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Civic leadership – new opportunities for planners

City Hall, London

The age of the charismatic leader is long gone, argues Robin Hambleton. In the modern world, planners have a key role to play in civic leadership and creating inspiring visions for 21st century cities

falseAlfonso Vegara, in his presentation to this year’s RTPI Planning Convention, drew attention to the way professional city planners can contribute, in an inspiring way, to civic leadership.

He outlined how Bilbao’s city leaders have focussed on enhancing the quality of life in the city and the wider city region. In particular, he highlighted the importance of long-term spatial planning and the role of Bilbao in improving prospects for a wider cluster of cities and small towns.

In my new book, Leading the Inclusive City], I have examined the role of planners, and other actors, in developing effective place-based leadership in different countries.

Consistent with the view put forward by Mr Vegara, I argue that civic leadership can make a big difference to the quality of life in a locality and that planners are well placed to make an important contribution to progressive local leadership.

I present seventeen examples of successful public innovation – I call them ‘Innovation Stories’ - drawn from cities in fourteen different countries and, in many of them, imaginative city planners have been key players.

Sensible studies of public leadership have, for years, recognised that the traditional focus of leadership studies on ‘heroic’ figures, individuals with remarkable passion and skills who make a big impact, is an outdated way of thinking about modern civic leadership.

Understanding the socio-political context, and the way public leaders, and emerging public leaders, interact with local power structures, economic stakeholders and social movements, is now central to modern urban political science.

But this does not mean that individual leaders don’t matter. In my book, as well as offering new concepts to help understand place-based leadership, I draw attention to the achievements of some remarkable city planners.

In researching the book I was fortunate to be able to interview four outstanding city planners: Rob Adams, director of city design, City of Melbourne; Susan Anderson, director of the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, Portland, Oregon; Wulf Daseking, director of city planning, Freiburg (1984-2013); and Christer Larsson, city planning director, City of Malmo.

"Clearly, there are opportunities for those involved in planning education to give much more attention to the development of leadership skills in taught courses"

These city planners are, in my view, world leading. What lessons for city planning practice emerge from the experience of these respected civic leaders?

First, all of these planners have been tireless in working with others to create an inspiring vision for their city. Social justice and equity figure in their calculations, not just environmental sustainability and economic prosperity.

Second, they demonstrate emotional commitment to their city and the people living in their city. It is impressive the way these planners bring their values to bear in their day-to-day work.

Third, these professionals are all very effective in working across the boundaries of the realms of leadership within their city – they do not serve sectional interests – and they are proactive rather than reactive in their approach to decision-making.

What are the lessons for planning academics? Clearly, there are opportunities for those involved in planning education to give much more attention to the development of leadership skills in taught courses. 

In addition, planning researchers should, in my view, prioritise researching urban planning success stories. Where and why has inspirational city planning made a big difference?

If they do, I predict that they will find that outgoing place-based leadership is delivering great results on the ground, and new research could generate fresh insights on how to improve the effectiveness city planners, junior and senior, in modern civic leadership.

Robin Hambleton is emeritus professor of city leadership in the Centre for Sustainable Planning and Environments at the University of the West of England.

Robin Hambleton’s book, Leading the Inclusive City: Place-based innovation for a bounded planet, is published by Policy Press.

Image credit | Shutterstock


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