Planning is mental. Absolutely.

It is all in the mind, as they say. The sooner we acknowledge planning as a dynamic, neural activity the quicker we can devise approaches, skills and behaviours to make us more effective.

Planning cannot – and will not – survive as an effective spatial management activity if it is confined to rigid statutory processes and the uncritical adoption of so-called ‘best practice’. These prisons of our imagination tend to produce clone city, ‘anywhere’ outcomes, but rarely enduring places. Planning is not just about regulation, it is about the exploration and synthesis of ideas, values and ultimately behaviours.

Planning is as much about our emotional intelligence as our rational and deductive thought processes. It is often our instinctive responses and prejudices which affect how places develop – and we are not always terribly constructive in this regard. The human mind – encumbered by more ‘backward looking’ baggage as we age in adulthood – tends to fear and inhibit change.

Take, for instance, the imaginatively designed and negotiated scheme turned down at committee, not because it is poor or contrary to policy, but because key councillors consider it appears ‘different’ from their view of ‘traditional’; or the town expansion opposed by residents because they do not understand the evolutionary nature of settlements. They assert the town is completely full at 70,000 people and must not grow any further. Ever!

There is the mental block many planners and community environmentalists have about the ‘green belt’, as if it is some self-evident, immutable truth – part of the meaning of life – rather than an important temporary designation to structure the relationship of developed and undeveloped space.

The fears of residents in a regeneration area about the need to accommodate ‘different people’, possibly poorer, sometimes much wealthier, thereby changing their neighbourhood composition, often provokes extreme visceral responses of anger and bitterness. Their cognitive neighbourhood is changing – and they don’t like it.

This fear of change or ‘otherness’ can affect planners themselves, like those who reject the ideas of a partner agency or ‘external’ consultants – not because they are inappropriate or wrong – but because the planners themselves were not at the heart of the project’s conceptual thinking. They have no ownership. Nor are our co-professionals in other disciplines exempt from the ‘not invented here syndrome’ and associated control-junkiness. ‘Letting go’ of an idea is not the strongest trait of many architect friends.

All of these personal emotional responses can affect, sometimes very negatively, the making of a nice, liveable place over a generation. Planning must rise to the challenge of such real emotions, fears and prejudices in these situations. We must recognise we are not dealing with some abstract rational world, but rather an opportunity for mutual learning.

Planners therefore need refreshed skills & approaches, augmenting our core role in the processes of physical and social change with an intelligent listening and learning dimension, sensitised to the people involved.

We need to facilitate the envisioning of future solutions in a creative, collaborative manner. Not to set the lowest or ‘least hassle’ benchmark, but to educate, mediate and stimulate higher aspirations.

We need a heightened ‘social intelligence’ that helps us read situations and guide different people through the practical aspects of sustainablity – not as some naïve mantra, but as a core part of our professional competence.

Planners should not be unyielding technocrats shielding behind narrow pseudo-technical jargon or processes. We need to draw from the wells of other specialisms, such as education, communications and psychology. Perhaps we have to become spatial therapists, working though the dysfunctionalities of our many communities – whether in towns, cities, or villages.

So, does that mean planning is really a mental rather than technical activity? Not really – just that the technical and legalistic aspects are not the full picture in the 21st century. To be effective in the post-Egan interdisciplinary world, we have to continually add new layers of intelligence – becoming techno-mental, if you like.

None of this has anything to do my recent work in Barking…

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