The doyen of city planning, Jane Jacobs, was not herself a trained town planner, nor was she a university graduate. Described as a journalist, author and activist, her seminal book The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961) nevertheless inspired generations after her to formally study town planning and to make it their chosen careers.
Today, formally trained planners dominate discussions on city planning, urban development strategy and land use. From a profession which in the 1980s was a relative minnow in the development industry landscape, planning as a profession now reigns supreme. Town planning departments across all levels of government have grown exponentially, private town planning consultancies have evolved into global concerns and even lawyers have developed specialised planning businesses of significant scale and billings.
With many regional plans now needing a comprehensive refresh to reflect changes likely coming in a very different post-Covid world (less rapid population growth, less centralised employment, more suburban hubs, changes to transit and more) it’s time to call on the planners to help map out strategies for adapting to these changes.
But are planners alone enough? Could we benefit from a wider diversity of experiences drawn from across the industry?
The urban development industry represents a very wide cross section of expertise and professional training – many of which are not invited to the decision-making table. Some – for example developers or their agents or representatives – are actually banned from some types of engagement via legislation. In practice, their views and contributions can be treated with suspicion or outright hostility.
Even the views of the voting public – the ratepaying, taxpaying, home-owning residents who are democratically entitled to their opinions on planning decisions that impact them - run the risk of being treated with scorn.
“The community doesn’t understand the full story because they are not experts in the field of City design and planning” said one town planner last year, incensed that the wider community did not support townhouse developments in their low-density neighbourhoods (something championed by some within the planning community).
“It’s concerning that we listen to the general public for planning in our city rather than the experts who understand growth of a city,” said another (who on that basis must regard community consultation as a waste of time – something to be endured rather than informed by?)
These views, thankfully, are not representative. But perhaps before a sense of moral superiority takes root, it might be helpful to reflect on the valid contributions of all the participants in the industry?
For the ultimate diversity checklist, maybe we should start with the “untrained” public. It’s their taxes after all, and their homes or businesses. Their votes are important - and valid. With the public come their elected representatives. We are a democracy after all and politicians - elected by the people - are there to do this job. Their views matter.
I would then add to the list developers because - to be honest - nothing happens without a developer taking a risk. Things can be planned, designed, imagined, debated… but without the commercial acumen of developers, it won’t actually happen. We may deride them and collectively pile on in social media tirades about “greedy developers” but before you do, remember the house you live in, your local shopping centre, your workplace, and very often the social infrastructure you enjoy is the result of someone being a developer - and you are a beneficiary. Developers in turn need investors, without whom they have no-one to sell developments to and without whom, development doesn’t happen. So let’s make space for them as well?
There are also engineers of course – civil, structural, water and environment, and traffic. Where would we be without them? They should absolutely be at the planning strategy table. No discussion on infrastructure is meaningful without some engineers and their slide rulers. I would also add real estate agents to the room. Yes, even them – because they bring with them the market reality serums that are antidotes to the Kool-aid that it seems is often passed around when it comes to regional planning. I would also add building contractors – civil and structural - because actually being able to build stuff is important. Architects should be there too - if only to infuriate the builders. But also (very legitimately) for their valued understanding of built form design and its influence on human behaviour. Landscape architects and designers are a variant on this who are equally important. Project managers bring a broad view of project life from inception to delivery. Let’s make a spot for them too. Valuers are essential, as are quantity surveyors. Both have unique and critical contributions to offer on cost and land use value. Surveyors need a spot at the table too. Got to put those lines in the right places! Environmental consultants are almost an essential inclusion these days. And of course let’s please not forget the urban economists, property economists, urban geographers and market researchers. The wealth of knowledge these people bring should never be excluded from the room.
Have we forgotten anyone? What about the lawyers? OK, in for a penny in for a pound – multiples of which they’d charge to be at the table. But without these people, how would we ever draft legislation or regulations to put legal meaning to the intent of regional plans? If they aren’t part of the debate is there a risk their legislative or regulatory drafts won’t reflect the actual intent?
By now, our professionally diverse (but representative) regional planning group is going to be needing a very large room. The point being that the insights and expertise to think strategically about how to plan for a region requires a cross-section of inputs, some of them trained in specific disciplines, some of them not, but each of them equally as valid. Locking out particular groups for fears of conflict, or due to fears “they don’t understand” or for other reasons deprives us all of superior, more broadly accepted outcomes.
Otherwise, if formal qualifications in one particular discipline or another came to mean a barrier to participation, even the likes of the great Jane Jacobs would these days be locked outside the room.