Spatial Planning is often thought of as a technical, highly regulated and institutionalised activity. However, one can also conceive spatial planning as a much more cultural activity. In solving spatial problems and in developing spatial plans, one often needs to bridge the different, partly culturally determined, interests of stakeholders. At the same time also policy regulations and institutionalised procedures usually leave a lot of space for interpretation and for different ways of dealing with the issues at stake. Therefore, one can distinguish many different, personal, local, regional or national styles and cultures of doing spatial planning. Looking spatial planning as a cultural activity might very well contribute to more effective ways of doing spatial planning. For a number of years, I participated in a working group of the Academy for Spatial Research and Planning (ARL) addressing the ‘Cultures of Spatial Planning’.
However, many Spatial Planning scholars are traditionally rather reluctant to take this more cultural perspective. Only under circumstances in which the hitherto ways of doing become less effective anymore, one is willing to look for new culturally informed forms of spatial policy making. Demographic shrinkage in times of austerity are circumstances, which make traditional forms of spatial policy less effective.
A former PhD students of mine, Dr. Marlies Meijer, focused her research on spatial planning under these new circumstances, and investigated what she called ‘more informal’ ways of doing spatial planning. Of course informal ways of policy making, are well known from many countries in the global South, where it sometimes is the only way of getting things done and problems solved under the condition of more or less failing states and failing governance. Traditionally these were practices which some spatial planners in Western countries, such as the Netherlands – as the traditional ‘best practice’ country with respect to spatial planning – looked down at. One might say that this is almost a kind of post-colonial reflex. Under these new circumstances, however, this could radically change. All of the sudden, one could also turn it around, and ask one self, what we in the Netherlands can learn from these informal practices. It is revealing to reflect on this change of perspective, but of course it is also not that black or white, and there are many nuances in between.
In a recently published article, Marlies Meijer and myself address the role of informality in Dutch planning practices.
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