Is it time to refocus planning education?

…ask Kate Henderson and Hugh Ellis in today’s guest blog, enthusiastically calling for a renewed focus on the British utopian tradition of planning as a tool to drive progressive change in society.

Kate Henderson

Kate Henderson, Chief Executive of the Town and Country Planning Association

Hugh Ellis

Hugh Ellis, Head of Policy, Town and Country Planning Association

There is much that is admirable in planning education but as town planning has rapidly declined in England, many of the country’s planning schools which support it have struggled to recruit UK students.

Some planning schools have amalgamated with other departments and changed focus, even changed names in an attempt to broaden their appeal, but this has also raised questions about how much of the planning project they are actually teaching.

One of the most discouraging pieces of feedback we have heard from visiting planning schools across England is that they no longer teach the ‘British utopian tradition’ in any real depth. A lecture here or there is totally inadequate given that this tradition is the foundation of the ethical purpose of planning.


Of course the expectations of planning education vary widely, from master’s students who are often in work and want practical solutions to immediate problems, to undergraduates who are just as bewildered as the rest of us about what planning is actually for. At the same time, Government has attacked planning by labelling it the enemy of progress.

Some tensions, between practice and theory, between technical detail and high ideals, between planners as place makers and planners as technocrats, are healthy and will probably always exist, but in renewing the planning endeavour we need to inspire and engage, reshaping planning education with the ambition of making planning the best multidisciplinary degree it is possible to achieve.

“…to study planning you must have a detailed appreciation of the human condition and human behaviours”

This can only happen as part of the wider project of reinventing planning beyond the narrow confines of the statutory system, but changing planning education is one our first steps. Three changes must happen now to begin this transformation:

The first is to return to the core truth, which people like Raymond Unwin, Patrick Geddes and Lewis Mumford understood, that to study planning you must have a detailed appreciation of the human condition and human behaviours.

This means planners must study sociology, psychology, politics and philosophy as well as the law, design, art, economics and ecology. Planners must also gain knowledge of the particular issues of our times, such as energy technology, human health and wellbeing, climate science, technological and economic transformation in industry, commerce, transport and communications.

Ambitious community outreach

Secondly, and of vital importance, planning education must include a strong component on community development. Planners need to obtain the essential skills necessary to work with communities: to listen, empower and inspire.

In this new broadening of the curriculum we recommend that students spend at least a year of their degree working with communities who face our biggest social challenges. The result would be one of the largest and most ambitious community outreach projects in decades aimed at what students can learn from real experience and what they can bring to support community action.

“ fulfil our ambition for a better society, there needs to be much wider public engagement and understanding…”

Thirdly, any study of planning must begin with the rich utopian tradition which is so vital to understanding where we planners came from and still defines who we are. Planners must know in detail the values and practical achievements of the town planning movement. They must understand its politics as well as its technicalities; they must understand its ambition for the transformation of society.

We should not stop with students of planning. If we are to fulfil our ambition for a better society, there needs to be much wider public engagement and understanding, illustrated by the exciting possibilities of past experiences and a rich pallet of global solutions to many of our problems.

Many institutions set up to inform people about planning, like the urban studies centres, have now closed and while there are some organisations doing this work the general understanding of place‐making is very poor. Planning and place‐making should be a key theme of the secondary school national curriculum and the making of neighbourhood and local plans should be seen as an opportunity to communicate the art of possibilities, and not just problems, to the public.

English planning in crisis: 10 steps to a sustainable future by Kate Henderson and Hugh Ellis can be purchased here from the Policy Press website for special 20% discounted price £6.39.

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The views and opinions expressed on this blog site are solely those of the original blogpost authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the Policy Press and/or any/all contributors to this site.

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