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A new civic culture must fill the void

Empty street in town centre

Planning is underpinned by a 'civic ideal', writes Cliff Hague. But it's being diluted by a squeeze on local government. What can planners do to create a new civic culture?

Cliff HagueThe civic ideal is the lifeblood of the planning profession. People become planners because they are inspired by places as shared experiences, and the idea that what happens to places is a matter for democratic determination. So the dilution of that lifeblood, as local government’s role has shrunk, is an existential concern.

Civic leadership has given way to efficient delivery of services to customers and clients; planning has been absorbed into a management process to achieve (or undershoot on) targets within conglomerate service directorates.

The squeeze on local government spending has not only stripped out expertise and experience, but has also inculcated a risk-averse culture, when innovation has become essential not just in the boardroom or the laboratory, but in public service, too.

"The built and natural environment is being reduced to an item on a balance sheet"

This makes conservation of the historic environment and of landscapes particularly vulnerable. Familiar streetscapes and valued spaces are integral to civic identity; they root citizens in their place and embody the idea that we, the people, are the owners of our villages, neighbourhoods or cities.

Yet the built and natural environment is being reduced to an item on a balance sheet, where it can show as a liability rather than an asset. Meaning and place identity is devalorised, and deterioration presages destruction. Planning authorities are coerced to act within the economic realism that promises investment and jobs.

Caring for the legacy is increasingly urgent. Re-use of existing buildings generally makes 
environmental sense: the embodied energy offsets energy and resource use in production of new materials.

Trees and undeveloped land are needed to absorb downpours that are no longer ‘once in 100 years’ events. The increased dominance of capital cities and big agglomerations under globalisation and the information society makes essential innovative urban “conservative surgery”, as Geddes called it (echoed as “cellular renewal” in Germany for the last 20-30 years).

Yet the human resources to practice planning in this way have been deemed unaffordable. The void reproduces the notion that places are just an aggregate of private spaces, and ‘third parties’, and offshore investors (and disinvestors) have the prime voice in shaping our townscapes and countryside.

A new civic culture has to be built, from a pride in place and a capacity to do something about it. Local councils could be champions of such a movement, if they can risk breaking the mould. Planners and their institutions should be doing some creative thinking and advocacy.

Cliff Hague is a freelance consultant and emeritus professor of planning and spatial development at Heriot-Watt University



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