Working in planning is a fascinating business, if only to marvel at the sheer volume of information that is thrown your way. Perhaps this is not surprising given how hot a topic planning is at the moment (others may regard it differently but we planners area easily pleased – lukewarm is difficult to pick up without gloves for us). And yet, at the same time we are also being told – rightly – how bad we are at harnessing data and modern technology to serve the purposes of what we do, namely to plan for the good of society.
Whilst the modern tech world moves along at a clip, boldly shooting off into the 21st century in its driverless electric cars, planning feels like it is still stuck back in the 1970s, waiting for the bus that is late and will probably be taken out of service. I attended a great event recently on how to harness digital tools in neighbourhood planning and was told by Euan Mills, tech lead at Future Cities Catapult, that ‘Google knows more about your community than your local authority does’. Whether this is because the local authority officers are too busy looking for the little ties that attach the planning application notices to your lamppost went unanswered.
Whilst planning rightly needs to be dragged kicking and screaming into the modern world, equally we cannot as a society assume that tech will save us all. The recent Budget talked about investment in driverless technology; wonderful if you want to be able to do other things whilst you travel (we actually have these things at the moment and they are commonly referred to as trains and buses), but this will not solve problems of congestion if the roads are filled with them. They will also help to perpetuate the growing problem of inactivity in our population, as people are not persuaded to use travel as a means of exercise (an issue I shall return to later in this blog series). If we want our towns and cities to be places that work for us and where we can live happy and healthy lives (I might even add ‘productive’ to that list), then we need to take a significant degree of responsibility for these things ourselves. What planning needs to do is give us every opportunity to make the most of that. Whilst increased walking and cycling are not the panacea for a bright and sustainable future any more than Google or Elon Musk with his Teslas and moon rockets, they are very much part of the solution. The irony is that, with the exception of the horse and cart which may possibly have had its day, walking and cycling are the two oldest forms of getting around that we still have. The fact that they are even more important to a sustainable future than they were 100 years ago is testament to why we should not assume that tech will save the world.
In this regard, we can (and we must) plan as best we can for people to get around our growing towns and cities by sustainable modes of transport. But this needs to be mirrored by a wholesale shift in societal attitudes to what many regard as yesterday’s technology. The fact that you own an electric car and drive it the five miles to work does not mean you represent a sustainable future. Leaving your car at home to walk and cycle as often as you can may not provide the whole solution either. But it represents an awful lot more than just a good start.
I shall return to these and a number of other themes later in this blog series. Watch this space.