How can we build capacity in planning in the Commonwealth?

Janet Strachan (Commonwealth Secretariat) hears about planning education in Ghana from Dr. Inkoom, while Dr. Lauence Carmichael from University of the West of England swops notes with Dr.Alias Abdullah of Malaysia's International Islamic University

The Maldive Islands: annual increase in urban population – 5.2%.; maximum height above sea level – 8 metres; rapidly growing tourist industry; four planners; no planning school.. Mozambique: annual increase in urban population 4.1%; proportion of urban population living in slums – over 90%; number of planning schools – 1. Basic facts like these hint at why planning education has become an important issue for the Commonwealth. What can we do to get planners with the right skills in the places where they are most urgently needed?

I have been running a workshop here in Perth, Western Australia that grappled with these questions. Urban planning now matters more than it ever did before. Who “recognised that rapid urbanisation (is) posing a significant challenge in many Commonwealth countries, and that new and inclusive approaches to urban planning and management (are) central to achieving the Millennium Development Goals”? No, not Christine Platt, President of the Commonwealth Association of Planners. No , not Dr. Joan Clos, Executive Director of UN-Habitat, though I am sure both would agree with it. And, no, it’s not a trick question and the answer is not Eric Pickles, the Minister for Communities and Local Government in England. The answer is the Commonwealth Heads of Government in the communiqué from their most recent meeting which was in Trinidad at the end of 2009

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Can professional planning institutes and planning schools rise to the challenge?

Let’s go over that one again. The issue of urbanisation is now up there with concerns like trade, human rights and climate change on the agenda of the Commonwealth, a voluntary association of 54 countries that together are home to about a third of the people on this planet. Furthermore the Commonwealth governments are prepared to buy into the idea that urban planning and management really matter for achievement of the UN’s Millennium Development. But, and it is a significant “but”, only if urban planning can be re-invented with “new and inclusive approaches”. There is no enthusiasm for “more of the same” in terms of planning, no nostalgia amongst politicians for 20th century planning practices and results.

This does not mean throwing out the baby with the bathwater. The planning tradition has strengths that planners themselves too often undervalue (just as they have been less vocal than they should have been about the significance of urbanisation, the planner’s self-definitive concern, in my view). These points were well articulated in the Perth workshop, most notably by David Gordon from Queens University, Canada and by Trevor Budge from Australia’s La Trobe University. They stressed that to cope with the surge of urbanisation we need technical skills in physical planning and design, albeit those skills need to be appropriate to the context and linked to softer political skills. They were strongly supported in this by Prof.Mahanama from the University of Moratuwa, Sri Lanka and by Dr. Inkoom from the University of Science and Technology in Kumasi, Ghana. The sense that urban planning is about handling processes of urban and regional growth and change in an informed and practical way was strong. It needs to be a definitive focus.

Equally important, the highest level of urban management requires skills in providing a cross-cutting, inclusive and integrated vision for a trajectory for a city to follow. Planners’ pragmatism, flexibility and capacity to look beyond traditional professional silos are surely part of the prescription – though not all planners display such qualities. This capacity to grasp the linkages between issues and places has never been more vital, as the world becomes more interconnected and as budgets of service providers get squeezed. Thus one key theme to emerge in the workshop was the need to re-forge the links between planning and public health, links that were so important a century ago. Concerns for food security, hazards mitigation and regional resilience are subsets of this agenda. While planning courses often try to cram too much into the students’ programme, a 21st century global curriculum would need to embrace these topics. A case was made for looking at what current accreditation systems require and then providing an online informed commentary on that. Planning schools and institutes could then self-assess their provision and policies against these benchmarks.

Looking forward

A stimulating day saw discussion range much wider than can be incorporated in a short blog. Matters discussed included:

• the scope for e-learning, especially for mid-career planners in small states where there is little or no local access to new professional know-how;

• how to strengthen research and especially to stimulate new research networks amongst Commonwealth planning schools;

• how current accreditation or statutory registration systems are operating.

We also heard of an impressive co-operation between the Planning Institute of Australia and the Institute of Town Planning in Sri Lanka in response to the 2004 tsunami. This has blossomed so that now a new joint 2 year Masters course between La Trobe and Moratuwa is about to be launched.

Crucially we now need to build a practical action plan and road map to demonstrate what can be done in the period leading to the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Sri Lanka in 2013. We need champions and partners – UN-Habitat obviously, but also some national governments and universities. Not least we need active engagement from the professional planning institutes where they exist within the Commonwealth. It is ironic that those professional planning bodies, who are so keen to promote the cause of planning, have done so little to inform their own members of the progress made in promoting planning in the Commonwealth. Is the blockage caused by parochialism, communication breakdowns – or unease with the need for “new and inclusive approaches to planning”?

The Commonwealth Secretariat, by backing initiatives led by the Commonwealth Association of Planners, have enabled us to get this far. Similarly, CAP is grateful for the strong support it has enjoyed through grants from the Commonwealth Foundation, which helped fund a small study on accreditation systems. That’s how we got to where we are today: today we are at the end of the beginning in building planning capacity for a rapidly urbanising Commonwealth.

  • Judith Eversley

    Dory Reeves (who may well have been at the conference reported above!) opened a topic on the Women & Human Settlements discussion forum: how universities contribute to delivering sustainable urbanisation both because they *can* (because they have the research capability and student power, and because they *should* (as responsible members of communities). Read more at http://www.womenandhumansettlements.org/forum-discussions/role-universities-helping-deliver-sustainable-urbanisation-103.html.

    • Thanks Judith. Yes, Dory is indeed here and took part in the workshop. We have also had discussions here with UN-Habitat to explore a possible training event in Sri Lanka to use the teaching pack they are preparing on Planning and Climate Change. This came out of the 2009 meeting in Rotterdam that CAP and UN-Habitat did to scope out the need for planners to have skills to respond to the challenges of climate change, a meeting at which Richard Summers, current RTPI President, represented RTPI. We hope to find ways to bring people from the Maldive Islands into the Sri Lanka meeting.