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Reflections from a presidential year – the role of culture in planning

Reflecting on 2019 / iStock-1146305715

Ian Tant, newly immediate past president of the RTPI, considers the importance of one particular theme emerging from his 12 months in office.

The president of the institute has the privilege of travelling the length and breadth of the United Kingdom and Ireland, meeting RTPI members and seeing at first hand the successes of which they are so proud and the challenges they face in their work.

At the end of my year, I took time to reflect on what I had seen and learnt and was struck by a number of common threads that contributed so often to successes.

The first and foremost of these was something we rarely discuss but which is so important to people and thus to planning – culture.

What I’ve seen is that understanding the culture and cultural assets of a locality goes a long way to identifying the distinctiveness of place and in turn helps to make the place somewhere worthy of investment.

Frequently, the creation or renovation of cultural assets is the piece of investment that triggers a growing sense of civic pride and flows out into the surrounding area, encouraging property owners to make their own investment. Powerful examples include:

  • Dundee, with the V&A Museum forming an iconic centrepiece to the regeneration of the Waterfront;
  • Snape Maltings, a private investment which forms a key piece in the economy and community involvement in East Suffolk; and
  • Spanish City at Whitley Bay.

But culture is not just iconic buildings and showpieces – it is the art, history, literature, education and spirit that flows from an area, most ably demonstrated by the London Borough of Waltham Forest – London’s Borough of Culture for 2019. And it’s shown in the investment by the Snowdonia National Park Authority in the museum at Yr Ysgwrn, celebrating the life, work and story of the poet, Hedd Wyn.

Culture is not capable of being imposed on a place – it is ingrained in the communities of the locality. Cultural activities draw people together and form part of the weft and weave of society. Understanding the culture of a place necessarily involves learning from communities what is happening and what has happened in the area. In essence, culture offers a key route for planners into improved processes of community engagement.

The importance of culture should not be overlooked in our work.

Image credit | iStock


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