Confession: I only went into one session at the World Urban Forum today. Lest it seems that I was skipping classes, let me explain. A lot of what goes on at big events like this is about networking, or to put it another way, it's about meeting up with old friends, making new contacts, drinking coffee and chatting. That may not sound too taxing, even when you are living 8 hours outside your normal time zone. However, it is rarely less than rewarding, even in an age when so many people are just a skype call away.
The session I did go to was a good one. South Africa takes spatial planning, and a planning approach very seriously. In part, lest we brush it under the carpet, this is because "town and regional planning" was so central to the apartheid system, and the spatial legacy of that system remains strongly imprinted in the patterns of settlement and economic activity. The focus of the session I went to was on how S.Africa is going about localisating the New Urban Agenda (NUA). In a nutshell it is aligning the priorities of the NUA with existing urban policy and practice. The approach is led from the top of government, and cuts across ministries. Thus it was notable that the presenters in the session were drawn from two different ministries, but were very much in tune in the messages they put over. But the path to delivery is not restricted to national level action. The key document is the Integrated Urban Development Framework, details of which are displayed if you click here. It talks of an "All-of-Society Approach" that encompasses different scales, and reaches out to a wide range of stakeholders.
The Q and A after the presentations raised some important topics. It was clear that an "All-of-Society Approach" is very difference to the governance practices that currently apply in many other countries. A planning consultant from Malaysia made reference to situations in which a powerful economic planning ministry stands at a distance from the physical planners, has all-powerful political backers and so can choose and drive through major developments. Similarly, where local governments are heavily dependent on central government funding (think UK!) they are too weak to bring much to multi-level partnerships.
So it was that another member of the audience asked what was really new about the NUA? Was it just a reheated version of Local Agenda 21? In fact the answer had been given by Deputy Minister Andries Nel in a cogent and fluent discussion on the many challenges his country faces. Listening to him, the thought crystallised for me that what is new about the NUA is that it is about the space economy. Yes ideas about sustainable development may have begun in the 1980s with saving the environment and conserving non-renewable natual resources. Local Agenda 21 added a governance dimension by connecting the local and the global scales, and emphasising a participatory approach. However, the economic geography remained quite limited. The NUA grasps that the spatial patterns of economic activity create major opportunites to take people out of poverty, but also are cruel to those left behind because they live in the "wrong" places, whether that be a peripheral rural area dependent on subsistence farming or a deindustrialised town in a rich country. This is why the NUA is NOT just about the poorer or rapidly urbanising countries. It applies everywhere.
It is this engagement with the dynamics of agglomeration economies (and diseconomies) that gives a new centrality to the role of planning, but simultaneously weakens many of the mindsets and practices that underpinned planning. In an area (or time) characterised by disinvestment a land use map is not enough to get people back into work. Similarly, the scale of agglomeration benefits that are localised onto prime sites in prime cities leaves the traditional regulatory powers bereft of capacity or political will to seriously challenge the choices made by developers. Yet if we simply allow these forces to work their way through places - so often encapsulated as planniing becoming an "enabling" role - then we are never going to create the prosperity for all and inclusive, resilient places that are at the heart of the NUA vision. So planning is needed, but it has to be a form of planning that understands the real estate development process, not just so as to avoid being supine in negotiation over permissions, but also being sufficiently savvy to spot opportunities, capture and redistribute value, and also be flexible about institutions, so that delivery is not all down to traditional expectations of a strong state doing everything.
Lots of the detail needs to be worked up and tested. What is impressive is that S.Africa is grappling with these ideas and doing so through practice. In contrast I find thinking and practice in the UK to be pedestrian in comparison: planners have ceased to believe they can make a difference, and don't even get angry about that. Sorry if that upsets some people, but it seems to me that the kind of approach I have sketched in the previous paragraph is the only show in town if we are serious about using planning to do anything more than help widen the growing inequalites in our societies.
This kind of thinking underpins the book the S.Africans and UN-Habitat are launching here on Monday 12 February at 11am. "Leading Change: Delivering the NUA through Urban and Territorial Planning", but more about that next week!.