Next week Irish planners will meet for their annual conference in Limerick. It is interesting to see that Professor Louis Albrechts will give a keynote speech and which will presumably pick up on the subject of his 2010 paper entitled: More of the same is not enough! How could strategic spatial planning be instrumental in dealing with the challenges ahead?. In this paper, Albrechts coincidentally touches on many of the same themes that I blogged about last year (see here and here). He makes the case that the environmental crisis, the energy crisis, the financial crisis and the subsequent economic crisis, to name only a few of the interlinked crises of our times (to which I would specifically add the inequality crisis), must compel decision makers, planners, institutions, and citizens out of their comfort zones, to confront their key beliefs, to challenge conventional wisdom and to embed a future-orientated perspective in their practice.
However, it seems that the Irish planning profession is still reluctant to give up on the status quo just yet and more of the same is good enough for the time being. This year’s conference is entitled ‘50 Years of Planning: Time to Lead Change and Plan for Growth’ while that of last year’s was ‘Achieving Competitiveness & Promoting Innovation – The Future Role of Planning’ . All of the neoliberal buzzwords in just two conferences! This is not an academic irrelevance, nor a trivial observation, but is entirely symptomatic of how firmly co-opted the Irish planning profession has become in the governance machinery of the current economic hegemony. These are the implicit values which shape the spatial outcomes of the planning process and which are evident everywhere – from the over-dominance of the Greater Dublin Area, to the disintegration of our town centres, to the empty shells of vacant retail units. What is remarkable is that this post-political consensus seems to hold true universally throughout the profession to the point of being almost invisible and entirely unquestioned. Without applying a critical perspective of this sort, we cannot even begin to understand the dynamics that led to the catastrophe of the Celtic tiger, and planning’s key role therein, or even to plot a course for planning’s future role in society.
Like Albrechts, I agree that it should be unthinkable (and unacceptable) that planners remain as neutral observers and refrain from playing an active role in the construction of future visions of society and to build the case as to why society should try to construct these futures. After all, isn’t this the very raison d’etre of planning? However, as much of this process lies in making tough decisions about what is most important, it inevitably involves values and making these values explicit. As Albrechts notes, the current reluctance of the planning profession to explore new concepts, new ideas and new values and to look for alternatives to business-as-usual is leading to the worst kind of myopia: that of a place blindly lumbering into the future unable to see the pitfalls ahead.
If we just take the looming climate and energy crisis, which is indisputably the most defining global challenge facing humanity of the 21st Century, there is more than ample evidence that the current entrepreneurial value discourse of growth and competitiveness are not just problematic but are actually driving the problem. The recent IPCC AR5 report, which explicitly references the important role of spatial planning in climate change mitigation and adaptation, should be a timely reminder to the profession of the absolute urgency of exploring what values are needed to adequately plan for the challenges and opportunities ahead. However, as planning in Ireland seems keen to continually justify its existence within the myopic parameters of the neoliberal orthodoxy, I do not hold out much hope for the type of planning that can embed the necessary transformative practices which Albrechts argues so convincingly for.
The IPI conference will include a Panel Debate – “If planning is everything, maybe it’s nothing” – The next 50 years
- Frank McDonald, The Irish Times
- Conor Skehan, School of Spatial Planning, DIT
- Ian Lumley, An Taisce
- Niall Cussen MIPI, Department of the Environment, Community & Local Government
- Mary Kelly, Chairperson, An Bord Pleanála
- Brendan O’Sullivan MIPI, Centre for Planning Education & Research UCC