – sometimes uncomfortably so – from the past into the future, as well as incorporating means of retaining folk memory and the perceived spirit of a place.
- Planning is, at its core, a creative, innovative, shaping and nurturing activity which, to secure effective ‘spatial action’, also has to be controlling, guiding and directing at times. It is a profound mistake to perceive it as narrowly regulatory without any appreciation of a greater positive purpose.
- Planning also requires an ‘umpire’ to mediate and/or arbitrate in occasions of dispute and difference. This should be filled by an accomplished, independent professional who will have authority behind his or her proposed resolutions.
And finally, the referee…
Originally written for the Planning portal