Spatial Planning: Introduction

This is the introduction to an Act in Three Parts about Planning-related drama in England. These are the last in the series of dry, policy-related commentary and legal stuff. I just need to store them here for future reference.

Then – back to fun urbanist stuff!

Spatial planning sits at the intersection of a broad range of future-oriented policies which determine social, economic, and environmental outcomes for a given area. A successful planning system will seek to harmonise as many of competing actions as possible. So, the main objective of any planning system is therefore to uncover social processes, values, and power relations associated with patterns of land use. A good planning system should act as a counterweight to level power imbalances by providing a framework to manage trade-offs between competing factors.

There are two key strands to an effective spatial planning system:
 i). A decision-making framework for handling factors that cannot be treated in isolation and are independent on other factors to contribute towards public good (e.g clear air, reduced noise pollution, green spaces)

ii). Decisions that should seek to maximise collective social good for the greatest number possible (a la Bentham).

Cities in the UK (and this country is far from unique in this) are becoming increasingly complicated: the way they are conceptualised and governed has changed dramatically in recent decades. It was evolved from a more “managerial” system led by the state to an increasingly fragmented array of institutions and organisations by social actors, private sector developers, designers, architects, consultants, planners, third sector and non-government agencies which eclipse the tasks previously undertaken by the state  

This fragmented system of urban governance coupled with economic, political, and environmental global instability demands an agility in spatial planning systems not seen anytime since 1945.

Key criteria for an effective spatial planning system

In her 1958 paper, Ruth Glass stated that ideological flexibility was one of the main factors behind the pragmatism of the 1947 system and the cross-party consensus generated by the UK’s Town and Country Planning Act. Planning has to reflect social policy for it to become meaningful.

  1. Integrated, systems-based planning

If spatial planning is a mechanism for shaping urban environments, then planning policy must interact with other policy sectors. The hallmark of an effective integrated spatial planning system should be one that can cross-pollinate with policies that protect the lives of future generations and facilitate equal access.  It should provide the conditions for intersectional and just usage of land for everyone, regardless of age, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, health, or class.

2 Inclusive, accessible and democratic

Spatial planning systems involve many actors and stakeholders. So, power structures between different actors must be clear and there must be a mechanism in place to level off power imbalances. This means that a robust, well-resourced, and well-designed stakeholder engagement process is required to ensure that the views of all stakeholders are weighted equally.

An accessible spatial planning system is one that is straightforward to engage with. This might include easily accessible online consultation processes, and well-organised digital resources. If decisions are taken behind closed doors and without any opportunity for public engagement, this is likely to erode trust in public institutions and undermine democratic principles, produce planning outcomes that benefit a small minority and that are unlikely to achieve outcomes for the common good.

3. Proportional, balanced, unbiased

A strong spatial planning system is one which is flexible enough to respond to regional and urban challenges through strong capacity to work across, within, and between policy sectors at both vertical and horizontal levels. This refers to a planning system that works from local scale to global, or national to regional (horizontal) on different policy sectors (for example, national scale climate change mitigation policy with local level transport policy). The more integrated regional or local spatial planning systems are with other policy sectors, the more nuanced and effective the responses to macro challenges at the local level.

4. Agile (within reason)

While there is an argument for a planning system that can rapidly produce results, speed alone is not necessarily an advantage. In terms of hierarchy, striving for an inclusive, democratic and participatory system is more likely to produce high-quality outcomes. Facilitating discussion and creating spaces for as many stakeholder groups as possible to provide their input and shape planning outcomes is a time-consuming process. A speedy planning process would simply not be able to capture in-depth stakeholder perspectives. 

5. Progressive  

Progressive refers to the political willingness of leaders and owners of the planning process (e.g. local authorities, politicians, national/regional governments) to draw on Hegelian ideas of redistributive wealth to prevent economic inequality from stifling social development.  

6. Sustainable

The neoliberal political system places economic development and growth as the driving force of every sectoral policy, and planning has been no exception. The emphasis on GDP as the universal comparator is not really fit for purpose anymore. In light of the climate crisis, there is an opportunity growing for spatial planning system to implement new universal set of metrics related to wellbeing and environmental impact over GDP. There is some talk around wellbeing indicators, but they are not being implemented universally across the country and GDP is still the go-to metric for measuring the health of a country. Which is ridiculous, when it has been demonstrated time and time again that there is obviously no correlation between GDP and social health (the US is the richest country in the world for example, and it’s falling apart at the seams).

Author: marianne

Urban design, planning, housing, buildings, music

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