What is urban planning about?


Photo by Jurriaan Snikkers via Unsplash

People live in places and these places adopt a form which enables living to take place. I have heard a focus in development meetings which emphasises safety or abiding within the law or even aiming for environmental credibility within planning design (money is rarely mentioned, but this is, all too often, the primary reason for doing anything these days – it’s a given, but still its role must be broadcast!), ultimately, however, this is not what town planning is really about.

While these things are all important factors they exist to support urban planning’s main function which is to serve the needs of people. To serve needs well planners must refer to research on these matters, must consult the community and must have a broad understanding of the many different aspects that determine people’s behaviour in certain scenarios. They must be able to consider a wide range of people and their needs, from the very young to the elderly, the busy professional, the disabled, groups, families and individuals.

There must be an understanding of environmental concerns as, ultimately, it is the state of the environment which support people’s wellbeing and ability to live and thrive. There must also be concern for species not our own, preserving biodiversity on the planet ought to be essential to every public officer or business professional with any amount of power as this too support humanity’s wellbeing in a multitude of ways. Preserving biodiversity and habitat does not just happen in remote jungles it happens in our urban environments too.

Safety is also a concern, but safety, when it comes to town planning, can often work counter intuitively. Planning is not about enforcing safety laws, it is not about forcing people to do things in a certain way. Planning built environments is more effective when consideration is paid to understanding the psychology of how people work, why people do things the way they do, whether this needs to change and how to change the culture of doing things a certain way. Infrastructure must be supported by the law and it is ridiculous to uphold a law that can not be upheld by the physical environment itself.

A brief example: Outlawing cyclists from riding on the footpaths if there is inadequate, non existent or unsafe on-road cycling infrastructure is simply ludicrous. I can think that the only reason to make such a law would be to either completely discourage people from cycling or with the intent of introducing bikes to roads in the hope that this will build recognition that cyclists also use road surfaces and gradually change a car dominant culture in this way. I applaud the cycling heroes who are willing to take up this challenge and be the sacrificial lambs, though they may see themselves as the trail blazers! A much safer, better way is for the city to send a message to its citizens that on-road cycling is welcomed and to declare this by carving space into heretofore car dominated road space to accommodate potential cyclists in the spirit of: “Build it and they will come.” In each case there is a risk, either the risk of many injuries or worse in the cycling cavalry or a risk that there will be no, or a slow, uptake in using the alternative infrastructure. It’s clear which is the more desirable risk to take (go with the infrastructure changes). This example shows how infrastructure must be the guide of law.

Infrastructure in turn must be guided by people’s actual behaviour and psychology. A key aspect here is freedom. Infrastructure must aid individuals and families to make a range of lifestyle choices freely. They must be able to choose to either walk or cycle or drive or take the nearest public transport option. (Driving, at least in fossil fuel powered vehicles, may be phased out in coming years, but we’ll  still run with it for now.) If infrastructure does not support people’s actual behaviour or meet their actual needs then it will not be used the way it was intended, which is fine in the end, but if it can effectively meet with people’s actual lives then it really should.

So planning is for people. This is a critical understanding of urban planning which guides my entire approach toward applying planning principles to urban spaces.