Friday, November 7, 2008

It's time to rethink ideas on urban planning

BEIJING, Nov. 5 -- MailPaul Farmer, chief executive officer of the American Planning Association, once summarized his planning concept as "honor history, celebrate the present, and choose the future."

In reality, especially at the current development stage in China, we seem to have too many "celebrations" of the present at the expense of historical heritage and future generations' well-being.

This pattern of unsustainable development has been challenged in recent years worldwide. It was once again refuted at the Global Planners Network Congress held in Zhenjiang of East China's Jiangsu province. The event preceded the Fourth United Nations World Urban Forum (WUF4) scheduled for November 3-7 in Nanjing, capital of Jiangsu.

In the Zhenjiang Communique adopted by the Congress on Sunday, more than 80 planners from some 40 countries and regions agreed that "today's ailing settlements are the price for failures to plan." They urged governments to "embrace and implement strategic and integrated approaches to the planning of cities, metropolitan areas and regions."

This notion gives people a new vision of planning, which I understand is no longer an alien matter for us ordinary citizens.

The world today is confronted, as we know, with rapid urbanization of poverty and the hazardous impact of climate change. Planning therefore has become an important tool for healthy urban development and environmental management to halt the formation of slums and mitigate hazards.

In other words, planning is a means to realize the social harmony we have been pursuing.
To reach that goal, planning should be made an integrative and inclusive process, in which voices of different stakeholders can be aired and interests of different groups can be balanced.

The pity is, quite a few decision makers, including some planners themselves, don't treasure the value of planning as a process but often reduce it to the drawing of a physical blueprint. They simply turn planning into drawing pictures of their own liking, without consulting any stakeholders.

For instance, some officials are impressed by broad ways and thoroughfares. So they have big and wide highways built inside the city, making things so inconvenient for pedestrians that they find it hard to walk along the sideway, not to mention crossing the street.

As a result, very few of such big and wide highways could hold people on to build a bustling downtown atmosphere. The entire space is used for a single function, which is to facilitate smooth running of vehicles. The spacious, broad ways are often empty. This is not only a waste of resources but also affects the city's outlook.

Effective planning should steer toward harmonious settlements, putting places in harmony with nature and between people, as the Zhengjiang Communique highlights. It should alleviate poverty and reduce inequality.

That calls for higher requirements from planners. A qualified planner will have the journalist's capacity to be good at listening to all kinds of views, an economist's capacity to be skilled in calculating the input-output costs, the social worker's capacity to work with the communities, and a politician's capacity to balance various groups' conflicting interests.

Not many Chinese planners have come to value their profession this way, and the result is dissatisfying urban sprawls featuring inadequate services and inconvenient settings, which are particularly unfavorable to the low-income families.

A harmonious society should witness a narrowing rather than expanding gap between different social groups. And it is evident that planning has a growing role to play in getting every member of society to benefit from economic growth.

With the revaluation of their profession, planners will enhance their links with other professionals, communities, formal and informal sectors as well as the government to choose the best possible future for us and for our future generations.

The author is a media consultant with the Global Environmental Institute.