Creative Thinking in Planning: How Do We Climb outside the Box?

Article excerpt

Creative thinking is a powerful tool for helping planners deal positively with rapid change and complex problems. This paper reflects on several recent UK and European research projects and explains theories underpinning creative thinking, analyses why it is important for planners, and discusses the benefits of using 'creative problem solving' techniques in practice and education. Based on evaluations of applications to date, it examines ways in which creative thinking can be facilitated and applied in the future, in both practice and education.

The need for new ways of thinking about planning is especially acute in the UK, where major reforms are fundamentally reshaping the planning system. Along with the ability to solve complex problems, planning requires the ability to ask the right questions. Since the late 19905, the Labour Government and the planning profession have been fostering a sweeping 'culture change' to make planning a more innovative, active and responsive activity, central to people's lives, rather than overly complex, remote, hard to understand and difficult to access (ODPM, 2001). A recent review of skills required to shape the built environment stressed the role of 'creative thinking, making lateral connections, thinking outside the box' (Egan, 2004, 103). This new type of planning links with the modernising local government agenda to achieve social inclusion, provide sustainable environments, mainstream diversity and equality, and improve the quality of design, all with the involvement of local communities (ODPM, 2005).

Radical changes are simultaneously taking place in British planning education, following the report of a special Education Commission (RTPI, 2003), as discussed in earlier editions of this journal (Batey, 2003; Brown et al., 2003; Batey et al., 2003). The new education guidelines leave more room for creatively constructing the planning curriculum. The first two learning outcomes for RTPI-accredited programmes are: '1. Generate visionary and imaginative responses to spatial planning challenges ...', '2. ... combine creative direction for the future with credible means of implementation' (RTPI, 2004, 10).

The approach

This paper is based on the applied primary research of authors with extensive experience of planning practice and academia in Europe and the USA. It is relevant for both academics and practitioners who are interested in developing fresh approaches to their work.

It aims to make the case for integrating creative thinking into planning education and practice, explains particular approaches to creative problem solving and discusses future applications. Following an analysis of the meaning of creativity, its importance for planning and the role of education, techniques of 'creative problem solving' are explored. The paper examines the theory and pedagogy underpinning these techniques, evaluates examples of their use in education and wider applications in practice.

In action-learning workshops, the authors learned and developed the skills of using these creativity techniques. Taking on the role of creativity practitioners, they consciously reflected on their use of the techniques and as participant observers helped facilitate each other's sessions. They assessed what impact the techniques had on participants and their work, using written questionnaires, verbal observations and creative visualisation techniques such as finger painting. Through ongoing applications and teaching workshops, the authors probed the pros and cons of the techniques to assess the situations in which they could have most benefit.

What distinguishes creativity?

Creativity is about 'bringing something new into being'. Its root is the Latin creatio - to make or to grow (Weiner, 2000,8). The Town Planning Network (1999,10) defined it as 'the ability to repackage or combine ideas in new ways which are of practical use and add value', whereas the UK National Advisory Committee on Creative and Cultural Education defined it as: 'imaginative activity fashioned so as to produce outcomes that are both original and of value' (NACCC, 1999). …