Planning Sustainable Communities - Skills and Learning to Envision Future Communities: An Introduction

Article excerpt

The aspiration of creating sustainable communities has been an important part of the UK government's agenda over the past decade, with the role for planning and other professions involved in place-making changing to include expectations of greater consultation and involvement of communities in decision-making. To date, most attention has been given to ensuring that planners are suitably skilled to undertake these new roles. Research conducted as part of an ESRC/HCA Initiative suggests that while opportunities have been provided for planners to acquire and reflect on their skills, more could be achieved by moving from a deficit, market-failure conception of skills needs to a 'strengths-based' approach. As community engagement is enhanced under the banner of the 'Big Society', this paper argues that significant questions need to be addressed over what sustainable communities are and the role planning professionals have in developing visions for such communities.

The aspiration of creating sustainable communities has been an important part of the UK government's agenda over the past decade. In adopting this goal, however, the notion of what such sustainable communities should look like has been poorly defined. Instead, the emphasis has been on ensuring that those involved with their creation - especially those parts of the state (i.e. local, regional and national government and its agencies) - are more responsive to local community views and can work more effectively with local populations. As a consequence, reskilling has been a central tenet of the sustainable communities debate. To quote Egan (2004, 4), who completed a review of the skills base of those professionals involved in planning and place-making, 'upskilling the broad range of core and associated occupations with a role in planning, delivering and maintaining sustainable communities represents a very considerable challenge'.

This paper and the following three papers examine some of the research conclusions arising from an Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and Homes and Communities Agency (HCA) funded initiative (hereafter referred to as the ESRC/HCA Initiative) exploring 'skills and knowledge for sustainable communities'.1 Together, the research illustrates how at a local level across the UK communities and professionals have responded to the sustainable communities agenda. In particular, it focuses on developing more new and imaginative approaches to learning and sharing knowledge between professionals and communities, partnership working, and bringing communities together in more cohesive ways, as well as identifying transferable lessons from what is working in other towns and cities. The research cut across disciplinary boundaries and each project involved local agencies and partners. The three subsequent papers explore some of these themes in more detail. Although the backdrop of the research was the planning context of England, the research projects were drawn from across the UK, reflecting the shared interest by devolved authorities in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in skills for sustainable communities. The 11 projects highlighted this sharing of knowledge across the different planning systems which have emerged through devolution processes in the UK.

In this article, we explore some wider issues associated with planning for sustainable communities. After outlining the genesis of the agenda in the UK, which has taken a specific trajectory in contrast to debates within the US and the rest of Europe in particular, we first consider how the skills and knowledge that planners and others involved in place-making are acquired and, second, to what end - i.e. what is the vision of a sustainable community that is the endpoint of the process? Our central argument is that while emphasis on skills and learning has assisted in making the process more inclusive, we see the lack of clarity over the desired outcomes - or the processes by which such outcomes can emerge - endangering the benefits from current investments. …

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