CITIES : A plea for more 'futures thinking' in urban planning and development
Dr. Lorcan Sirr.
City and City
Cities are moving
centrestage. At the same time, the global backcloth is changing. There
is a widespread recognition that we live in an era of rapid change in
which new discoveries, philosophies and technologies play an ever more
prominent part in shaping social and economic development. The world
is becoming increasingly complex, more competitive and better connected.
There is economic internationalisation on the one hand, yet cultural
decentralisation on the other. Society has shifted from an industrial
base to an information and knowledge orientation. Advances in genetics,
materials, energy, computing, robotics, miniaturisation, medicines,
therapies and communication proceed apace. The developed world is getting
smaller, older and wealthier, whilst the developing world grows bigger,
younger and relatively poorer. A blurring of boundaries between disciplines,
industries and social enterprises is taking place. And, as those boundaries
fade, the lines connecting the constituent parts become more critical,
so that networks, systems and holistic thinking are more meaningful.
Moreover, crucial issues on a global level - demographic, natural resources,
the environment and human culture - have to be addressed. All in all,
a veritable transformation, or great disruption, is occurring. Something
old is coming apart at the seams, and something new is emerging.
For city planning,
this transformation demands a more imaginative approach towards the
way communities think, talk, plan and act creatively in tackling the
urban issues they face. This essay argues that the futures field through
such visioning methods as foresighting and 'prospectives', using techniques
like environmental scanning, scenario learning and planning and other
forms of structured 'brainstorming' and collaborative decision-making
can provide a more valid conceptual framework, and greater operational
effectiveness, through collaborative processes in addressing the challenges
that confront cities today.
Striking a somewhat
pejorative note, it can be argued that over the past forty years or
so city planning has abrogated its role as a visionary profession concerned
with creating better alternatives for the future. The complexity of
urban planning, together with the contentious nature of radical reforming
proposals, has defeated it. Uncertainty, diversity and dispute have
forced planning into retreat. Short-term compromise decisions have seemed
to predominate. A camouflage of public relations masquerading as public
participation on the one hand, together with a refuge behind the restrictions
imposed by a methodological rationale favouring reliance upon past data
and current reaction on the other, has precluded the assiduous search
for a preferred future.
In particular, the
planning field can be criticised over recent years for neglecting time
and the future in favour of present-focused decisions about space. Spatial
analysis and territorial planning techniques have advanced considerably.
Methods for tackling the time dimension in planning, however, are far
less developed than those for addressing the spatial dimension, and
it becomes increasingly obvious that the town planners toolkit for exploring
the future needs to be upgraded and expanded. Interdisciplinary connections,
moreover, lie at the heart of city planning, and here the urban planning
field is further exposed to criticism from more narrowly trained experts
in contributing disciplines, for the future is the only topic that other
professions have ceded to planners as relatively uncontested turf (Myers,
little attention has been paid by the planning profession to developing
a more informed, structured, collaborative and imaginative approach
towards the study of the future, in growing contrast to other sectors
of society such as science, technology, business, the military and,
of late, even central government.
The Futures Concept
There is a growing
realisation, in all areas of life, that the future is not fixed. The
notion that the future can be 'shaped' or 'created' has gained currency
over the past decade, and is increasingly the basis upon which organisations
of all kinds make their plans. As Charles Handy (1989) put it:
is not inevitable. We can influence it if we know what we want it to
By trying to make things happen, rather than guess what might happen,
organisations, and individuals for that matter, have to embrace uncertainty,
and deal with it by continually reviewing a wide range of policy options.
This is the business of discovery and the concept of futures.
The crucial questions
most usually facing those working in the futures field in the examination
of an issue or policy include:
" What are the main continuities?
" What are the major trends?
" What are the most important change processes?
" What are the most serious problems?
" What are the new factors 'in the pipeline'?
" What are the main sources of inspiration and hope?
A similar set of
issues is faced by city planners.
A useful metaphor
to describe the aim of the futures field is to provide a 'map of the
future'. In essence, futures studies supplies policy makers and others
with views, images and alternatives about futures in order to inform
and protect decisions in the present. It is important to note, that
the underlying purpose of future studies is not to make predictions,
but rather to gain an overview of the present human context in order
to illuminate alternative futures. Interpretation not forecast. So too
with city planning.
Put very simply,
the purposes of future studies are to discover or invent, examine or
evaluate, and propose possible, probable and preferable futures. They
may, however, be more usefully summarised as (Slaughter, 1995):
" Raising issues of common concern that may be overlooked in the
conventional short-term view.
" Highlighting dangers, alternatives and choices that need to be
considered before they become urgent.
" Publicising the emerging picture of the medium-term future in
order to involve the public in the decision-making process.
" Identifying the dynamics and policy implications of the transition
to a sustainable world and placing them on the political agenda.
" Facilitating the development of social innovations.
" Helping people to become genuinely empowered to participate in
creating the future.
" Helping organisations to evolve in response to the changing global
and local outlook.
Clearly, these prime
aims should be shared with the goals of urban planning and development.
and a Futures Approach
between futures and planning is an important one to understand. Futures,
through foresight and prospective is a discipline with an intellectual
domain and the tools to apply it. Planning is first and foremost a technique.
Indeed, it is one of the tools or techniques that can be used in foresight
or prospective to implement the preferred future. Conceptually, moreover,
foresight or prospective are previous steps to planning (Serra, 2001).
Strategic thinking should precede strategic planning.
Planning, by definition,
is to conceive an objective and the means to achieve it. It is less
helpful when it comes to determining which is the best objective and
how that objective can reasonably be attained. Planning, furthermore,
will fall short of foreseeing the potential obstacles or pitfalls that
might prevent the attainment of that desired future. This is because
foresighting or prospective and planning have a completely different
theoretical approach: foresight/prospective wants to open the scope
to look further into the future, and in different mental contexts, to
improve the chances of detecting all the conceivable variables and project
them as far as possible; planning, on the contrary, aims to reduce and
concentrate the scope, focussing efforts to converge in a concrete objective
and place it near enough in the future so as to be quite sure of its
accomplishment. It has been suggested that this is why in the business
world planning has a better image than futures (Ibid).
however, are different from long-range planning in at least three distinct
" They recognise that the future will not be an extension of the
past. Futures methods and techniques expect events that cause discontinuities
" There may be numerous possible futures. The future will be a
function of various factors as well as various possible relationships
among those factors.
" Innovation has the potential to accelerate the rate of change
and to cause fundamental shifts in the nature of business and life.
techniques developed in a lineal and incremental world do not have the
flexibility needed to address multi-faceted and rapidly paced change.
They also fail to incorporate entrepreneurial forces that change what
it takes for organisations to succeed.
Almost by definition,
the core concern of urban planning is the future. The forces of change,
complexity and uncertainty, however, all conspire to reinforce the need
for a more systemic, holistic and integrated approach towards urban
planning relying more on intuition, participation and adaptability,
as opposed to the traditional mechanistic, empirical and rationalist
approach based on observation, measurement and logical analysis. The
former seeing the town or city more as an organism and being process-oriented,
and the latter a machine being more goal-oriented.
Added to the 'chaos'
of the urban context is the contentious nature of the decision making
process in planning where dispute, dissent and disagreement are inherent
ingredients in the mix of ideas and views that constitute the community
of stakeholders seeking to shape and direct the future for their own
designs. To deal with this, the reigning metaphor among the planning
fraternity is fast becoming that of "collaborative planning",
where the aim is to build a convergence of values and meanings that
go beyond the specialised knowledge and language of experts. Such collaborative
planning provides an umbrella for a range of different perspectives
and seeks to investigate the diversity of experience, attitudes and
values in different groups and communities.
According to this
approach, it is knowledge, and the ways in which varying forms of knowledge
are integrated, rather than the straightforward transmission of information,
that increasingly is seen as being necessary in responding to the complexity
of spatial land use planning decisions (Puglisi, 2000). To achieve this
level of collaboration, through effective communication and productive
interaction, whilst tackling the complexity and uncertainty of continuous
change that besets urban planning and development, a futures approach
is progressively being seen as a powerful way in which towns and cities
can picture, shape and direct their preferred prospective.
From a variety of
city based futures studies over the past few years there is emerging
a consensus as to the essential ingredients that contribute to creating
successful competitive towns and cities. These can usefully be summarised
" Vision; having
normally four dimensions - an ambition for the future, a collective
desire, a shared values system and several major medium-term strategic
axes. A true vision for the future is based on serious study, broad
public collaboration and has real content. It cannot be bought "off-the-rack"
or achieved without a collective change in municipal mind-set. Urban
visioning is a relatively new phenomenon and involves scaling-up the
idea of the business plan from the level of the firm or corporation
to the level of the town or city (Landry, 2000).
ensuring that innovative and creative individuals and organisations
can gather, thrive and grow. The concept of the 'learning city' is central
to the nurturing of entrepreneurship and the development of high levels
of innovative capacity. There is also the need constantly to promote
a forward-looking prospective approach so as to engender considerable
flexibility into the strategic planning process and a marked agility
in operational programmes and project implementation.
working on the principle that every town or city can be the best in
the world at something. Policies, plans and proposals should be crafted
to fit the unique circumstances of each individual urban area. Such
'particularity' should also identify the special assets of a given territory
and take steps to maintain and enhance them so as to sustain a distinctive
and competitive edge. A town or city should be seen as a 'brand' and
promoted as such. In the vernacular of the advertising industry, the
'unique selling proposition' or USP should be sought and sold.
" Social Cohesion;
fostering a harmonious mix of population, in non-segregated areas, with
accessibility and safety and having, so far as possible, equality of
treatment and opportunity. In most foresighting exercises conducted
by the author, the potential threat to urban stability by forces of
social exclusion is seen as the single most serious portent facing towns
and cities today. Successful urban management has to recognise the importance,
interrelationship and integration of networks within the city so that
effective communication, collaboration and partnership can be seen to
benefit everyone in the community. Above all, perhaps, successful competitive
cities of the future must address, as a matter of urgency, the legacy
of urban deprivation and the existence of distressed urban areas in
appreciation that change, complexity and uncertainty in society require
a process in which local political institutions implement their policies,
plans and programmes in concert with civil society actors, and within
which these actors and interests gain influence over urban politics
(Pierre, 1998). Such an approach needs a clear analysis of environmental,
social and economic issues together with their links; an identification
of the main obstacles standing in the way of implementing better policies;
a clear understanding of the relevant and respective roles and responsibilities
of various levels of government; be aware of, and have a positive approach
towards 'new tools' in urban planning and development innovation; assist
and promote reinvestment by both old and new businesses in the area;
comprehend and reinforce the concept of 'clusters'; and have a capability
to work on a broad area basis and build alliances to discourage neighbour-beggaring
One leading consultant
has put the common key to concocting successful and competitive cities
more pithily as having visionary individuals, creative organisations
and a political culture sharing a clarity of purpose (Landry, op cit).
Further, that the key actors in such cities possess certain collective
mindedness and a willingness to take risks; a clear focus on long-term
aims with an understanding of strategy; a capacity to work with local
distinctiveness and to find a strength in apparent weakness; and a willingness
to listen and learn."
It is argued here
that the emerging fields of futures studies, foresighting, prospectives
and scenario planning provide the necessary insight, imagination and
innovative thinking to facilitate the advancement of successful competitive
One of the main
criticisms of conventional urban planning is that the concepts, methods
and techniques employed tend to re-inforce the present. This makes it
difficult for towns and cities to contemplate, design and build alternative
visions of the future more suited to their true desires. What is needed
is the conception and development of alternative scenarios, and the
adoption of longer perspectives than those commonly afforded by traditional
planning approaches. The 'prospective' process provides this. This is
not to say that the prospective approach completely replaces the familiar
planning process, but rather that it would be of much greater effect
if a prospective exercise were conducted at the initial stage of considering
a preferred future for a given urban area. Strategic thinking again,
before strategic planning. This would enhance the capacity of communities
to address complexity, uncertainty and change, as well as determine
a shared view of the desired future.
It is argued that
within the next couple of decades, one of the most noticeable changes
in the field of urban affairs will be the disappearance of the 'Plan'
as it is currently perceived - definitive, specific, fixed and agreed
- and its replacement with more open-ended landuse control systems for
the management and control of resources, as well as mechanisms for conflict
avoidance and resolution. Planning will increasingly make use of the
'preferred option' path nested within a series of plausible contingency
options that would continuously be reviewed and updated. Furthermore,
such scenario-based plans will progressively become integrated forums
where the objectives of many sectors are synergised and synchronised.
Monitoring and review procedures and techniques will acquire very different
roles in the planning process so that eventually the whole cycle of
evaluation, planning and implementation, followed by further evaluations
and so on, will become a self-renewing system with no clear distinction
between the present, the future and the past.
Perhaps the most
fundamental change of all in the future of urban planning over the next
20 years or so, however, will be the transition from quantitatively
based drivers - economic, physical and scientific - towards the qualitatively
based drivers of value systems, beliefs, ethics and aspirations. Just
as Albert Einstein declared, "is more important than knowledge".
Director - Faculty of the Built Environment, Dublin Institute of Technology,
- The Futures Academy, Dublin Institute of Technology, Ireland.
Professor - University of Salford, U.K.
Head - The Futures Academy, Dublin Institute of Technology, Ireland.
Handy, C. (1989).
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(2000). The Creative City. Earthscan, London.
(2001). APAJ, op cit.
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(2000). "Futures Studies and the challenges of participatory
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(2001). "Territorial Foresight: More than Planning, Less that
Prospective". Paper presented at conference Creating and Applying
Vision in the Regions, Dublin, December.
R. (1995). The Foresight Principle. Adamantine, London.