Planning in Uncertain Times and a New Agenda for the Future

As I look back on an eventful year, I reflect on the two major showpiece planning events from 2017: the national planning conferences in New York and London.

I was fortunate to attend both and it is interesting to note the turbulent political context in which planners are currently practising their profession. There is a great deal of uncertainty on both sides of the Atlantic as the political environment continues in a state of flux.

It seems to me that recent events highlight that citizens are craving engagement with those who represent them and there is a need to bridge a broadening democratic deficit. There is a growing expectation that the current approach to politics needs to change. Citizens want to influence the development in their communities.

Support for Pluralist Principles

There is evidence to suggest that participatory, inclusive, and pluralist principles as an integral part of the planning process could have broad support amongst UK and U.S. citizens alike.

A 2014 American Planning Association national poll on community preferences showed that 65 percent of respondents want cities to focus less on recruiting new companies and more on investing in new transportation options, walkable communities, and making the area as attractive as possible.

A 2014 poll commissioned to mark the centenary of the Royal Town Planning Institute reveals an overwhelming majority of the public (79 percent) want a bigger say over the development of their communities. The survey identified that 59 percent of people feel they don't have enough say in how their local area develops on issues such as housing, transport, shops, and amenities.

In another finding, 79 percent of people think their community needs a stronger voice in planning rather than planning decisions being left more to developers.

The Growing Urban Population

Over half the world's population lives in cities, and this will reach 70 percent by 2030. By 2050, the world urban population is expected to nearly double, making urbanization one of the 21st century's most impactful trends. In 2008, for the first time, the world's population was evenly split between urban and rural areas. There were more than 400 cities over 1 million and 19 over 10 million. According to one study of global cities, 80 percent of global GDP is generated in cities. In 2025, the top 600 cities will be generating 60 percent of the GDP growth.

Cities are the engines for economic growth and that trend will accelerate.

As their economic power grows, cities and city regions will play a greater role in global politics. I feel that given this trend urban planning and planners have a key role to play in helping bridge the democratic deficit being currently experienced by enabling citizens to actively participate in decisions that affect them.

The New Urban Agenda

The vision set out in the New Urban Agenda (NUA) has the potential to achieve this.

The NUA as the primary outcome of Habitat III is a route-map for sustainable development. The NUA and the associated Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are one means of bringing about a truly participatory society, that promotes civic engagement, engenders a sense of belonging among all inhabitants; and prioritizes safe, inclusive, accessible, resilient, and quality public spaces, thereby addressing the aspirations of those respondents to the polls from 2014. It would also enhance social and intergenerational interactions, cultural expression, and political participation.

In addition to the housing, transportation, and planning issues, the NUA includes leveraging and protecting cultural and natural heritage; developing platforms for meaningful participation in decision-making; enhancing disaster risk reduction; promoting environmentally sound waste management; and providing publicly accessible open and green space.

Implementing the NUA requires a commitment and political leadership that is not commonplace.

Although there are examples of individual good practice, some of which I highlight below, to achieve greater social cohesion and inclusivity in a pluralistic society — where the needs of all citizens are met, recognizing the specific requirements of the vulnerable and realizing gender equality whilst addressing the challenges of inclusive and sustainable economic growth — the approach needs to be comprehensive, embedded at all levels of governance, and underpinned by widespread citizen support.

Planning is the vehicle through which much of this vision can be achieved.

Good Practice and Resilient Places

I took part in a session at APA's 2017 National Planning Conference entitled "Transatlantic City Solutions" which brought together in conversation planning leaders in four cities with similar issues to talk about what's working and what each can learn from the other.

George Homewood, FAICP, director of city planning for the City of Norfolk, Virginia, discussed the city's Coastal Resilience Strategy. Donald Roe, director of planning for the City of St. Louis, who referred to the St. Louis Comprehensive Plan, was joined by Paul Barnard from Plymouth City Council and myself to discuss our city's plans. I also chaired a session at the RTPI Planning convention entitled "Rebuilding after Disaster; the Role of the Built Environment and Humanitarian Sector."

What was clear from the discussions at these sessions was the importance of resilience and that individual cities recognise the criticality of the issues identified in the NUA and are trying to address many of them.

Implementation in the UK and Beyond

There are signs that aspects of the agenda are being implemented in practice nationally. For example, the Government in Wales has been gradually putting in place legislation to promote sustainable development. It enacted the Active Travel (Wales) Act 2013 which promotes walking and cycling in Wales.

This was followed by the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 which requires public bodies identified in the act to think more about the long-term, to prevent problems, and take a more integrated approach to improve the social, economic, environmental, and cultural well-being of Wales. The Environment Wales Act 2016 has several purposes, including the promotion of the sustainable management of natural resources.

These measures are welcome but do not go far enough in delivering the NUA.

The main takeaway for me from both the APA National Planning Conference and the RTPI Convention is that despite the turbulence and uncertainty, planners on both sides of the Atlantic are best placed to take forward the NUA and achieve the SDGs. Not only are they well-placed, they are more than willing and able to do so.

The author's views expressed in this blog are his own and not those of the Royal Town Planning Institute or his employer.

Top image: Hong Kong. By 2030, 70 percent of the world's population will live in cities. Wikimedia image (FDL-1.2).

About the Author
Peter Geraghty, FRTPI, is the director of planning and transport at Southend on Sea Borough Council in the UK. He is an experienced practitioner having worked across all sectors — public, private, and voluntary. He has held senior leadership roles in several local authorities. Geraghty was president of the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) in 2013–14.

December 7, 2017

By Peter Geraghty