Planning challenges in the 2020’s


Over the course of my Planning Theory paper in the second half of 2019, I had 12 core readings (one a week) and on average two additional readings. Some were dry, Northern hemisphere papers  written in the context of post World War 2 Europe. One or two – in the words of another student – “just about broke my brain”. And there were others that were rather dark, such as that by Kamete (2012), which talks about how planning law was used to aid Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe’s Operation Murabatsvina, which cleared out large slum areas of Harare in 2005.

And then there were a couple that resonated with me. One came from Australia and the other one was from Harvard University. The Australian one (Lane, 2005), examined an idea I have committed to memory because it is where I think some councils are failing badly. Sherry Arnstein (1969), who was an American social worker noticed how out of tune authorities seemed to be on social matters. Arnstein developed the “Ladder of Participation”, concerning how councils involve the public in planning matters, which I want to explore a bit.

Lane drew upon Arnstein’s idea and explored it further. Lane suggested that planning fell into three schools – blueprint; synoptic and pluralist. The blueprint type which most western countries abandoned from about the late 1960’s, was basically about developing new settlement forms with question or interference. This triggered some interesting discussions among the students on the course. One said that her parents live in Poland and have no concept of civil planning. They have only ever known “blueprint” type and synoptic and pluralist planning ideas that western countries have gravitated towards were completely foreign to them.

The Harvard paper by Beckert (2016) looks at “Fictional expectations and the crisis of contemporary capitalism”. Beckert argues that capitalism is about expecting to be bettered by a competitor and therefore trying to continuously come with new ideas, products or services. What one is trying to develop has to be of greater value than what was invested so that a return can be made on it. But Beckert noted a potential crisis of confidence caused by the growing disparities that undermine the motivation to participate, which might hinder long term market development.

In a planning context one might suggest that planning is in part about attempting to provide a framework for a future that we do not yet know about – and which might not happen. The 1991 Resource Management Act was born out of concerns about the Brundtland conference about the future of the planet. Climate change had not become the massive issue it is now, but there was enough confidence about the unsustainable trajectory of economic development to say we have a major problem.

Another paper that struck me as possibly being useful was one by Joe Painter (2006) called “Prosaic Geographies of Stateness”. A striking paper this one because it sought to understand the impact of the everyday bureaucrat – whether a planner, an enforcement officer or gathering/collating data – and their actions. It drew on literature from Britain, but I am going to put this in a New Zealand context.

We have the Resource Management Act. The planner, that some of you refer to as bureaucrats has a testing job. Juggling the obligations of the Act is not as easy as it looks, and friends who have processed resource consents have told me it is a never ending conveyor belt. Speed it up then, some of you say. Okay, but are you prepared to see more ratepayer dollars spent on staff you call bureaucrats? No, stuff it some of you will say. The planner in the middle then finds themselves struggling to meet R.M.A. imposed deadlines. In carrying out the mundane actions Painter describes, we see how the ordinary job of the planner and the mundane decisions they make actually wield power in our lives. A planner finding a developer wants to build inside a set riparian margin can send the developer away to reset their boundary, or the developer may ask for a plan change. If the applicant does not supply sufficient info the planner can exercise S.92 which requests more information under the R.M.A.

Before anyone grumbles about processing times, I understand 90-95% get issued. But it might pay to check the quality of the decision. This is one reason why we get so many inane council decisions that seem to be half cooked. Another is because city/district/regional councils hire people who have a narrow planning background. As a result New skills are not being brought to the fore. But also a staff that do not have time for due diligence, are going to be the first to make a mistake.

As the new decade starts, it is worthwhile asking yourself and ourselves collectively, what is expected of a council planner, and based on what I have discussed, the sort of theoretical influences they should be drawing upon.

References:

  • Beckert J., “Fictional expectations and the crisis of contemporary capitalism”, 2016
  • Kamete A., “Interrogating planning’s power in an African city: Time for a reorientation?”, 2012
  • Lane M., “Public participation in planning: An intellectual history”, 2005
  • Menzies M., “A partial history of futures thinking in New Zealand”, 2018
  • Painter J., “Prosaic geographies of Stateness”, 2006

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