Learning how to avoid junkspace

The latest edition of Planning Theory and Practice demonstrates the challenges of putting planning into action, Jenny Crawford reports.

The September edition of Planning Theory and Practice is full of exciting planning ideas in action. Bringing together studies from locations as diverse as Amsterdam, London, Johannesburg and the Brazilian city of Belo Horizonte, the nature of the debates and the challenges coalesce around key themes. On the one hand, the drivers of urban competitiveness and redistribution are in ever starker contrast. On the other, planning practice is continually evolving in response to this tension. The importance of understanding the learning processes involved in such responsiveness is highlighted.

The contributors vividly demonstrate the mission of the journal to analyse, strengthen and promote the relationship between theory and practice. Enrico Gualini and Stan Majoor analyse a recent major urban development in Amsterdam, led by the private sector's competitiveness agenda. This is mediated by a strong city government with extensive land-holding powers. The challenges of visioning a viable multi-use urban project and engaging national commitment to a city-led vision are carefully described. However, planning's capacity to avoid the creation of "junkspace" in large redevelopments remains an open question.

Michael Neuman grapples with the range of issues associated with multi-level, multi-scale governance that clearly faces so many national circumstances but none more so than the current relationship between English national and local government in the context of regional institutional uncertainty. He highlights the need for "learning regions" that have a long-term comprehensive planning culture among all actors. Learning regions require flexible, creative and powerful new institutions and processes that can effectively enable democratic participation in policy-making and investments, Neuman suggests.

Lorna Dargan turns the analytical spotlight on the perceptions of regeneration actors in a New Deal for Communities partnership. She uncovers a lack of shared understanding about the agenda of regeneration that undermines the capacity to develop effective solutions. In particular, the practice of regeneration does not reflect the analysis of the causes of difficulties facing an area. This is a learning failure, and Dargan argues for the need to improve opportunities for dialogue and debate that will underpin the envisioning and design of solutions.

More learning weaknesses are described in Yvonne Rydin's study of knowledge-building in London planning departments about environmentally sustainable construction. With her colleagues Urooj Amjad and Martine Whittaker, she suggests that a key role in the development of practitioner knowledge is played by communities of practice, built through "learning by doing" and the promotion of dialogue and networking. "Learning by doing" is also the major theme of the Interface section of the journal, which brings together development and regeneration case studies from South Africa and Brazil. Heloisa and Geraldo Costa make a compelling case for "much closer cross-pollination between practice, the documenting of practice and theory of practice" in all planning communities. This approach will enable the continuous re-evaluation of planning models and values necessary to respond to changing needs and contexts.

Jenny Crawford is RTPI head of research and knowledge. To order Planning Theory and Practice, with reduced rates for RTPI members, please visit www.tandf.co.uk/journals/offer/rptp-so.asp.

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