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Finding Silver Bullet in Planning


We know that planning involves the process of thinking about the activities required to achieve the desired goal. As per the New Zealand Planning Institute -

Planning is a profession that builds communities, protects the environment, enhances economic value and improves the choices for where and how people live, work and spend their leisure time.

Planning in New Zealand is always a subject for debate. After utilising the Resource Management Act (RMA) for more than 30 years, the country is currently waiting to see new planning legislation. Whatever the contents of the new legislation are, it is now clear that a significant change in the country’s planning system is imminent. The proposed Natural and Built Environments Act (NBA) will be the main replacement for the RMA. In this context, this article examines –

The past, present, and future of planning to identify whether there is any silver bullet for efficient functioning in this profession.

The background of planning as a profession

If we look into the history of humankind, we see that the current generation of human beings is the result of the Cognitive Revolution that took place about 70,000 years ago. Since then, humans have become more settled instead of roaming around as foragers. With the emergence of the Agricultural Revolution, the domestication of plants and animals, and permanent settlements, the human race started to build organised thinking, rules, and lifestyle. It helped them to establish the first generation of urban planning ideas - which we have seen in the ruins of Harappa, Babylon, Rome and Cusco. However, as a scholarly discipline, planning first emerged in the 1900s in Great Britain.

The University of Liverpool introduced its first planning programme in 1909. It was then followed by Harvard University in North America in 1924. The first generation of planners who were taught in these universities came from various other primary disciplines as planning was a postgraduate study programme. Again, the nature of the programme varied from university to university. Some programmes followed the traditional emphasis on land use and physical design, whereas others concentrated on social science.

The multi-dimensional aspect of planning

At the beginning of the 20th Century, planning became one of the critical professional disciplines to deal with various development issues, i.e., land use, transport, economy, environment, sociology, rural production etc. The multi-dimensional aspect of planning becomes evident when planners start to face more complex by-products of the Industrial Revolution. In the first quarter of the 21st Century, the planning profession becomes much more challenging as nowadays the planners are going through the age of the 4th Industrial Revolution – the digital revolution. Nevertheless, this is just the beginning.

Humanity, the human race and the whole eco-system where we live, work and play are changing at a much faster pace than anybody has imagined before. Now the question - is planning as a discipline ready to cope with these changes? Are we - the planners equipped and motivated with the right tools, processes, legislation, governance and above all, the pragmatism to embrace the inevitable changes of the 21st Century?

In this regard, the following aspects of planning need to be noted:

• Planning is a complex subject; deal with this delicately.

• Planning is a costly process; allocate money and resources here wisely.

• Planning generates chain effects; consider all effects comprehensively.

• Planning establishes the fundamental rights of society; beware of the community it

is going to create.

• Planning uses a legislative mechanism; allow sufficient time to prepare the

appropriate law and make any changes.

• Planning offers both status quo and change for the natural and built environment;

establish a clear path to deal with these two contradicting scenarios.

• Planning needs to be driven; carefully choose who is in the driving seat.

• Planning is a systematic process; think about its flexibility in dealing with our ever-

changing world of knowledge, humanity and pursuit of happiness.

Most importantly, it needs to be understood that planning needs political support, it, therefore, cannot avoid the national, regional and local political process, but it needs to be free from any ill-motivated political agenda.

Planning for the betterment of human life

However, one thing about planning will assure us that whatever happens in this world, the fundamental objective of planning will remain unchanged - i.e. offering a meaningful outcome for humanity to live happily and prosper not only today but also tomorrow.

When Pope Benedict XIV engaged Giovanni Battista Nolli in 1736 to create a map for Rome, Nolli intended to address both public and private spaces to confirm a spatial illustration of the civic fabric of Rome. Giovanni mapped every building in Rome and every space in and around these buildings as part of the urban realm. Only spaces and masses were highlighted without any distinction between these built elements internal and external characterisation. The Nolli Map of Rome assisted in establishing the early intention of planning, i.e., assessing and addressing the quality of civic life. This type of map is currently known as - Nolli Map, which is a two-dimensional planning tool. The tool is handy for visualising, analysing, and assessing the location, relationship, and hierarchy of various spaces in a city.

The same approach was taken by Ebenezer Howard in 1903 when he proposed the ‘garden city’ idea to combat urban pollution in industrial cities. Howard introduced his idea in 1898 in his book – Tomorrow! A Peaceful Path to Real Reform. The Garden City idea promoted mixing urban and rural environments to address both environmental and urban planning issues. Some people still criticise this attempt as a one-directional biased planning idea that considers the ongoing industrialisation process inevitable and, most importantly, an essential urbanisation aspiration. It is assumed that Howard tried to mitigate the adverse effect of the early 19th Century industrial process in urban society. He did not raise the question about the necessity of the industrial society or whether the growth of the built environment through the industrial process is good or not or did not propose any alternative growth vehicle for the betterment of civic life! However, without going into the philosophical debate about Ebenezer Howard’s idea, it can be summarised that the ‘garden city’ concept was a noble planning attempt to create a new generation of neighbourhoods to achieve the public quality of life.

The present generation planners are doing the same thing - i.e., working towards the betterment of public life and its various interfaces in the context of a growing population, reduction in natural resources and fossil fuel, climate change, global warming, social and economic inequalities, and pandemic diseases.

Human factors that are affecting planning

The future generation of planners will be doing the same - but most likely, they have to deal with artificial intelligence, biotechnology, genetically modified organisms - or who knows, they might be dealing with the inorganic command and control centre of human beings. Besides these material constraints of the planning world, some social and human behavioural limitations could appear as serious obstacles in implementing good planning.

The Babylonian King Hammurabi introduced his 282 rules as a code of laws in the 18th Century BC as a set of written rules. The Hammurabi code assisted in establishing a social order in ancient Mesopotamia society. It guided subjects of the Kingdom to behave in a particular way. But the rules were biased as they favoured the ruling class and nobles.

The consequence of the Hammurabi Code is an important example to indicate that innocent-looking planning rules in the modern world could also negatively affect the socio-economic-environmental sphere of any community. Besides the vested interest of stakeholders and the influence of Crony Capitalism, ineffective planning rules or lack of governance in the planning regime or incompetency in managing and implementing planning system - any of these could transform a planning rule book and the associated planning system into a modern version of Hammurabi Code and its practice. When resources are limited, opportunities are not accessible to all, social wealth is unevenly distributed, monopoly is evident in the market, and the political structure is weak, corrupt, and occupied by opportunists, good planning becomes very difficult to achieve. Unfortunately, more and more countries, including the so-called first world countries, join this trend. In future, this situation will deteriorate more.

The future of planning

Currently, we are living at the early age of the 21st Century. And we have already started to witness that every facet of our lives is changing at lightning speed. Most interestingly, these changes are not happening in an organised way. Primarily technology is driving the changes, but we have no idea who is doing what with it! World Wide Web and digital accessibility offer an unprecedented opportunity to the remotest corners of the world to become the next generation of Bell Labs, Google, or SpaceX. Technology is no longer in the hands of any state power or elite group, or ruling class. Any 10th-grade kiddo could appear overnight as a nightmare for an entire country using his/her computer hacking capability. Algorithms are more powerful than human judgements in many areas of our decision-making process. We can sense the true nature of capitalism in the form of socialism, which offers equal opportunity for 7 billion human beings to prosper and grow without any boundary. The new economic order is writing a new script for our environmental and social spheres too.

As morning shows the day - we can assume that the changes will continue in the coming days, but we have no idea about the ultimate effects of these changes. It demonstrates that the future of humanity is unpredictable, but the situation will be more complex, and to operate effectively, planning as a professional discipline needs to be as judicious as possible! Planners need to use consciousness to decide about the future of our built and natural environment. Artificial Intelligence or the Internet of Things could appear as game changers in determining our lives, but we cannot underestimate the enormous brainpower of human beings.

The success of planning in creating the built environment

The planners in the past demonstrated that by planning great cities like Mohenjo-daro or Pompeii, or Amaravati, they could provide an orderly form to human lives. The same outcome was obtained when planners of the modern world succeeded in delivering cities like Singapore, Brasilia, or Copenhagen. The planning elements that are common among these great modern cities include -

• A well-structured spatial layout.

• An integrated land use and transport strategy, associated rules, and an underlying

framework to support these planning components.

• Good planning to support the incorporation and protection of green spaces.

• Sound planning involving a good set of stormwater and waste management


• And above all - a focus on the needs of the society and culture.

In Singapore, the country's planners in the 1960s worked against the backdrop of a crumbling economy, a fragile political structure, and widespread social unrest. However, they used their consciousness and judgement to create a future-proof plan for Singapore by deliberately avoiding ad-hoc solutions for the sake of their future generations of citizens. Currently, the planners in Singapore have big data but only use it as the supporting tool for real human planners. The Urban Redevelopment Authority of Singapore has described -

how advancements in Artificial Intelligence (AI) capabilities can be harnessed to support the development of robust plans that will safeguard Singapore for current and future generations.

The planners in Singapore are getting ready to be more data-informed for preparing plans to meet the needs of their communities of today and tomorrow.


Throughout the history of human civilisation, human minds helped us take the right path to move forward. Unfortunately, the journey was not smooth. It went through trials and errors, misjudgements, vested interests and individual ill motives. Since the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, seventy-six years have gone by, the arsenal of nuclear weapons of various countries are getting bigger and bigger. But it is necessary to note that not a single atomic bomb has been used again to resolve an armed conflict in this world, nor have we seen large scale wars and battles, because the rational behaviour of modern humans allowed them to make the right decision at the right time.

In the end, the good wins. The humans did not allow the technology to take the driver's seat. Human life is not static – it has been going through phases of various types of changes. During this journey, the humans showed extreme adaptiveness and flexibility in addressing critical issues and making decisions. That is where the silver bullet lies to combat our everyday problem now and the forthcoming issues of our unpredictable future. We, the planners in New Zealand, need to be aware of this, especially when new planning legislation for the country is under review and getting ready to be implemented soon.

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