A version of this blog first appeared on the Snook website:
I come from Ireland. Irish villages used to grow laterally. When the time came to build a house, the builder would go to the last house in the village and throw his hat. He would build his house where his hat landed. The result is sprawl: fine in the 19th century. A real problem now. It’s not good for transport, and with larger populations, it results in people living too far from shops and facilities to make strong communities. It creates huge problems for health services and for delivering amenities like electricity, water and sewage.
Our planning system exists to avoid this problem but it’s not without its problems. On the one hand, there is the need to provide housing, shops and services for communities. On the other hand, there are people whose communities are under threat from those developments.
The town and country planning system in the UK dates from the 1940s, when communities gained the right to determine how land was used. Community interest was represented through local authorities, who ran a process through which people or companies could be granted or denied permission to build on land. The system involves zoning for different uses such as industry, commerce, or residential, but each development needs planning permission.
The planning system often tended toward elite control, with grand plans being created by city fathers (because they were, almost without fail – men) and foisted on communities. During the 1960s and 1970s resistance grew to this approach. People – who were better educated than ever before, and who wanted more choice – made sure that the plans suited them and their communities. However this has gridlocked the system and made planning confrontational. For some organisations, the planning system lies at the heart of all that is wrong, to the extent that they believe sorting it out would solve all our problems.
Planning the future
This system was great in it’s time, but it’s time has now passed, and we have the opportunity to create something much better.
By necessity, the planning system we have is one that is adversarial and we should create something based on the principles of co-design. We need to put communities at the heart of the process and changes in technology will make this much easier.
Organisations like Snook have been working with Hackney Council to build on the work that Future Cities Catapult have been doing on transforming the planning system. Separately, the Scottish Government is running a process that harnesses technology and participation to make planning better. We believe now is the time to make this work, building on the foundation of a new planning system, with data informing community-led decisions.
We’ve moved from a world where people needed information brought to them to make decisions. Those city fathers were the possessors of enormous accumulated knowledge that allowed them to make decisions. But that has now changed. We’re now in a world where the information is mostly out there already. The internet was designed to keep communications alive in the event of a nuclear war. It distributes information to protect it. But this has a huge additional benefit: it means we can all access that information.
Over the past 10 years, networked approaches to information in public services have begun to emerge. These include crowdsourcing information and citizen science. This is good but still isn’t at the heart of how public services work. Leading businesses in the private sector have data at the core of their operations. We need to identify new ways to harness the data that we now have access to, to deliver better public services, and we need to increase the role for communities in those services.
So what does this look like?
We should replace the current planning system that sets developers and communities at loggerheads with one that co-designs with our communities.
Imagine a community event where we use inclusive design and participatory processes to identify what a community actually needs. Add to this skills in urban design, throw in some Minecraft experts, and we could have a process where the community sets out what it wants to see, then commissions the facilities that are needed. The process can be based on the best data and modelling available. It will transform the adversarial system we have into a creative system. The time spent on opposing developments could be spent on co-designing communities of the future.
Furthermore, using machine learning and artificial intelligence can help develop proposed developments. Having all planning data on open standards might allow us to create 3D models of our cities, and an opportunity to understand rural service needs. We could create dynamic plans in which the greatest effort is devoted to making the important decisions, not making the models. We could deploy augmented reality and virtual reality to help people understand what is being proposed. There are digital tools that allow better and more inclusive consultation.
Snook wants to develop our role in planning and community participation. This means creating a community of designers committed to human-centred design. We want people to have the right tools to challenge or contribute to the the processes that shape their environment.
These processes need to be open to everyone. They need to be truly participatory. That means we want to improve the information that supports policy and how policy is subsequently developed. Organisations like Snook are asking the question: could local development plans be fluid, responding to live data, population needs, emerging trends and unexpected events? What would it be like if urban data could be used to create a dynamic framework. An approach that allows for policy at the local level which is responsive and connected to community needs as they arise?
Technology creates the opportunity for human involvement to be focused on the highest value decisions. It offers us the opportunity to codesign the cities of the future. It allows us to better understand where to site housing, shops and other facilities.
The Scottish Government’s commitment to reforming the planning process gives us a real opportunity. However we need to think deeply and creatively about how we can make design something that we do together – that helps to create better communities for us all.