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Part 1: Building the 21st century planner

Published on: 18 Dec 2019

The Planner’s Careers Survey found a strong awareness of the contemporary trends that are shaping the world for which planners plan. Simon Wicks asks what this means for the education of the 21st century planner.

There may well be some eternal verities at the heart of planning. But the profession, and those who practise it, must also be able to adapt to an ever-changing social, political, economic, environmental and technological context.

Every time a policy framework is updated, planners must modify their practice to keep the profession relevant and useful. Each time a new technology is developed that can alter workplace practice or the environment for which planners plan, they must be willing to entertain change.

Given that the art – and science – of planning is arguably the art of managing change, this should be meat and drink to the average planner, no? In reality the inhibitors are many – not least time, resources and a performance measurement regime which can seem to treat planners as mere technicians delivering policy in an almost unthinking way. A robot can do that, and in some cases probably will before the decade is out.

“The 21st century planner must be all things to all people, it seems; an omniscient being who sees all, knows all, facilitates all, in an environment that is by its nature contested”
Communities, empowered by social media and policy that gives their voices greater weight, demand that planners serve them, too, in more direct ways than hitherto. Planners are mediators, social workers, well-informed sounding boards, guardians of democracy. Developers often seem to want planners to tick boxes and oil the wheels of the important business of making profits through development. Planners must be economists, financiers. As technology makes a bigger impression on the work they do and the world they plan for, planners must also be data analysts, futurologists. The list goes on.

The 21st century planner must be all things to all people, it seems; an omniscient being who sees all, knows all, facilitates all, in an environment that is by its nature contested. They must do it with minimal resources, too. Who’d be a planner in 2019?.

The responses to our Careers Survey 2018/19 did indeed register some discontent relating to some of the above, notably from planners working in the public sector. But there was no questioning of the function or the need for planning.

And at the heart of a planning career is a challenge – how do you develop the wherewithal to thrive in a context in which the work is becoming more complex and multi-faceted?

The old days of long-term security within a relatively well-resourced public sector are gone. Uncertainty and flexibility are the order of the day. There are also more graduates going straight into private sector jobs rather than serving their traditional ‘apprenticeship’ in the public sector.

Developers are also employing more planners to help them negotiate the labyrinth of the planning system. Planners are even flocking to the burgeoning technology sector, where their expertise is vital to the creation of potentially game-changing digital tools.

Amid all of this is the need to cling to those eternal verities, such as planning in the public interest and engagement with communities in ways that safeguard the democratic purpose at the heart of planning as a public activity.

The modern planning environment exerts new pressures, requires news skills and offers new opportunities. As our guest leader writer, England’s chief planner Steve Quartermain stresses on page 11 of our February issue, planning can be “a wonderful career” precisely because of its challenges and the satisfaction to be drawn from demonstrating the ability required to meet them. But what is this ability and how do you acquire it?

Simon Wicks is deputy editor of The Planner

Image credit | Hit and Run Media