A new world order? Commonwealth planners report

What are the issues that planners across the globe are grappling with? This week I attended a meeting in London of the Commonwealth Association of Planners (CAP). Representatives from Africa, the Caribbean and Americas, Asia, Australasia and the Pacific, and Europe gave fascinating presentations. In the space of an hour we were given a kaleidoscope of planners’ work and concerns – from post-earthquake Christchurch to crime and sprawl in Caribbean islands, from the “jobs and growth” agenda in Europe to the forced removal of people to make way for major infrastructure projects in dynamic African countries. Where does planning go from here?

Jobs and Growth
The era of growth seems a long time ago in Europe, and especially in the Mediterranean countries. However, its legacy lives on in Malta in the form of “ghost estates”, where speculators overstretched themselves in the age of easy money. Meanwhile problems of congestion and parking in the highly urbanised areas are seeing disinvestment from the cores, with new threats to the conservation of historic environments.

There is a similar scenario in Cyprus, which has seen a lot of development on agricultural land around the edge of cities. Meanwhile, there are few homes for locals in the more remote villages as the houses there have been bought up for holiday homes.

In the UK the call is for planning to deliver growth, not “hinder development”. Australia, which for so long seemed to be sheltered from the downturn because of the global demand for its minerals, is now also in economic slowdown. Australian planners, whose work for so long focused on the regulation of growth, are now being challenged demonstrate the value of planning when there is no growth, and to show that they can deliver outcomes.

The growth agenda has long been central to planning in Singapore, and continues to be so. Dr.Belinda Lee reported on her country’s Concept Plan and Master Plan. In this highly urbanised and affluent small state, a key goal of planning is to strengthen economic growth opportunities and help retain talented workers.

Similarly, Malaysia has a strongly growth-oriented outlook on planning. The country aspires to move itself up the global economic value chain whilst also protecting its environmental endowments. Five development corridors have been planned across the different regions. Infrastructure leads, development follows. I am always surprised at how little attention planners in rich countries pay to the practices in East Asia, where strategic planning has been a significant force for growth.

Change in Africa

A decade ago Africa was seen as weak and deserving of pity and aid from the West. Nobody should belittle the scale of the interwoven challenges in shelter, health and education that persist, and are even growing numerically thanks to demography and migration. However, listening to the reports from CAP delegates from West, Southern and East Africa, confirmed how economically dynamic the continent has become as democracy has advanced.

However, as they showed, much of the growth is problematic, and is highly dependent on extraction and exploitation of natural resources. There are high rates of urbanisation, but the pattern is uneven within and between countries. The opportunities for wealth that the cities offer make rural to urban migration unstoppable, but too many migrants simply lack the skills to thrive quickly in their new milieu. The result is peri-urban sprawl with inadequate services occurring at a pace that outstrips the capacity for public resource investment.

However, positive initiatives were reported also. In Tanzania there is work being done on “guided informal settlements”. In Uganda there are examples of pro-poor service provision with a particular focus on water and sewerage. It was also encouraging to hear that Kampala and Dar es Salam are getting to grips with the mounting problems of congestion through the introduction of Bus Rapid Transit systems. There are also important moves in East Africa to decentralise administration, including the planning function, though the need for professional capacity building becomes more acute as a consequence.

Nobody who has visited sub-Saharan Africa in recent years can fail to have seen the impact that China is having on major infrastructure provision. Whether it is hubs like port facilities or airports, major transport corridors or power generation plants, China has basically cut deals to deliver in return for long-term resource rights. The result is a scale and pace of infrastructure development that Western ministers dream of – though preferably not in their own constituency.

Aye, there’s the rub. The Chinese model is designed for a development state not a green activist’s back yard. Compulsory purchase powers – eminent domain for American readers – have been a traditional but controversial part of the armoury of planning. They are now being used, and challenged, across Africa to displace people to make way for the new infrastructure.

Hazards and resilience

In the week of Hurricane Sandy no discussion of global planning challenges would be complete without mention of environmental risks and planning for resilience. In no part of the globe are anxieties about climate change and sea level rise so acutely felt as in the small island developing states, so many of which are in the Commonwealth. These are places where planners’ skills are most needed yet planners are thinnest on the ground. Sonya Kirby from Australia fired out a few figures: no planners in Tuvalu, three in Kiribati, six in Samoa. Yolanda Alleyne from Barbados also emphasised the problems of the Caribbean islands where resilience and adaptation strategies remain weak. Not that size alone provides any refuge: Taufiq Islam sketched the problems faced in Bangladesh, which I have discussed in a previous World View blog.

Where now?
In their different ways the planners presenting their reports at this week’s CAP meeting were telling the story from ground level of the huge forces that are restructuring our planet. Climate change and the impact of environmental hazards on communities and economies; rural to urban migration in search of a better future, even if that future starts in a makeshift shack without water or basic sanitation; the premium that increasingly attaches to minerals and energy resources; the widening disparities between rich and poor; and the shift in economic power from Europe in particular to the countries of the Global South. CAP encompasses and understands the inter-connectivity of these forces more than any other association of planners.

The event further emphasised the emergence of “resilience” as a key theme, though one that has an economic as well as an environmental dimension. CAP will also be aware that the Commonwealth Foundation has this week launched its new strategic plan, which puts the idea of “participatory governance” at the centre. Work that CAP is already doing on resilience, but also on food security, urban indicators, gender, capacity building and planning legislation, can bring together these two concepts. The aim should be to better share and communicate knowledge and practice, and demonstrate the positive outcomes that can be achieved if we are prepared to “re-invent planning”. More and more that will mean planners in the Global North learning from what is happening across Asia, Africa and Latin America.

  • Cliff Hague

    Interesting comments from Ros Ward on her experiences of being a Voluntary Service Oversas planner in Zambia can be found after my earlier blog about international exchanges amongst planners. These show some of the problems that planners and planning faces in countries where local government is weak and strapped for cash. Come to think of it that seems to be where we are heading in UK…

  • Cliff Hague

    Apologies to Dr Belinda Yuen for calling her belinda lee in this blog. Can’t explain where the error came from. I’ve know Dr Yuen for years, I KNOW she is Dr Yuen… a worrying mental lapse!

  • Dr Golam Rahman

    Prof.Cliff Hague
    Thanks for your beautiful presentation of world planning review. But, somehow the events in Bangladesh regarding the building collapse, fire hazards in the garment industry and climate change impact on the coastal area by aila have not found a place in the presentation. Similarly the major events in India, Pakistan and Sri lanka on planning and development have been left untouched. Last year bangladesh institute of architects did convene a Commonwealth association of architects (CAA) in Dhaka. am wondering if such an event is possible to be organized in Commonwealth countries. I am currently in London til 7th. 07424826255. Prof Golam Rahman

    • cliffhague

      Dear Dr Golam Rahman,

      Thanks for your kind words. I appreciate your comments that important things have happened that I have not covered. This is largely because I did not have access to information not already in the main media. I am currently in USA and not back until 15 July. I am no longer President of CAP. I will pass on your comments to the President.

      Best wishes

      Cliff