Simply Put, Planning is Our Ambition for the Future

Guest post:

Professor John Flint is Head of the Department of Town and Regional Planning at the University of Sheffield. He is a trustee of the Urban Studies Foundation and an executive committee member of the Housing Studies Association. Professor Flint is most recently the co-editor of Bigotry, Football and Scotland (2013), The Future of Sustainable Cities: Critical Reflections (2011), and Community Cohesion in Crisis? New Dimensions of Diversity and Difference (2008).

Sheff panoramaFrom the antecedents of planning in the first towns of ancient civilisations, through the birth of what we may term modern town planning in the 19th Century, to the present day, planning has always had as an aim the ordering of (perceived) chaos, underpinned by the belief that humans collectively could control their environment and shape their future. The visions of such orders and futures have, of course, been diverse and contested, but underpinning the modern project, and the emergence of the social sciences, was a belief that the present could be understood and that the future could, to some extent, be predicted.

Of course, each of these assumptions has been challenged: the post-modern era has seen the authority and legitimacy of planning practitioners and academics (and indeed the whole project of government) subject to relentless scrutiny. Faith in the ability to predict the future has, most recently, been undermined by the economic crisis (ironically, given the central role of new market investment mechanisms from the 17th Century in challenging the previous religious paradigms of pre-determined and unknowable destinies) and the seeming inability to ensure meaningful responses to climate change threats.

However, these central themes of attempting to understand our social and environmental contexts and forging a progressive future remain at the heart of planning and the planning academy. In my role as the Head of a Planning School, I am privileged to be involved in a community that is characterised by the diversity of interpretations of what planning means (or should mean) and the breadth of fields of study (methods, scale, disciplinary background, theoretical and normative positions).

Four contemporary trends stand out for me. Firstly, there are the connections being made across disciplines, policy areas and geographies. For example, the housing crisis that is manifest in many parts of the world, and the challenges of governance and tensions between formality and informality that arise, along with the social justice implications of displacement and citizenship have their local specifics. But they share many common components, be they in the cities of sub-Saharan Africa or Asia or the conurbations of Western Europe or the United States. Similarly, environmental and infrastructural challenges in rapidly expanding cities necessitate the collaboration of planning, architecture, landscape, politics, law, public administration and engineering in new ways (and, indeed, similar configurations of pooled expertise are equally needed in shrinking cities). Secondly, and linked to the above, is the internationalisation of planning, in both research and practice: driven by an ever more globalised labour market and an understanding of mutual learning (historical and contemporary) potential.

Thirdly, while planning has always had a very strong vocational emphasis, there is a renewed focus on the skills and aptitudes that will be required by future generations of planners to address fluid and evolving challenges and to ensure that technological and methodological innovations may be captured to enhance effective outcomes. Finally, and I think healthily, there continues to be a debate challenging both the planning academy and Planning Schools about their contributions to furthering knowledge, equipping practitioners and policy makers and having a significant and progressive impact for a range of stakeholders.

There has been a lot of concern about the attacks on the legitimacy and status of planning, particularly in the UK; driven by recent negative Government rhetoric, hostile media discourse and the broader cultural and societal understanding of what ‘planning’ is.  This is, unfortunately, inherently linked to a regressive reduction in the contemporary ambitions of government and the public realm per se (in relation to economic and financial regulation, employment conditions, the provision of housing etc.). If there is one agenda that ‘planning’ in all its forms and understandings may coalesce around, it is surely challenging this trajectory and the negative social justice and generational impacts that are already visible.

As I always say to our graduating students, the challenges for our new generations of planners appear daunting, but, in my opinion, they are not any greater than the gargantuan difficulties that faced those in previous periods (the Victorian industrial city providing one example). There will continue to be vigorous debates about competing visions for our settlements and environments. But what we should always defend is planning’s core belief that our collective future may be shaped, and shaped progressively.