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Making planning sexy

June 12, 2009

A letter published in Planning this week really struck a chord with me and should act as a rallying cry for change in the planning profession.

 Kath Haddrell from Shepton Mallett sent the following letter:

“Who are your planning heroes or icons? Why isn’t planning sexy when it is, I believe, such an important profession? And why, for the love of god, do architects and surveyors end up on the Today programme or You and Yours when it should be a planner speaking?

Is it because our profession has lost its way? Does the RTPI really represent the views of planners? Does it lead us?

I became involved with the RTPI because I agreed with the New Vision and I felt that as a 20-something strategic planner the RTPI did not, could not, represent me.

Now, almost a decade on, I still feel that the profession has lost its voice and its passion.

Planning is not geeky or nerdy but it is seen that way. I don’t want to have to apologise for being a planner. I am proud to be a planner. I have the same beliefs that I had as a raw undergraduate. I want to help make places the best they can be so my planning heroes include people and places.

Walking around places, from St Ives to St Andrews, never fails to make me excited but also sad. Why aren’t we creating such great places anymore? Why and when did we forget to plan for people? Was it just because we were too busy planning for cars?

Thank goodness for Manual for Streets, for the work CABE do and for the fact that the importance of good design is now recognised in the 2008 Act. We aren’t just designing houses or streets or town centres. We are making places where people, you and me, will live, love, work, learn, shop and play.

Stephen hardy, Mark Pearson and Jeremy Gould in the South West make me think, challenge the norm and are all planning heroes. Other planners have been important to me professionally – former colleagues from CSJ Planning, Cornwall County Council, Government Office for the South West and especially colleagues from the Planning Inspectorate.

All of these have helped me to hone my skills, improved my reasoning, made me think. What we have all done, from time to time, is to bounce ideas off each other, challenge and question what we know or think we know and try to find solutions for problems. And surely that is what planning is about?

But are there any national planning icons. Wayne Hemmingway has studied town planning still believes in the importance of making place and is showing volume house builders how to make lasting sustainable places.

Kevin Murray has played a hugely important role within the RTPI, instrumental in the New Vision and remains someone who speaks both passionately and with uncommon sense about planning. Others I know would vote for professor Stephen Crow or David Lock.

I believe that the RTPI needs a debate about what planning is, who planners are and where the profession should be going. And I think that we need more planners who are prepared to be vocal about the profession, who are prepared to raise their heads above the parapet to voice why they are passionate about planning and its purpose. To be planning heroes.”

I’m going to cop out slightly and leave the RTPI debate to its membership and planners. People who know what they’re talking about. But the letter raises many valid points.

I can relate entirely to people’s reactions to hearing you’re a planner – I get a similar response when I tell them I’m a planning journalist. I tell them I’m a journalist, they’re immediately interested, then they inevitably ask what I write about and when I tell them, quite often they laugh and I find myself self-deprecatingly apologising for my job. Planning is not seen as cool. It’s not sexy.

I won’t repeat what Kath’s said, she’s written much more eloquently than I can, but I’d like to get your ideas on what the profession can do to make it hold its head high and get the respect it deserves.

18 Comments leave one →
  1. The Real TPI permalink
    June 12, 2009 11:23 am

    FFS – us planners really need to get over this inferiority complex don’t we? Do architects write similar letters – No! All their letters pages are usually filled with complaints about planners.
    Every planning conference I attend there is usually some form of discussion group about why no one likes us.
    Maybe we should concentrate on getting the job done well and then people will attach a greater value to the proffession as a whole. As the letter indicates there are a great number of good planners out there and there a (surprisingly) lots of people who get what we’re trying to do (CABE and RIBA included for the most part).
    Depressingly though the proffession has also attracted lots of frankly awful people (you know who you are!) who frankly got into planning for the LG pension and the ability to boss people about.
    Maybe I’m alone but when I tell people I’m a planner it usually elicits a far more positive discussion than seems to be the rule.
    Maybe it’s the way you tell em!

    Its not brain surgery though is it?

  2. June 12, 2009 12:24 pm

    Planning preventionitis and a lack of vision is what afflicts ‘planners’, oh, and planning laws which are completely useless.

  3. Tino Hernandez permalink
    June 12, 2009 12:32 pm

    I am sorry that Kath feels the profession has lost its voice and its passion.

    Around one in eight of all our members are also actively involved in the RTPI in some way – a figure most professions would relish. We also have an extremely vibrant and growing Young Planners group. So I do think people are still passionate about what they do and their commitment to the profession is very evident.

    Almost a thousand of our members volunteer to help Planning Aid, which gives a voice to individuals and communities who would otherwise not be heard.

    The RTPI has featured on most of the national news programmes, including the Today programme, Newsnight and actually, quite frequently, on Radio 4s You and Yours. A major BBC1 documentary, which followed East Enders on a Thursday evening, was all about a group of planning professionals. But of course, we need to do more in a fiendishly competitive media world.

    This year’s RTPI President, Martin Willey, has been all over the country promoting the profession. One of his themes for the year has been a new scheme celebrating and encouraging ‘planning heroes.’ Today’s and Tomorrow’s Leaders’ Awards will highlight the work of planners all over Britain.

    Tino Hernandez

    Head of Communications


  4. jfros permalink
    June 12, 2009 12:41 pm

    I second the sentiment above that planning has attracted more than its fair share of people who are looking for an easy ride through working life. Frankly, most planning positions are administrative and could be filled with anyone with half a brain, and are, and the RTPI is now welcoming them in with open arms thinking that inclusive membership will lead to more clout with government and developers. It won’t. It will just lead to more of our colleagues in related professions meeting even more chartered town planners who aren’t the brightest which depresses me and I am sure several others.

    Being a planner is a difficult, interdisciplinary task that isn’t categorised easily. That is what makes it, and planners, so special in this world whose built environment reflects all the decisions planners helped to make.

    But some sort of distinction must be made between the functionary and thinking classes of planners. I hate to put it in such stark words.

    Just some quick suggestions on training:
    1. Scrap the bachelor’s degree nonsense. Make 18 year olds do something else. They don’t know what planning is at that age – take pity on them and don’t tempt them into a course which is sort of like architecture or engineering but they don’t know what it is really.
    2. Introduce some sort of evening school as a second stage after the masters degree. This should free up time in masters degrees for theory as the evening classes should be able to fulfil this role during the 2 year training period to become a qualified planner.
    3. Offer a ‘foundation summer’ before the masters degree for anyone lacking skills in design or social sciences.
    to be continued….

    • toonplanner permalink
      June 12, 2009 2:36 pm

      What a load of tripe. I’m a private sector planner who is proud to shout about being a planner. Lets face it who wants to discuss interesting stuff with a chartered accountant or a solicitor! The degree in TP is not useless as suggested the only change required is to involve real practice professionals to talk about real projects from time to time.

      Get out more often and be proud of the profession. It must be a slow news day is all i can say.

  5. Two Gunz permalink
    June 12, 2009 3:04 pm

    Planning isnt seen as sexy in the UK, unlike in other countries where it is actually a respected and even “cool” profession – America springs to mind.

    I dont think it helps when most of our media exposure (such as the most recent BBC series) portray the profession in a purely beaureacratic light, missing the opportunity to showcase some of the fantastic and iconic achievements of both public and private sector planners. Manchester city centre post IRA bomb anyone?

    Like toonplanner, I am also proud and will be doing my best to bring sexy back to the profession in the bright lights of the north west tonight. Watch out ladies!

  6. The Mikester permalink
    June 12, 2009 3:37 pm

    Unfortunately Two Gunz, from what I’ve heard, when you are out in the north west the ladies tend to flee as if there has been a further explosion!
    To give you your due, Planning may be seen as the poor relation of some other professions, but it is no fault of those of us in the industry.

  7. PlanningGod permalink
    June 17, 2009 1:08 pm

    I totally agree that the profession needs a shakeup and attracts to many ‘non-planners’!

    I for one didn’t go to university for four years (scotland) to decide whether dormer windows are acceptable or not. Development Control at the micro level should be an administrative task – its simply not planning!

    Planning is about landuse and how places work. Less time on DC and more time on progressive policies that truly connect communities, that can bring forward genuine mixed use developments, that can bring functionality to amenity space and that promotes a higher quality public realm PLEASE!

    Also Planning is not Architecture.. don’t get caught up in design codes and new urbanism. Planning is Planning and if we get it right it can be as sexy as h£ll!

  8. Michael Donnelly permalink*
    June 17, 2009 3:18 pm

    Some great comments here, good to get a bit of a debate going! Let’s have some more!

  9. June 17, 2009 3:29 pm

    PlanningGod talks sense. But looking at this from the seat occupied by the Man on the Clapham Omnibus (layperson am I) RTPI stands for Royal Town Planning Institute so how can the control of the urban landscape work in rural areas which are desperate for planners with VISION? We need planners who can see further than the cursed ‘Development Plan’, oh, I forgot, it is central government that dictates ‘spacial’ this and ‘strategic’ that.

    Myopia all round then?

  10. Non-Planner permalink
    June 17, 2009 3:46 pm

    Planning is not at all sexy – it is plain and utterly boring. Surveyors, engineers and architects get the praise becasue they deserve it. Planners are just a pain in the arse who get in the way of a good scheme. I currently work in planning – only because there’s no other jobs out there in the UK currently, but I honestly can’t wait to get back into actually designing things as opposed to writing pages and pages of reports that – let’s be honest – don’t get read by anyone!

    • TUFTED JAKE permalink
      June 18, 2009 2:04 pm

      Ooooh – get you!


  11. ajs permalink
    June 18, 2009 2:45 pm

    Planning is about making places work. Places that people aspire to live, work and play in. Too many of us planners get so bogged down in the minutiae of development control that we don’t see the bigger picture of which it forms part. Others get so caught up in preparing strategic policy that we forget how (or even whether) it is implemented at a lower level.

    As planners, we must continue with preparing for the future of places, producing spatial plans that enhance the usability and attractiveness of places and ensuring that they are implemented to the benefit of their users . This means that we need a much better understanding of how the planning system fits together if we are to make it work better. I think that more flexible career paths incorporating development control, policy making and the development sector are essential. How many planners do you know who have experience of all 3?

    I have always believed that planners are people who make things happen and need to be able to learn new things quickly and be flexible to be able to deal with any new proposed development. We draw other professionals together to improve the environment, helping them to use their skills. In everything planning has to be positive, which, in my experience it so often isn’t. Planning should not be about “oh no you can’t,” but “how can we make this work?” That is the only way I can see that we can be respected as valuable members of the development community.

  12. planeteria permalink
    June 18, 2009 10:22 pm

    I have to take issue with PlanningGod. The reason St Ives, St Andrews and places like that are great is not just down to land use it is also aesthetics and detail. It is how they make you feel and understanding why they make you feel that way. How can you achieve a quality public realm without making a decision on dormer windows for goodness sake!

  13. PlanningGod permalink
    June 19, 2009 11:45 am

    Planeteria! that is tragic!

    if you honestly think dormer windows maketh the place, we may as well give up now!

    For outstanding world heritage sites yes attention to detail is needed, but in one of the countless garden city suburbs that we continue to plan, dormer windows means SFA compared to the need to make them walkable so people get out of their car, to create usable open spaces rather than swathes of grass offering nothing and the integrate uses rather than building tesco white boxes across a dual carriageway from houses!

    PS As a local, St Andrews is not a real place anyway, it is dominated by elite students and the well-off. There are very few normal people who can access it due to the lack of social housing and soaring house prices in the town centre. Maybe we should all move to Seaside, become middle class and live in an Andres Duany candy box!

  14. June 19, 2009 3:40 pm

    Well folks that was a really interesting set of comments. Personally as a member of the public who has spent the best part of the last 4 years getting to know the planning system (out of necessity and sadly because of perceived unjustice with planning locally) I find it fascinating; although, even I see people’s eyes glaze over frequently when I start to try and explain the finer points of how the system works.

    Professional is as professional does. Whether I am speaking to an architect, legal eagle, surveyor or planner or for that matter doctor or teacher I expect there to be good and not so good in all.

    You are talking about a quasi legal system; it is difficult to understand; I have heard it described as more of an ART than a science and decisions on development are taken by elected members, firstly by looking at the development plan and then by weighing up what is also material.

    The potential is for greatness, for public involvement to help create better places; for attention to be paid to climate change issues; for design to enhance and contribute to the quality of our lives, to our health and to our wellbeing.

    But I fear that if planning is quite simply reduced to the lowest common denominator of landowner with reasonable plan and deep pockets meets cash strapped local authority then there is not hope for any of us. Planning will simply be reduced to a damage limitation exercise.

    When you read this I hope that it arouses feelings of curiousity and interest rather than feelings of resignation and defensiveness.

  15. Martin Willey permalink
    June 27, 2009 12:46 pm

    I see that Kath has been voted SW RTPI planner “Today’s Leader”!! We need more like her to challenge where we are going and provide leadership and confidence to the profession.
    My travels as 2009 President show the extremes, from overwork and pressure from all sides to skilful diplomacy and leadership in providing solutions to todays problems. As a profession, we can help provide the framework to get out of the economic mess we find ourselves in. Most planners I meet joined to create better places in which to live and work – if you want to change the world into a better place, become a planner.


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