The transformative power of planning

Government sees planning as a drag on the economy – but have we lost sight of its true potential?  Sarah Longlands visited cities in south-east Asia and South America in search of a fresh perspective

What is planning, what is it for and what role does it play in supporting and shaping places both in a time of austerity and potentially in the future? Coming from an economic development perspective, I’ve long been interested in the sometimes fractious relationship between local economics and planning.

One way to get a new perspective is to take a look at some high profile exemplars from other parts of the world. Some fresh thinking on the subject is definitely required while we await the publication of the final National Planning Policy Framework.

Planning in the UK has been characterised by two main roles which can be described as spatial planning and regulatory planning. Spatially, it considers how a place will respond to change both now and in the future taking into account social, economic and environmental challenges. This is the development planning process which is encapsulated in the production of the local development framework (LDF). As a regulatory function, planning through the development management process ensures the smooth implementation of the LDF and the regulation of land use, building standards and urban design.

Current government rhetoric has chosen to characterise planning primarily as a regulatory function which in the coalition’s eyes, acts as a ‘drag anchor’ on growth (as Eric Pickles described). At a time when economic growth is conspicuously lacking, it appears that we can’t afford the luxury of planning; the role of planning in austerity is to deliver growth. A simple linear relationship is implied by government, that less planning control equals greater levels of economic growth.

So how do we differ from other countries and what can we learn?

The development of Songdo City in South Korea

South Korea stands out as an Asian tiger economy, relentlessly pursuing a neoliberal approach to planning with the express intention of freeing up and resources to sustain their rapid economic growth. Developments such as the six free economic zones springing up around the country are testament to this.

I visited the Incheon Economic Zone, 30km west of Seoul, which is a vast development stretching for more than 100km and boasting the latest in ‘ubiquitous’ technology, environmental design features and transport infrastructure, including South Korea’s primary international airport, Incheon.

Incheon is zoned into three main areas: Songdo, the best of global business; Yeongjong, the best of global logistics and Cheongna; and the best of global leisure (which includes Robot Land, ‘a mecca for high tech industries’!).

The appetite for investment and growth is also intensifying demand for land in Seoul itself with the government embarking on vast ‘reconstruction’ projects in the centre of the city. The Hang River is at the centre of many of these initiatives and while it may seem more efficient in the mind of Seoul’s planners to reconstruct the city’s existing architectural design in the name of efficiency, of being able to cram more residential blocks into a ever decreasing space, this ‘pork barrelling’ may be in danger of jeopardising the city’s distinctiveness.

What is striking about the approach to planning in South Korea is the use of land as a commodity to be maximised for the greater economic good and most importantly to ensure it’s perceived internationally as the latest place in which to do business.

A favela on the outskirts of Sao Paulo

The informal settlements that surround the periphery of Sao Paulo speak volumes about the city’s rate of growth. These vast settlements house up to 30% of the city’s residents. In contrast with Seoul, planners have to adopt a different planning approach in order to address the challenge of informal housing.

Rapid urbanisation in the post-war period has made Sao Paulo the fifth largest city in the world, the consequence of which is that demand for housing and services has not been able to keep pace with this rate of growth, resulting in the development of informal settlements within the city itself in corticos (slum tenements) and on the periphery in favelas (illegal occupation of public or private land).

Once upon a time, Sao Paulo had a similar approach to Seoul, whereby land was viewed purely as a commodity. People living in the favelas did not exist. They were not part of the city but an inconvenience to be moved on.

However, as time went on the approach changed.  Planning in Sao Paulo is now much more about a collaborative or transactional exercise whereby the city’s planners work with residents of informal settlements to redevelop these areas and integrate their communities and economy into the ‘formal’ city. This includes the development of basic infrastructure such as roads, sewage and health/school services, but within the existing slum. The slum is not replaced but retrofitted and improved from within.

What is really important about this approach is that it challenges the traditional approach to urban planning which views informal or illegal settlements negatively as undesirable and dangerous. These areas are perceived as a threat to the formal planning process in a city. However, in Sao Paulo, we see the opposite view, whereby the informal city actually provides an alternative forum for planning and designing a city which works with what is already present in the informal structure.

The rapid transit express busway in Curitiba

Of all the areas we visited, Curitiba gave us an example of a place where it appears the priorities of planning and growth have been, to some extent, integrated in public policy.

Like other Brazilian cities, it experienced rapid growth in the post-war period and used this challenge to develop a new approach to planning by setting out a bold masterplan which integrated economic development, land use and transport planning. Taken forward by the Instituo de Pesquisa e Planejamento Urbano de Curitiba (IPPUC), this planning authority has led the way for the last 40 years.

Curitiba’s vision for integrating growth and planning is characterised by a rapid bus transit system which ensures the city’s main thoroughfares are dominated, not by the private car, but by dedicated bus-only lanes which operate in much the same way as an underground rapid transit system. To facilitate this system and maximise its usefulness, planners developed the city in a linear way, that is, instead of concentrating development in and around the physical centre of the city, development is concentrated along the same linear routes taken by the transit.

This has the effect of reducing the pressure on the city centre as the focus for every day transport, helping to minimise congestion and ensuring public transport has priority over cars.

Innovation in Curitiba is not confined to transport and planning and the city has also encouraged the development of green space resulting in it having almost 51 square metres per head of population. It has also used its image as a ‘sustainable’ city to encourage new investment and economic growth from low carbon businesses.

The IPUCC’s latest initiative, the Linha Verde or ‘green line’ is a massive project to turn an existing interstate highway into a new rapid transit express bus way. It’s a difficult thing for someone in the UK to imagine as it’s the equivalent of taking the M6 and converting two lanes to bus only lanes with car transport either side.

The route is known as ‘the green way’ because it will literally be green with linear parks along one side comprising native plants and trees to support biodiversity along with bike lanes to encourage alternative forms of transport.

My experiences in these countries challenged me to reflect on the purpose of planning in the UK and the role that it can play now and in the future. What was clear to me as an economic development professional was the sense that in the UK, despite having one of the best planning systems in the world, we’d forgotten the purpose of that system.

We’d started think of it simply as a dry regulatory burden which was in place to constrain rather than release ideas. While we might not agree with all of the approaches outlined in these projects, they remind us of the transformative power of planning and how it can act as a vital and energising force for places, people and their local economies.

  • This article is based on an international research project supported by the Norfolk Trust and undertaken by Sarah Longlands. A report outlining the findings of this work is due later in 2012, published by CLES.
  • A longer version of this article will be available in the New Start ezine at the end of Feburary.


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Judith Martin
Judith Martin
12 years ago

Three points:

1. Don’t just wait for Pickles to bring in the dreadful NPPF – carry on lobbying against it. At the very least there needs to be a second draft. We’re told the definition of ‘sustainable’ has been tightened up, and that things have generally been improved, but there needs to be another round of consultation before it goes back to Parliament. After all, the first draft united everyone involved with planning in much the same way as the NHS bill has united everyone involved in health. 16,000 responses to the first draft NPPF was an unheard of number.

2. A Freedom of Information request from the RTPI to the Treasury last autumn demonstrated that they (the Treasury) had not a single of item of evidence that planning was an obstacle to growth. So all Osborne’s accusations are based on invention.

3. Look at English Heritage’s publication, Heritage and Growth. It demonstrates that not only is heritage no barrier, it is a positive asset.

Sarah Longlands
Sarah Longlands
12 years ago

Hi Judith – thanks for your comments re the NPPF, I couldn’t agree more with your sentiments, its time we recognised the value of our planning system.

Thanks also for the heads up on the FOI request at the Treasury. Very useful piece of information for my research

Richard Schofield
Richard Schofield
12 years ago


If you are interested in similar research material to the FOI request, a Parliamentary Select Committee was set up in 2003, in response to claims by the CBI, during scrutiny of the earlier planning green paper, that the planning system was a major impediment to business. (The CBI’s claims, made in oral evidence, were unsubstantiated, and the committee looking at the planning green paper described them as based on “anecdote and prejudice.”) The Select Committee’s conclusion was as follows: “Claims that planning damages the nation’s competitiveness seem to have been made without evidence. The evidence that we have received suggests that businesses generally support the planning system and seek a number of changes in implementation, which do not necessarily require legislation. The best local authorities already run their planning departments in proactive, responsive ways and if the resources are put into place, such approaches can be adopted by others.” As part of their work, the Committee commissioned Roger Tym and partners to undertake a literature review. This concluded that “There is no evidence that planning is a significant explanatory factor for the UK’s low productivity compared to its main competitors.”

I can’t give you a specific reference for either the Committee or Report though!


Fernando Centeno
Fernando Centeno
12 years ago

Planning isn’t “transformative” unless it leads to concrete results at the back end, right? In the U.S. we have loads of great plans, always “innovative”, with sizzle, but without the impacts needed. Hence, this isn’t “economic development” practice, it’s business development practice. We need back-end focus, after all is said and done: impact analysis, policy entrepreneurship, equity planning, and stronger ED leadership. Hope you agree.

Sarah Longlands
Sarah Longlands
12 years ago

Hi Richard – woooah – thanks for this link, I’ll definitely see if I can track this down. I think it flags up a very interesting phenomenon whereby myths about the planning system and its relationship with economic development become fact. We need to continue to challenge these dominant ideas, not only in planning but across the public policy arena.

Hi Fernando, Definitely agree with your comments and enjoyed your description of plans ‘with sizzle’! We’ve seen the same here in the UK, (although often its all sizzle and no substance!).

I think the points on your list for what is needed is really important, particularly leadership and equity planning. We need to see the plan as only the start of the process and we putting as much care and attention into achieving the impacts because thats where the real ‘sizzle’ lies! Thats why I think the work in Sao Paulo is so interesting because they don’t start with the plan they start with the impacts and trying to create the plan from the people rather than changing or moving the people before doing the plan!

There is a great quote from John Friedmann “it pleases us to dream of shaping history according to a plan….to imagine a world that is more beautiful than the one we actually inhabit, we also believe it may be possible to attain what our mind has wrought…. models are an instance of false consciousness”

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