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It's time to give space to the citizen planner


What role can non-professionals play in the planning of spaces and places? Liane Hartley says it's time for planners to relinquish some control

Liane HartleyPlanning is a behavioural discipline. It is concerned with shaping behaviours in urban space. But wholesale behavioural changes are also needed in the planning process that has hitherto cast rigid divisions between roles and remits, professionals and non-professionals, people and place.

How do we engage non-experts into the planning process? To what extent are we willing to relinquish some level of control? I’m interested in the role people, as citizens and professionals, will have in planning our cities.

I see cities as social networks – and streets, spaces, parks and buildings as social media. To understand how a place works we must understand the socially driven networks within it and the actions that govern them. Currently, design and development is a physical process with social outcomes; if it were a social process with physical outcomes, we’d have better places.

We are moving away from a model of ‘consumer wants, business or state provides’ towards ‘consumer wants; consumer informally makes, borrows, shares, hacks and mashes’.

"I see cities as social networks - and streets, spaces, parks and buildings as social media"

The challenge for us as professionals is to grow capacity in local people to get more involved in the changes taking place in their city. Since training as a planner, I have realised that the skills I use are increasingly psychological, social and about seeing places almost as people, with messy, surprising, maddening and inspiring qualities.

There is a big opportunity for a ‘citizen professional’ to emerge and provide the glue to hold communities, developers and planners together in the planning process. These citizen professionals are planners in the sense they are engaged in the future shape of cities, and their modus operandi is social intelligence.

Planning is too concerned with the 3D physicality of urban space and not enough with the stuff that happens there, which is treated as a subsequent manifestation of experience that happens randomly after planning. In our urge to make things safe and easy to manage, we rip the heart and soul away from it. JG Ballard’s writings are notorious for evoking the alienated isolation of suburban life and its bland Nowherevilles. This is not just an aesthetic issue.

For mess read spontaneity, discovery, surprise – places that keep you guessing and invite you in without giving away their secrets. Disruption shouldn’t be an episodic or insolent intervention, but a necessary and valuable correction of systems and processes. The challenge for us as planners is to embrace this and accept a loss of control.

Liane Hartley is founder director of Mend and Urbanistas



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