The rise of cities and city planning

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The city of Sydney in New South Wales.

The city of Sydney in New South Wales. Image: Creative Commons

A message from the Planning Institute of Australia (PIA) on promoting proficiency and professionalism in planning.

Urbanization is one of the twenty-first century’s defining megatrends. Around the world, more and more people are moving into cities. Australia is already one of the most urbanized countries in the world, with 90 percent of our population living in cities. That population is likely to pass the 40-million mark by 2055, putting major strain on our cities’ capacity to provide adequate housing, transport, employment and quality of life.

This is where urban planning comes in. Through good strategic planning, the built environment can be expanded to accommodate a growing population while remaining sustainable, liveable and productive. It is no surprise that, according to the City Leadership Laboratory at University College London, 80 percent of the cities around the world are developing strategic plans for this purpose. In the words of the Australian Institute of Architects past president Ken Maher, “The provision of hard and soft infrastructure, how it is planned, its design quality and the quality of the public realm is critical to ensuring equity in our growing cities.”

Good urban planning can only be done by a certain kind of professional: the urban planner. Urban planners possess a broad but particular mix of skills and knowledge not found in other professions. This includes the ability to think strategically and integrate economic development, infrastructure and design considerations; a deep understanding of the relationship between people and place; stakeholder engagement skills; and a proficiency at balancing competing interests and solving complex problems using an ethical, evidence-based approach. Tying this all together, of course, is knowing how to apply these skills in accordance with complex planning regulations and frameworks.

Recently, the demand for planning professionals has been growing. In Sydney and Melbourne in particular, traffic cone-lined roads and construction cranes poking through the skyline testify to a surge in urban development. This translates to more development applications and processes, and hence a burgeoning need for planners. According to John Wynn, national director of planning consultancy Urbis, “The demand for planners is as high as it’s ever been and that’s across all levels of government, planning agencies, non-planning agencies that require planners working in them; it’s also in the consulting business.”

The Planning Institute of Australia’s CEO, David Williams, agrees. “The number of jobs we’re advertising has skyrocketed over the past year,” he says, referring to the Institute’s long-running online employment directory that lists planning jobs around the country. Since the start of this year, it has advertised over 800 jobs with more than 200 in NSW and 400 in Victoria alone.

It’s not simply that more development equates to more development applications to churn through. Planning controls these days have become far more complex, requiring a specialist and constantly updated knowledge of frameworks and guidelines that continue to evolve. The new Queensland Planning Act, for example – effective as of 3 July 2017 – adds a major new layer for planners to factor in when conducting land use planning: does the proposal respect, and indeed promote, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture?

Technology, too, has bolstered the importance of a planner’s role. According to David Williams, “Today’s interconnected, social media plugged-in world has fundamentally changed the way individuals engage with each other and express their views about building design, urban design and master planning. Informal and formal groups of citizens are highly active, politically and media savvy. This alters how built environment professionals need to engage in the public debate and heightens the importance of providing their pragmatic and informed opinion.”

The swell in demand for planners has begun to be felt at the pre-career level. The University of New South Wales reported that enrolments in planning have increased by 115 percent this year. PIA NSW executive officer Michelle Riepsamen says that as awareness grows of the importance of urban planning, so does interest in studying and working in this field. “The need for planners and the skills that planners bring are being more valued and more recognized,” she says.

In short, being a planner entails a lot more than just knowing your way around planning rules and processes. It calls for a plethora of skills, including an ability to use spatial thinking and interpret complex data; a creative and integrative approach to problem-solving, drawing on various disciplines and methods; and advanced consultation and collaboration skills – all underpinned by high levels of integrity, professionalism and a commitment to community health and wellbeing.

It’s a formidable ask, even though it’s all in a day’s work for a good planner. The problem is, how does a client or employer know whether a planner brings this suite of skills to the table? A CV or company brochure only establishes so much – soft skills in particular are difficult to ascertain through a recruitment or tendering process. Perhaps more so than most, planning is a profession in which ethics and a commitment to community health and wellbeing are as crucial as experience or expertise. An ability to converse and empathize with community members is, likewise, a must for many planning roles. Planning also combines minutiae with the big picture in ways other professions tend not to – practitioners need to be able to find needles in haystacks while seeing the forest, not just the trees – and this, too, is traditionally difficult to quantify.

That’s where PIA’s Registered Planner program comes in.

Promoting proficiency and professionalism in planning

Our urban environments determine how we come together, interact, live and grow. Through their work, urban planners facilitate and influence how those environments are spatially arranged, connected and used. This work is vital, and it requires strong technical knowledge, experience, insight and foresight. Perform it without diligence in any of those areas, and the outcome may have broad-ranging negative impacts that last for years – not least to the reputation of the organization responsible.

Unfortunately, poor planning practice does occur. Urban planning is not a regulated profession and so people without formal planning qualifications, but who possess knowledge in some area that planning touches on (such as surveying or design), have been able to pass themselves off as planners. Similarly – and as in many other professions – university-qualified but unethical or low-performing planners can offer their services as consultants, putting projects at risk and delivering inferior outcomes. While this is uncommon, it does happen, and planning work is often of a long-term nature with impacts that last for years, if not decades.

PIA’s new membership grade, Registered Planner, is a mechanism that enables high-calibre planners to demonstrate, clearly and unequivocally, that they have the competencies sought after by employers, clients and governments. Through vigorous testing and assessment, Registered Planners have been verified by their professional body to have what it takes when it comes to producing high-quality planning outcomes.

In the words of David Vaucher, a director in consulting firm Alvarez and Marsal, “When you count industry and country/state-backed credentials among your list of achievements, you present to your clients a very transparent view of your capabilities.  Perhaps you may not know everything, but what you do know is clear, and you have the weight of the regulating agencies standing behind your abilities. When you commit to earning and maintaining these certifications, you’re sending a message that you are serious about keeping up with the current best practices in your field, and that you are dedicated to keeping your technical skills sharp.”

This is of critical importance to employers and recruiters. High-performing employees produce high-quality work and enhance their organization’s reputation – low-performing employees do the opposite. An organization that employs Registered Planners is supporting those professionals who are genuinely committed to excellence and integrity – a commitment that will permeate back into the organization’s culture and standards of output. Employing such planners bolsters that organization’s credibility, not only to clients, stakeholders and the community but to other sought-after talent in the recruitment market.

As this is increasingly recognized, becoming a Registered Planner will provide a significant career boost for those looking to get ahead of the pack. As career development counsellor Heather Kimbrel says, “Not only do [certifications] show that you have the drive to stay current with industry trends, but that you are passionate enough to improve in your career now and in the future.” This is what thousands of employers and recruiters want to see – and Registered Planner finally provides the unequivocal, robust proof they are looking for.

PIA’s goal is for Registered Planners to be universally recognized in the built environment as representing the top tier of Australian planning – and hence highly sought after for their integrity and expertise. The Institute is continuing to raise awareness of Registered Planners among planning stakeholders throughout Australia, including state, federal and local governments, law firms, universities and the media. PIA is also investigating how Registered Planner can become nationally recognised as a professional standards scheme under legislation.

The future is extremely exciting – for Australia’s cities and therefore for its planning profession, which will continue to grow hand-in-hand. PIA looks forward to seeing Registered Planners thrive in the future as the country’s most respected and in-demand planning professionals. Whether you’re a consultancy director or someone starting out in their career, we encourage you to consider the benefits of using or becoming a Registered Planner.

For more information, head here.


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