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21/09/2017

The world deserves an impartial planning profession

Words:
A favela

The politicisation of planning threatens our ability to deliver the long-term improvements embedded in the Sustainable Development Goals and the New Urban Agenda, argues Wei Yang

United Nations members have endorsed the Sustainable Development Goals and the New Urban Agenda (NUA). But neither is legally binding. If we are not careful, the failure to implement the 1996 Habitat Agenda adopted at Habitat II will happen again. This time, it will be at a much greater cost to the globe.

Encouragingly, the importance of ‘urban planning and design’ is highlighted in the NUA, which recognises that planning can formulate medium and long-term objectives that reconcile a collective vision with the rational organisation of resources to achieve it. It is time that the planning profession takes a leadership role.

But is this just a theory? It is ever harder for planners’ independent long-term and strategic advice to be taken. In many countries, urban planning has been instrumentalised by politicians and developers. It has become a major issue that politicians come and go, and their short-sighted policies leave a mess behind. Planners seem to have become invisible to the public, while most of us have become government’s planning function officers or developer’s agents.

"In many countries, urban planning has been instrumentalised by politicians and developers"

The birthplace of modern town and country planning, Britain is experiencing severe challenges to the core values of planning. The vacuum of a national spatial plan, abolition of regional plans and exclusion of ideas of social justice from the purpose of planning in the NPPF are fundamental issues. It is easy to forget that the art and science of modern planning was an invention not by government, but by people like Howard, Unwin, and others with social justice and the long-term vision of communities in their hearts. 

The world deserves an impartial planning profession and Britain should take the lead. I see planners as doctors of our cities and towns: we can identify issues and potential, draw up long-term cross-sector strategies, and create healthier communities.

Can we learn from other professions to invent a different planning system in which planners can keep a distance from politics and create policies for the long term and strategies for both the nation and local areas with key stakeholders? Once endorsed by the public, such strategies must not be changed by political shifts.

Howard once said: “I realised, as never before, the splendid possibilities of a new civilisation based on service to the community and not on self-interest, at present the dominant motive. Then I determined to take such a part as I could, however small it might be, in helping to bring a new civilisation into being.” 

If his ‘small’ part was to create the garden city movement, what would stop us from regaining the impartial role of the planning profession now?

Wei Yang is founder of Wei Yang & Partners

Image | iStock

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