Informality in Spatial Planning

Spatial Planning is closely related to applying strict procedures and rules for spatial decision making, and for the implementation of these decisions. In the ancient times of Spatial Planning this was a sole government responsibility, even though in the seventies of the last century, certainly also in the Netherlands, spatial decision making was increasingly done in a participatory way. These were the heydays of collaborative and communicative planning.  Since then we moved from government to governance, and spatial planning became a joint responsibility of many involved public and private partners. The public participatory decision making was at the same time partly replaced by market-led planning. Throughout these developments, the relationship between the different involved stakeholders and affected groups and parties has also changed. They are not always led by the same target, they have different interests, they value the diverse aspects of a spatial decision differently, they have unequal resources to contribute to the plan, etc. etc. Spatial planning has thus evolved as a complicated game of dealing, negotiation and collaboration. This is therefore much more than choosing a target, setting up a plan, and implementing a plan. Successful planning nowadays is the art of bridging these cultural and social differences between the involved parties, and only to a very small part driven by formal rules and procedures. This also implies that much more informal ways of communicating, evaluating, and negotiating have become crucial in spatial planning. Spatial planning is really the work of human beings with all their subjective needs, interpretations, valuations, preferences, visions, intentions, beliefs, politics, talents, etc. One might say that these ‘soft factors‘ or ‘cultural factors‘ in spatial planning have increasingly become decisive, and formal and institutional aspects seem to lose their importance. Spatial planning becomes a regular form of Placemaking.

It was my Austrian colleague Prof. Peter Weichhart from the University of Vienna and Prof. Rainer Danielzyk from University of Hannover, who already addressed this in 2005 as the Culture of Spatial Planning when they were asking, why is even in states which have an elaborated and almost perfectly institutionalised and regulated spatial planning system planning not always successful? and, what are then the real structural principles and deeper working mechanisms in spatial planning? And what is the role of the subjective and cultural backgrounds and of their culturally determined ‘ways of doing’ of the people involved? It is self-evident that the growing importance of these cultural aspects of spatial planning is not necessarily about ‘national’ cultures, or planning styles, or planning systems but much more about the cultural backgrounds and everyday ways of doing of the people involves in spatial planning, beyond the rules and regulations of the planning system.

In the former PhD project on this issue by Marlies Meijer (see separate entry on this site) this was addressed as Informality in Spatial Planning in demographically shirking areas in Sweden, Spain and the Netherlands. As a follow up on that stream of thinking, now Jinshuo Wang now successfully defended her PhD thesis on Local government-led informality in planning in Chinese urban land development. She was supervised by Prof. Erwin van der Krabben, but I had the honour of being a member of the panel at her defence.

Her thesis was different and also her defence was different. Of course in China the situation is different and also local cultures are different, both: the local cultures of spatial planning as well as the local cultures of doing research on those issues.  Jinshuo Wang accordingly operationalised ‘informality’ as ‘spatial decision making through negotiation’, and investigated this on the basis of a huge quantitative data set on many spatial planning projects. This also in first instance seemed to have confused some of the spatial planning peers, which somehow again confirms the importance of ‘culture’ in spatial planning and spatial planning research. This is of course only one form of informality and maybe also not the one where soft factors can fully flourish and have a broad impact, but on the other hand — as she convincingly showed — it is a culturally sensitive deviation of traditional formal top-down planning. Her defence was also different because of the circumstances of the Covid-19 pandemic, which implied that several opponents could only participate remotely on screen.

The Culture of Spatial Planning

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.

Click on the abstract to view the full text version.