Presenting: Experiments and Flexible planning

Last May I was asked to present about Flexible planning at the SAPI conference Planning Africa 2014: Making great places. Of course I was honoured, talking in South Africa about a project that I started with Platform31 in the Netherlands is kind of surreal. The conference was going to take place from 20-22 October in Durban and everything would be arranged for me. At that time it seemed that I had plenty of time to prepare for it. But to use a cliche, time flies when you’re having fun. And so, suddenly it was October. I prepared a presentation and flew to Durban for the first time.

The conference
The conference started on Monday 20th of October 2014. My presentation was not until the next day, so I could really enjoy all the key-note speakers. The conference theme was Making Great Places. Bear in mind, that the attendees of the conference were mainly planners. Therefore the discussion was mostly held on how restrictive planning schemes, national and local legislation and integrated development frameworks are. And South Africa has a lot of them. When I studied the national legislation on planning in South Africa, I actually had to write all the policies and their abbreviations down in order to keep track. There are so many policies which overlap and it gets confusing. Mister Mitchell, keynote speaker from the USA, made a comment about this in his speech: “Everywhere I work I start off by making sure there is only 1 document in place, and everybody knows and understands it.”

The other speeches and workshops focused on how spatial segregation needs to be diminished in order to be able to realise Great Places. I think that this is very true and necessary (as I have written in my previous posts), but I started to wonder if South Africa maybe needs to attack their challenges in a different way. Nowadays the government uses changing laws and legislation and mega projects to try and realise change. But often these massive scale national projects are implemented within a very short period of time (due to political terms), are not monitored or evaluated and when the next Minister is installed everything changes again. Many professionals at the conference asked for a long-term vision on urban development, basically asking for a stable political environment so they could design and implement projects that would actually have an impact in the long run.

Ministers speeches
Minister Pravin Gordan (Governance & Traditional Affairs) and Lindiwe Sisulu (Human Settlements) had some very interesting things to say in their speeches. The main focus was on the need for integrated planning and innovation. The question they both asked us was: Do you really understand the context you are working in? And how to we make sure to plan for and with the people? Finally, they asked the delegates of the conference to come up with innovative ideas and concrete actions to be able to break through the planning and political habits in South Africa. I was inspired and suddenly more confident that my presentation could actually contribute to the discussion.

Flexible Planning
In my presentation I talked about the restricting policies as well, but I focused on innovation through experimenting before implementing. Try new policies, solutions, ideas on a small scale and see what kind of impact they have on the environment. I used the example of Flexible Planning or in other words getting rid of planning. If an experiment fails, we learn and try to come up with a better solution. If an experiment does work; replicate it somewhere else, implement it in laws, legislation or projects. It saves money, time and frustration. Parallel to that I think it can bring some continuity in policies for the professionals.

I also tried to stress the importance of new visions on planning. Using young people (sorry grey old men) but also professions like human geographers (like I am). I notice there is often a mismatch between planners, architects, citizens and everyone else who is involved in the built environment. Human geographers can be the linking pin between these different groups. I think it came across, at least I received a lot of positive reactions.

What I took home?
It is time South Africa starts experimenting in urban development on a small scale. Don’t make the same mistake as we did in the Netherland by using the same blue print for many developments. Have a vision for where development should take place, use flexible planning, experiments and introduce inspiring and inviting visions and planning schemes. But most importantly, professionals who are working in the built environment need to look beyond their own specialty, work together with for example sociologists and economists. Educate students that urban development is not only about stones and infrastructure, it is about sustainable development of settlements and therefore increasing the livelihood of people.

PS. My presentation on Flexible Planning can be found here. And for more info on Flexible Planning, please don’t hesitate to contact me.

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