Place Planning for serendipity

I like grappling with contemporary place ailments: no jobs, derelict site or dying high street.  However, I am often tired of the standard prescriptions.  In many instances, I know that the new investment strategy, or town centre revitalization will either not work, be temporary or have only partial success.  Increasingly, I know that many of the accepted prescriptions are old hat, in the face of economic turbulence and environmental change.

Nevertheless, what does get me more energised, is thinking about why some towns and cities seem to be able to deal with ailments and challenges much better than others.  Some places just seem lucky! Even in tough times, the lucky place is just more adaptable, bounces back quick or finds a solution.  So is this just a pure luck or are there ways we can plan for this serendipity? Its early days in CLES thinking, but I think there are.

Firstly, Networks.  For serendipity, place must be viewed as complex weave of people, institutions, sites and local spots.  Across these places, people mix, mingle, fuse and collide and spark off each other.  We must recognise, maintain and nurture this network in place.

Secondly, complexity.   This is often the scourge of rationalist place planners, where the rough edges of people and place, are often smoothed over and approximated.  Land use planners and planners like the straight lines of cause and effect.  And complexity gives us wobbly and dotted lines! However, the more complex the place, the more complex the network, and there is more chance that things will connect and link, increasing the possibility of serendipity.  So social diversity, cultural differences, a spectrum of investment options are all good, whilst homogeneity, monolithic shopping, fixed financial return models, and preserving places in aspic are all bad.  They are serendipity killers.  So places and policy must create, embrace and luxuriate in complexity and feel comfortable with it.

Thirdly, experiments.  All sectors have people and institutions who are risk averse.  The public sector, is often worried about future budgets, so plays safe.  The private sector, wants guaranteed return, so tends to keep on investing in what it knows, and the community and voluntary sector, often sticks with the social milieu it comes from,.  However, experiments are key to increasing the possibility of good luck.  We must allow space for people to experiment and salute failures and accelerate successes. We must create a public policy world where experimentation is the norm.

Fourthly, calibrating public policy.  It is increasingly common to hear how the public sector is ‘in the way’, and how we need more ‘’business thinking’ or ‘people power’.  This is often overblown and politicised, but I do agree that policy must get a lot better at knowing when to intervene.   In the past we have developed place planning policy, which is universally applied in different contexts, at the same depth and for stipulated periods.  This is madness and might erode positive behaviour and activity, which may be happening or starting to happen.  We must calibrate policy which creates context for good things to grow and develop at its own pace, giving a hand or accelerate activity only when needed.  Clunky place policy planning may just kill it.

Challenging the old ways of place policy thinking and doing is needed, but won’t be easy.  Recently, I was discussing the future of a small town, as part of CLES town resilience work.  Some of the assembled local government officers all too easily slipped into linear solutions associated with putting places in order or when they went wrong – re-engineering them. Places were being talked about as if they were a machine.  In a world where places face ever more challenges, we must advance from this short-term, reactive approach and look more toward innate adaptability and qualities  – we call it the ‘DNA of place’.  Part of the answer is to set up some good proactive base conditions by which place networks, complexity, and experimentation are embraced by public policy.  We must plan for serendipity.


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