Putting urban planning in its place



I returned to work when my son was about nine months, and by twelve months I was working full time.

My son and husband would visit me at work sometimes, and my little boy grew very aware that I worked in an office, sometimes went and looked at places outdoors, and ran or contributed to different sorts of meetings (which sounded like fun – oh, the naivety of kids).

And he’d sit at my desk for a while, scribble over maps and draft strategies, and waddle around the department and announce proudly to everyone he met that ‘My mummy’s a plown tanner. She tans plowns’. And people would nods wisely, smiling at the sweet boy who was so proud of his mummy*.

This happened a little less often when my daughter was born (I’d started working in Melbourne’s CBD for one thing, I had a role which meant I was much less in the office, plus two kids were harder to wrangle). However, I do remember one highlight, before I went back to work after she was born. We were all watching play school together and the theme was town planning. Wow!  Justine and Jay (I think – they were my favourites, anyway, so let’s pretend it was them) danced around, placed buildings in certain locations, trees in others, and voila! A town was made, all in about two minutes. All the while, my son was shrieking – ‘That’s what you do, Mummy! Plown Tanning! That’s what you do!’. My credibility shot through the roof, I can tell you. Strangely, it is an episode that can’t be found in the archives (no idea why).

Why am I sharing this with you (other than to be soppy over my son who’s no longer so little?). Not just because it’s lovely to hear a kid with (slightly misguided) ideas about what planners do, and it’s great to watch a show that gives a view about planning (if only it was that easy). In reality, he and they didn’t really know what the purpose of planning really was, and what role planners really played. Which is fair enough. Why would they?

However, we planners can also forget what we are doing as planners. More specifically, we get so caught up in our processes, or trying to show we are responsive to an issue, that we can forget WHY we are planning – and what role we can actually play.


Where Urban Planning can (and often does) fail

Planning, in theory, should be focused on understanding how land can be best used, and putting measures into place to encourage this to happen, or to prevent the opposite from happening. These uses can range from preserving it (for environmental or practical reasons) to quite intensive development outcomes. In theory, that is.

In reality, all too often, we often get sidetracked because:

  • We react to a perceived problem without really understanding why this problem exists. One example might be why housing in so many parts of Australia is becoming less and less affordable, for instance (hint: it’s not always because of insufficient land supply).
  • We think this problem can be solved through developing a strategy – yes, we might be able to provide some assistance, but we’re not the only ones who impact on land use outcomes. Again with the housing affordability, we can create new problems through releasing more land, without necessarily improving affordability. Look at Sydney and Melbourne currently as prime examples).
  • We don’t fully appreciate the effect, and effectiveness, of the tools we have available, and we don’t always use the right approaches Sticking still with housing – more restrictive controls might not be the solution, nor might rezoning land. Advocating might be more effective – the private sector might be more effective (in some cases, anyway – or measures could be introduced to encourage better outcomes), or bringing the community together to come up with a solution might lead to a better solution.
  • We forget that planning is an active word – it is ongoing. Plans need to be developed, implemented (not left sitting on a shelf) and then monitored to see if a) they are achieving their goals and b) whether those goals are still valid. To be fair, many non planners also forget this, and become fearful or irate when plans prepared decades ago are revisited.


More significant than even these, though, is the fact that we don’t always remember what it is we are planning FOR.

  • What outcomes are we trying to achieve?
  • Who needs to be involved in determining these outcomes? How do we encourage their participation? How can we make sure our decision making is sufficiently thorough while timely enough to address the issues that are important?

This has been my biggest frustration and has led me to fall into the trap of thinking ‘what’s the point of it all?’ while at the same time knowing that the work is important. So it was a conundrum that I couldn’t find my way out of. Part of the challenge was that I found the approach we often take so ingrained – this jumping ahead in our approach to planning – that I haven’t been able to put my finger on the problem until now.

In essence, I believe that:

  • Urban planning without a clear purpose, is ineffective at best, and destructive at worse.
  • Urban planning without the consideration and involvement of those affected (directly, or through their delegated support) is condescending at best, and at worse, will lead to backlash, undermining of good outcomes, and putting into place poor outcomes (because those who understand their components of the issues have not been considered).

So – what to do instead?


Bringing back the ‘why’.

For anyone working in the field of urban planning or related fields, you will know that:

  1. Many people have tried many different approaches to consultation and engagement. Some have worked, some haven’t – and some work in some circumstances, and not in others.
  2. Many people write about different aspects of our cities and regions – what seems to be working, what isn’t, why and why not. Many of these often well written research reports and articles reach only a limited audience.

I see these two points as related. Why, with a plethora of consultation approaches, are we still often not hitting the mark as far as the outcomes we are achieving? I don’t want to reinvent the great community consultation techniques of others, but one gap I see is that of relevance. Of the importance of caring. Of asking ‘Why?’

Like my son, when he was a toddler, I think we need to ask ‘why’ more often, and more frequently. For instance:

  • We need to improve the quality (and often amount) of open space in our cities. BUT WHY?
  • Because public open space is important for people and for our environment. BUT WHY?
  • Because a) we are experiencing environmental changes and better open space can help offset this and b) public open space will become more important as the amount of private open space is diminishing. BUT WHY?
  • Because our populations are growing** and we need to plan for more people living in more densely populated areas. BUT WHY?
  • Because if we keep our cities sprawling, we add to the cost of living (on the outskirts), the costs and impacts of infrastructure (and congestion through the existing areas), we chew up our prime agricultural land (and I could keep going).

We need to get back to the overarching WHY questions – and the relevance to them. And by doing so, we are much more likely to interest others – our communities – in both filling in the parts of the ‘why’ that we as a profession don’t know (because, of course, we are NOT all knowing), and interesting them in helping to work out the ‘how’ part of the problem solving.

I’d love to see the urban planning profession move toward a place with greater, and more positive, involvement across the community. But I don’t see that happening without focusing on WHY.

And it’s why I want to focus much more on aspects that impact us daily:

  • Where and how we live (what sort of homes we live in and what our families are like),
  • How and where we work / learn – and how this is changing (including those who are unable to find sufficient work, and those who no longer work),
  • What we do with our free time (and no ironic laughing about this),
  • How we move from place to place (daily commutes, parents’ taxi services, the ease or otherwise for those with limited resources or mobility limitations).

In addition, I want to focus on the land use status that impact us but some of us might not think about – including a suite of environmental land use issues.


I’ve got a list of topics on the go, and I’ve provide them in my next planning related post: Urban Planning with Purpose.


‘Getting back to Why’ will be a key focus for this blog, and where I believe I can add the best value to engaging people early in the process. Everyone has to know, or be reminded, of why something’s important if they want to get involved.

I’m hoping I can make a dent, somehow. A contribution to a better approach than we have currently (especially if others join in). Because the work we do does have some importance – if you need to be reminded, just check this out  (this Seinfeld episode never grows old .. plus a dig at architects, for a change. All good!)




In the meantime, I’d love to know any thoughts you have on this. Feel free to make comments on my direction for this blog, topics to cover, and approaches to take, as I look to planning out the coming schedule ahead.





*Note – my son was equally proud of his daddy. But a lot of people are proud, or admiring, of the work my husband does – everyone (justifiably) loves what nurses do. Not everyone gushes over planning (so having my son do so leaves a warm feeling in my heart).

**Just pointing out that I’ve deliberately provided no ‘But whys’ for why our population is growing. I’m not opening up any immigration debates here at the moment (because that so often sidetracks us and we have no say over it at a state / local government level, where I work, anyway). Yes, it’s something that concerns a lot of people, and yes, it does impact on our cities (although not necessarily badly). For the time being, within this blog, I’m working with the given fact that we do have a certain amount of migration and natural growth occurring in Australia (including some people languishing on Manus Island and Nauru, even if we pretend they’re not our responsibility), and we have to plan for it, ok? Any issues about border protection are better directed to the Commonwealth government – who really don’t have that much control either – many people are going to have to live somewhere other than where they are born (and don’t forget, none of us gets a choice of where we are born and under what circumstances).

8 thoughts on “Putting urban planning in its place

  1. Why is always the first place I start too. Through the whys is where we find purpose, reason, truth and direction. I will enjoy this series, Helen. I also love the naturalness with which you seem to have always worked and mothered and combined the two.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks Bron – yes, ‘why’ is the perfect starting point, isn’t it? I’m looking forward to this series too! And yes, Al and I have always tried to work to accommodating both family and work life. I’ve stuck with the public sector partly for that reason – for instance, the flexibility I’ve had to work longer hours but adjust start times (which meant in the early days I could still take Sam to toddler music lessons, etc. So wonderful!) x


  3. It seems that even with great Urban planning (such as modern cities like Canberra) that if the original plan isn’t adhered to, it can still be lost – green spaces are sold off and filled in by greedy local govts., etc – unfortunately, money is king when it comes to this enormous can of worms. Love that you’re tackling it – well done!


    1. True – implementation is a whole different topic (as is cost shifting, when responsibilities are passed down from one tier of government to another – often local government gets landed with a lot more than it counted on, without corresponding funding to do it.) Capitalism has a lot of problems, doesn’t it? If more of us start to talk about it, we can hopefully get someway closer to where we want to get to – I hope!


  4. Love your perspective on town planning! It’s so refreshing to see someone truly care about the social implications of urban planning. In Sydney, there is a growing issue of displacement as a result of the desire to ‘revitalise’ the city, as towers upon towers of apartments (constructed with a ‘how can we make as much money as we can’ mentality) are replacing the once diverse landscape. It’s unfortunate that some value profit above integrity.


    1. Also – couldn’t agree more with the idea of engaging people early! I am within the Gen Y age group and hardly any of my peers could care less in regards to how their built environment is changing despite how much of an impact it will have on them in the future!


    2. Yes – I think there’s always been that, but it’s become worse (and a lot of us in planning are concerned, too, not just me!) Plus across a range of sectors, so hopefully we can collectively get some change happening – we really need to.

      Liked by 1 person

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