In the week that preceded the recent OPPI conference in Toronto, Dan Burden (Honorary Member of OPPI) and I (Robert Voigt, MCIP, RPP) had a number of conversations about the future of planning. As friends and colleagues we enjoy these discussions and the inspiration we derive from them. Because we feel that this blog is a wonderful tool for inviting dialog, reflection, and envisioning the future for planning we have co-written and are sharing the following. These are conversational excerpts that highlight some of the themes that we talked about. Each is introduced with a quote from either Dan or myself, followed by some of the thoughts we discussed while enjoying our travels together.
Rob: “The re-convergence of the fields of planning and public health working together cooperatively is one of the most powerful opportunities we face. We are reconnecting around the greatest work we can do, developing communities and a commons that supports and promotes health for all”.
Beyond just the obviously inherent value of this shift, this also represents the kind of key evolution in relationships that we need to champion profession-wide. Planners need to build on this success and use their unique set of skills to also define a new age of cooperation amongst other professionals, and the citizens we plan for. This is an evolution past templated “public processes” that are generally project specific and conflict driven, to “citizen engagement” that has depth, meaning and inherent purpose beyond regulatory requirements. Community building requires dialog and relationship building, things that should be part of every Planner’s professional practise.
Dan: “Planners need to become comfortable in leadership roles. When it comes to tackling the changes our towns and cities face in community health, economic prosperity, environmental protection, what have you, we need to be at ease asking ourselves “if I’m not going to do it, who is?” This should be in job descriptions… an urgency to get things done… moving beyond process to a greater emphasis on results”.
It’s as if we need to re-title much of our professional work from “plans” to “plans of action”. Although this meaning is inherent, we don’t need to look very far to find that the action is a missing component in too many instances. A shift needs to happen that gives planners greater abilities and powers to implement their work (which is to some degree connected to our continued efforts relating to full recognition of the profession). This affects everything from organizational capacity to legal limitations. Planners should actively try to adapt these systems, to ensure that the level of responsibility of their critically important work is matched by the leadership authority/capacity they need to implement it. The challenges our communities of the future are facing are too great for planners to continue to be in purely advisory roles; it is time for you to lead more.
Rob: “While I believe that incremental change is the best approach that we can take in our planning work… in fact it is the only way we have ever built truly successful communities throughout history… far too often planning gets “stuck” in the clouds of long-range visions never to set foot on the ground in building the communities we need”.
This is so very closely connected to the difficulties of leadership roles and responsibilities we just described. It can result from any combination of scope, collaboration, consensus, and professional judgement mistakenly leading to loss of focus, sacrificing community-wide purposes for localized interests, or undervalued expertise. To get past these challenges we need to develop a greater level of urgency. By recognizing, naming and framing the “crisis” we are planning for, we can develop strategies and commitments for taking action; ways of enabling leaders through processes and plans that are dynamic and catalysts for creativity. At the very least, we need to develop better plans that have ACTION directly ingrained “in their DNA”, moving beyond visionary language that speaks primarily of “encouraging” or “supporting” change.
Dan: “I have spent years authorizing and overseeing research on age related topics. I live my life as best as I can with an affordable, feet-first based transport and living focus. This allows me to experience many conditions first hand, and to otherwise have an empathetic outlook on the complexity and volatile nature of this topic. I literally talk the talk and walk the walk… It’s not by coincidence that I’ve been conducting walking audits for decades in thousands of communities with countless planners thanking me for ‘opening their eyes’ to the world around them”.
We are now able to connect communities of interest far and wide, to create environments rich in data output with the growing internet of things, and to simulate virtual places through gaming inspired tools. But these are in no way a substitute for the learning and understanding afforded to planners that can work directly “out in the field”; walking the streets with citizens, in the communities they are planning.
For planners this “keeping your boots muddy” approach is critically needed now more than ever. While we both embrace new technology and integrate it into our work, far too often we see the negative effects of planning done in a vacuum induced by an over-reliance of these technological tools.
Human beings learn in many different ways, and the combination of kinesthetic experiences mixed with all the sights sounds and smells of the “real world” cannot be substituted with the insights generated with technology. We both see that the evidence is clear that cognitive understanding of communities is greatly enhanced by the visceral reactions we have when experiences places and people first hand. And in no way does this sacrifice objectivity, quite the opposite. As community builders, planners need to figure out how to integrate this kind of learning into their practises.
Dan: “There is such a rich history and extraordinary future for the planning profession. I truly believe it is one of the most important journeys someone can choose to take. We need bold, visionary, and eloquent planners to build a future of health and prosperity”.
Dan Burden is Director of Innovation & Inspiration at Bluezones. To learn more about Bluezones and their ongoing commitments to ensuring healthy, sustainable and walkable communities, feel free to visit their website
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