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Technology puts power of strategic planning in focus, says Professor Michael Batty

Words: Laura Edgar

Professor Michael Batty has said that the use of technology tools, and how they explain the potential impact on large infrastructure projects, will make calls for more strategic planning difficult to ignore.

Batty, Bartlett professor of planning, University College London, told attendees at the annual RTPI Nathaniel Lichfield Lecture this week that IT tools are likely to play an increasing role in the years ahead.

This year’s lecture celebrated what would have been Nathaniel Lichfield’s 100th birthday. Professor Batty themed his lecture around the planning balance sheet, a mechanism for accounting for the costs and benefits of any plan that was introduced by Lichfield in the 1950s. This method of considering the merits and demerits of any proposal “has withstood the test of time”, said Batty. But what was once done with pen and paper with the planning balance sheet is now informed by a number of technological and digital tools.

Batty discussed and displayed examples from Quant, a software tool developed in conjunction with University College London, the Future Cities Catapult, and Casa, an interdisciplinary research institute.

Quant allows for the simulation of models to figure out the impacts on plans of changes in population, employment and travel costs, and transport infrastructure.

Professor Batty used the expansion of Heathrow as one example, showing delegates how the inputting of 50,000 jobs in to the model would likely affect the local area and beyond, in particular pointing to issues over pressure of housing and green belt incursion.

During Q&A with Professor Batty following the lecture, John Acres, incoming RTPI vice president, said that the effects shown by Batty, of how changes to one plan can significantly impact on another, presented a compelling case for a return to more strategic planning.

Professor Batty agreed, suggesting that the country’s major debates over infrastructure was likely to put strategic planning back on the agenda, particularly when it comes to balancing the differences in Britain between the north and the south, something Batty described as “substantial” and only “increasing” in his view.

“The infrastructure is just part of the solution, but I think a much bigger strategic agenda is required for all of these things. We need to be comprehensive to be strategic; we need to look at all of the impacts.”

The RTPI used the occasion of Professor Batty’s lecture to present him with its Gold Medal, the institute’s highest honour and one bestowed for outstanding achievement in advancing planning ideas, practice or professional service.

Batty is the most highly cited urban planning academic in the world with over 21,000 citations of his work in urban science and mathematical modelling of spatial structures. In 2004, he was awarded a CBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours. He has been a fellow of the RTPI since 1984.

On receiving his Gold Medal, Batty said: "I was delighted to be nominated and awarded the RTPI Gold Medal. One of my heroes as an undergraduate in planning at Manchester in the 1960s was Sir Patrick Abercrombie who received the medal in 1955 and it was beyond my wildest dreams that I would ever receive this myself. I am also pleased that Sir William Holford and Sir Peter Hall who also received the medal together with Abercrombie were my predecessors at UCL in the Bartlett School of Planning. It is a great honour for me and for my research group at UCL who are striving to produce better tools for planners and planning which we need so urgently."

The annual Nathaniel Lichfield lecture has been funded since 2011 through an endowment provided by Lichfield’s widow, Dalia.