Why a Planning Vision must be really smart

Seven things Smart Planning can do for all of us – Part 1 of 7

Why a Planning Vision must be really smart

If most of the ingredients of a city are the same everywhere (land, buildings, infrastructure, etc), just like with human beings, all cities are different and have different personalities and lifestyles, which also evolve in time. Understanding, nurturing and addressing this individuality is the undisputable duty of any urban plan, and must emerge from the collective vision and mandate of the population.

Any vague vision statement (such as ‘good place to live, work and play’ or plain assertion of development trends) is a wasted opportunity to do something smart for your city. 

Cities and ‘Urban Brand’ 

Some cities have valuable and cherished brands – collectively understood and embraced – which should carry through in coherent strategies for planning. 

Take Milan (Italy) for example: all Milanese think about it as a capital of fashion and design. This should logically carry through in support for innovative and iconic buildings, funding of rich cultural life and events, intense street life, protection of the manufacturing industry linked to design, etc. The brand could directly translate into urban planning strategy! 

But is this link (so obvious and direct) really present? 

What if Milan adopted a vision statement like ‘an excellent place to live’? Would this help and guide its priorities? Or it would just state a relatively obvious aspiration to be as good a place to live as possible?  

What about a vision like ‘Milan as a capital of fashion and design’? This would hit the brand, but would it be what people really see and want? And what would be the actual mandate for the plan? 

This would be the very common mistake of mixing up what we dream for the city, and the vision of the plan. 

The two are not necessarily unrelated, only the second is programmatic and precise – and it has a timeframe linked to the plan. It could be something like: ‘the urban plan for Milan will ensure that the city’s role as a centre for fashion and design is strengthened by ….’ or even’ The plan for Milan will prioritise diversification towards knowledge and creative industries and reduce the city dependency on fashion…’. 

This type of vision is a mandate of what the people want for the future of their city and must promote to their politicians and administrations. It emerges from collective discussion and has political value.  

It cannot possibly come from planners and should not be linked to the timescales of plan production. 

It should be continuously discussed, be part of political campaigns and follow political cycles; in short, it should inform the plan, but to be really Smart, it should be independent from it. And should not wait to be discussed once every twenty years… 

Urban Settlements without Brand 

Not all cities have a clear understanding of what makes them unique. Just like any company needs to keep track of their Unique Selling Points, so communities should come together and try to identify what is the DNA of their town and what should happen to make the place even better. This may not happen overnight, and it would be ingenuous to believe that the debate should start only when the plan is about to be revised. 

A Smart Vision may take years to develop into a collective understanding of the city and the direction it should take. But without it, there can be no proactive plan, nor strategy as there is no consensus about the direction for the future. 

Driven by the Local People 

Local communities are notoriously reluctant to get involved in planning, unless it is to stop something from happening. This is because planning engages people in boring technical discussions (how many houses, how many schools, the position of a piece of infrastructure, etc) and never takes the time to establish what kind of city the people actually want.

 A Smart Vision should not be led by planners: it should be received and used by them. The lead should be taken by civil society as an open and continuous forum – starting from schools and reaching out to all people. Local radios, newspapers and social media are better places for discussion and awareness than stale planning questionnaires. The role of planners will be that of understanding what the mandate it and translating it into a programme for the plan.

 Overall, a Smart Vision must: 

1.       Be driven by the people 

2.       Be continuously and openly discussed and reviewed 

3.       Achieve political support and backing 

4.       Be translated into a programmatic vision for the Plan  

5.       Go beyond the achievement of good urban management goals.


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Director at URBAN Silence

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