Academic journal article The Town Planning Review

Sustainability, Space and Social Justice: The 2008 UK-Ireland Planning Research Conference

Academic journal article The Town Planning Review

Sustainability, Space and Social Justice: The 2008 UK-Ireland Planning Research Conference

Article excerpt

The Planning Research Conference is an annual event, providing a platform for academics from planning and related disciplines to discuss the most recent developments in the field. The 2008 UK-Ireland conference was hosted at Queen's University, Belfast from 18 to 20 March by the School of Planning, Architecture and Civil Engineering.

The conference theme

The 2008 conference was themed around the spatial dimension of sustainability and social justice.1 This theme addresses a number of pressing contemporary concerns to planning practice and research. The first element of the overall theme, 'sustainability', is seen by many as the current raison d'être of planning (e.g. Gunder, 2006), encompassing the major challenges of ensuring the built environment both mitigates and adapts to climate change and a range of other issues related to resource depletion, the most pressing of which is the oncoming crisis of peak oil and the transformation of carbon-dependent economies that this entails. These challenges have become well known, with the appropriate responses still being disputed and debated. The second element of the conference theme, 'space' focuses on the specific realm of competence of planning, which emphasises the spatial impacts and responses to sustainable development, such as settlement form, the coordination of transport and land use, etc. The final element of the conference theme relates to 'social justice', as a constitutive part of the sustainability paradigm, recognising that resolution of questions of injustice are central to the development of stable, sustainable societies. The very concept of social justice remains, however, a contested one, operating in this context at a variety of scales (local, regional, global) and imbued with a number of specific meanings (e.g. environmental or spatial notions of justice). Each of these elements combine to produce a specific nexus to which planning offers the key response - the nature and scope of such a response is, of course, still subject to much debate to which many of the conference papers offered a useful contribution.

Over the three days of the conference more than 130 papers were presented in a variety of plenary and themed track sessions by researchers from 20 different countries. With nearly 250 delegates, the 2008 conference was the largest and most international of its kind ever held. Indeed, while it has traditionally been dominated by UK planning researchers, the conference has increasingly reflected the growing internationalisation of the academic world, so that this year only 60 per cent of papers were delivered by academics at UK institutions, who were joined by delegates from the US, Canada, Brazil, China, Australia, Japan, north and southern Africa, the Middle East, and a number of European universities.

Plenary sessions and keynote addresses

The conference was structured around four plenary sessions at which a number of high-profile international speakers had been invited to address different aspects of the themes of space, sustainability and social justice. Jonathon Porritt, Chair of the UK Sustainable Development Commission, was in particularly fine form when he addressed the conference on the theme of 'Using science responsibly', which is one of the key principles of the UK Sustainable Development Strategy. Calling for urgent action by politicians, and the experts that advise them, he noted the duty on academics, particularly those working in the field of planning, to highlight the consequences of not making climate change the top government priority and underlined the opportunities for positive interventions using the system for regulating land use to help deliver a more sustainable society.

Professor Susan Owens of Cambridge University also emphasised the responsibilities falling to the planning system, emphasising the theme of justice within the sustainable development paradigm. Drawing on her published work (Owens, 2002; Owens and Cowell, 2002; Cowell and Owens, 2006) and her experience as a member of the Royal Commission For Environmental Pollution, she explored the nature of democracy within the planning process, highlighting the opportunities for 'subversive' debates provided at public inquires into strategic developments, such as those into super-quarries and major infrastructure development. …

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