April 22, 2010

Open source planning?

The Tories' green paper on planning was much vaunted at the time and has now taken a decidedly back seat since being greeted with sneering and indignation in the industry press, and silence from the mainstream. A nifty catchphrase, Open Source Planning, and one that intrigues me, as for several years I have been thinking about how the process of planning and regeneration could be made more open, collaborative and genuinely cognisant of the multitude of perspectives and readings that can be found from even the most cursory conversation with people who actually live in a place.

I'm a huge fan of the power of the web to mobilise, create conversation, and empower people of all ages and dispositions to engage. Anything which allows cheap access to information is an ideal tool for community consultation. I think that the internet has not been used to its full potential yet as a way to positively engage communities with the future development of their areas. It seems generally regarded, however, that the Tory ideas may only encourage nimbyism by those who do participate, and bribery by the development lobby of those who haven't the means (financial or educational) to put up any serious alternative view.

Might there be a different way? The depth of process that is involved, for example, in some of my friend Peter's work at MASS - where randomly selected citizens participate in decision-making processes which include extensive briefing, rather than snap consultations that act as undemocratic, unofficial referenda, is an admirable model, but probably, and sadly, too time-consuming and costly for our authorities to countenance. Taking geotagging and map mash-ups out of the early-adopter fringe and into mainstream planning processes could be a fruitful way to discover what people really value (and hate) about their neighbourhoods - whether a particular bench or tree, a dangerous road crossing, or a rare bird or bug that has been spotted on a patch of undistinguished wasteland. Temporary, physical interventions in the landscape - earlier in the process and more imaginative than a laminated piece of A4 taped to a lamp-post announcing a planning application - could alert people that something may actually happen to that place, and encourage or enable them to submit their thoughts (via text or email as well as the old-fashioned comments box)

And for all this, there is a point in this post that bears repeating: "Open source programming is a win-win, where you add in what works and everyone gains. In computer programming you have potentially infinite resources to share.

Planning – that is in the sense of where to plonk or not to plonk houses, shops or offices for instance – on the other hand is more often than not a win-lose game. Here the deal is that there are limited resources that must be shared, hopefully as fairly as possible."

These decisions must be made in a way that takes into account more than purely local interests: that considers the regional and national, and international, and the effect on public service provision, public finance and all the interrelated tree of wider and less tangible consequences. I'm a great believer - and have certainly found in my work - that it is possible to enable a public debate that is often vociferous but can genuinely sort through the issues, but not every developer or local authority has the passion for public engagement that I do. If the public are genuinely to become central to planning, there needs to be a huge investment in educating and informing them about the complexities of the issues at stake and I seriously doubt - outside of a MASS-type framework - whether this can be possible when I rarely find a professional planner who is truly up to speed.

A balance must be struck, and this is also where leadership and national policy come into play, and where the Tories' vacuum of housing targets and vague 'presumption in favour of sustainable development' start to look worryingly half-cooked. One thing everyone agrees on is that our planning system needs to change, but the clamour of the different lobbies means that each party is reduced to an unconvincing juggling act lacking real vision and the detail to back it up. The trouble is, planning is at the heart of all the other policies - the web that will bind it together. Talk of schools, jobs, hospitals, housing, climate change, is intrinsically about planning - a dumb word that both does and doesn't describe what the discipline really is.

It's a long term strategy, but perhaps - just perhaps - if we start to put these issues into our education curriculum centrally, not just as a bit of architecture when talking about design, or a bit of geography, we may breed an understanding in children and their families that could mean that a genuinely open-source planning process might have a chance of success. But at the same time, our leaders need to get the national plan right, and that means being brave.

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