Why Plan? Making Sense of Planning for a Post-pandemic Era

Authors Graham Haughton and Iain White consider the importance of planning in a post-pandemic world. They outline the failures and successes of recent planning decisions - as highlighted by Covid-19 - and discuss the ways in which key planning theories can provide much needed solutions to spatial and social problems going forward.


When our book Why Plan? Theory for Practitioners was published in late 2019 we could not have anticipated how quickly our world would change. The global pandemic and accompanying lock-downs in many countries brought to the fore how poorly equipped we were to deal with the new conditions: too much urban space had been given over to cars and not enough to pedestrians and cyclists; public parks had been neglected and few had been built in areas of new-build high density development. ‘Relaxations’ on light and space standards for new residential developments had always looked bad, but now they simply look cruel after the experience of lock-down.  


How theory can help us understand past mistakes and realise the promise of better futures 

So what can theory tell us about how we arrived at this unfortunate position and how we might best get out of it? Quite a lot, we would argue. For instance, theories of urban entrepreneurialism and neoliberalism help us understand how planning systems have been systematically re-calibrated by political leaders in many countries. Both these bodies of thought argue that the restructuring of planning since the 1980s has purposefully sought to favour big business interests over those of the general public in the name of competitiveness and high growth, putting the pursuit of short-term private profits on an equal footing with the pursuit of the long-term public good. 

What both theories also reveal is that the planning system is not simply out there as a stable ‘thing’. It is fought over and re-shaped as different vested interests seek to influence what planners can and cannot do -- often mobilising vaguely articulated notions, such as the public good, protecting private interests, or sustainability, to advance their claims, as if these terms were also static, apolitical, and value-free.  

Theory for planners seeks to untangle these debates, identifying their underpinning ideologies and uncovering the unspoken assumptions about what appears logical, right, or fair. They ask questions such as, what is the appropriate balance to be struck between private interests and wider notions of the public good: notions which include national parks, clean air, homes ‘fit for heroes’, and protecting biodiversity. These ideas of what planning should do are at the heart of understanding where we are now. 


The role of planning in relation to the public good, fairness, competitiveness and remaking globalisation in a post-pandemic world 

The emergence in the late 1940s of national town planning in England and elsewhere was largely a product of the post-war consensus about the need to build better homes, towns and cities, and a belief in the possibilities of positive state intervention to promote the greater public good over narrow interests. This consensus was shattered in the 1970s, as high inflation, growing unemployment, and low growth questioned its central tenets. In its place came a new set of ideas around the need to promote greater entrepreneurialism to boost the economy; more tax cuts, and a reduction in state bureaucracy and government red tape followed. Public sector planning found itself under question. Why was the process so slow? Could private sector developers produce better outcomes with less regulation? These questions have never really gone away, not least because political parties and think tanks are partly funded from the interest groups that benefit from this notion. 

The theoretical insights gained from work on urban entrepreneurialism and neoliberalism have been helpful in understanding the pressures to reform the planning system to be more pro-development. Now cities are increasingly in competition to create the conditions to attract globally mobile capital in the shape of foreign investment so it settles in your city, rather than elsewhere. Providing office and factory sites close to motorways and airports to facilitate the needs of investors became part of how planners were expected to respond, along with releasing more land for executive housing and luxury apartments. Slowly but surely planning was repurposed, but never entirely losing sight of the need to create better living conditions - even if those benefits were not equally shared. For instance, related ideas like the Creative Class thesis, argued that successful cities tend to be those able to attract and retain highly-skilled creative workers, leading to a growing emphasis on planning policies that create the kinds of urban spaces and lifestyle that these groups enjoy. Gentrification often followed, however and not enough was done to promote affordable housing. Throughout all these debates, planning did not disappear, it was simply repurposed for the benefit of powerful groups. 


Planning in a post-pandemic world 

So what happens to planning as we reflect upon our cities and rebuild our economies after the pandemic? Will we once again return to ideas of promoting the greater social good, of building homes ‘fit for heroes’, prioritising new parks, and retrofitting more walkable and cycle-able cities? Or will neoliberal ideas intensify their grip on the political imagination, with planning rules further relaxed? For all the talk of ‘transformation’, we are already seeing worrying calls to limit opportunities for public consultation and political scrutiny in an attempt to ‘fast-track’ development to appease the private sector and kickstart ailing economies. Theory tells us that this will favour a narrow, affluent elite, who will have the power to decide how to rebuild our towns and cities, but without suffering the consequences.  

Some city leaders are clearly committed to reimagining their cities in fundamental ways. For instance, Milan and London are both attempting to make permanent moves to reduce car dependence in the city to boost air quality and liveability on the streets. In effect, they are thinking altruistically about the greater public good and about the ways in which the economy will re-emerge differently post-pandemic, as work and commuting patterns alter, potentially for ever. Already, businesses are questioning the need for large office spaces, whilst smaller companies and new entrepreneurs may even desert congested or expensive cities, and instead settle where a future lock-down would be less personally and corporately catastrophic.  

As we seek to make sense of these debates, the ideas discussed in our book Why Plan? are more relevant than ever. Theories about resilience, sustainability, risk, uncertainty, public engagement, and science and technology studies, can all tell us much about the way planning was viewed before the pandemic and the issues we should now be alert to when new proposals emerge to stimulate the recovery.  

Theory helps us scrutinise the claims: to see what is fair, or who might be disadvantaged; to spot the hidden power underlying the often simple claims, and to advance alternative arguments in response. 


Graham and Iain's book, Why Plan? Theory for Practitioners, is available to buy here.

Hardback • 160 Pages • Size: 200 × 130 mm
8 B&W illustrations
ISBN: 9781848222786 • Publication: November 12, 2019
Series: Concise Guides to Planning 

You may also enjoy reading: Parks, Planning, and the Responses to Covid-19

Other books in the Concise Guides to Planning series can be found HERE. And available as EBOOKS.