UPDATED: We focus on lot on positive action and business in these pages but what we also need now and then is to swing the focus to the bigger picture – such as to Al Gore’s impending visit to Australia and how political decisions can sometimes be so wrong.
Then there was our Market Pulse earlier this week on how young planners are leaving the profession.
Whoa, that’s a story that obviously hit a nerve, judging by responses.
There we were thinking that planners are the ultimate quiet operators, keeping well out of the political fray, plugging away instead with rational and logical frameworks that they hope to high heaven will play a part in the future of our cities. Often frustrated.
Thing is we detect a new feistiness among them.
It started with that bigger than Ben Hur event we moderated earlier this year in a session where 1200 planners and architects joined forces at their respective annual conferences for a joint presentation to see if … well … they could join forces.
The four-panel members were impressive (and yes awe inspiring) but it was Prathima Manohar who really cut through with her view of planners.
Planners were political professionals, Manohar said. They tend to know how the levers of power work. Architects, on the other hand, are more inclined to be artistic and rarely understand politics.
Our story was based on young planners leaving the profession after five or 10 years. So are young planners increasingly cognisant of their ability to shift outcomes, and at the same time frustrated they have little cut-through?
Some of the feedback we had on the story focused on the absence of direct comment from young planners. Well, it wasn’t that kind of a story; Market Pulse is about observing jobs and business trends. The personal views of young planners is now on its way as follow-up, but in the meantime we happened to be talking to planner Steve Driscoll, acting chief executive of the newly minted UrbanGrowth NSW Development Corporation, so we asked him to shed some light on his profession.
Driscoll is one of those planners who can easily and calmly convey the potential of good design to change outcomes. We saw him in action a while back at an Urban Taskforce event explaining to a room full of developers how well-designed streets that offer a long view of sky and green instead of a building at the end, for instance, can do a lot to balance the invasive feeling of high density.
Driscoll isn’t sure why young planners are leaving, but he wishes they weren’t. He says he owes a lot to more experienced planners who mentored him in the early part of his career, often when he wasn’t even aware of it. People who would say, “Good idea, but have you thought of it from this other angle?”
If young people leave there will be a dearth of that experience for younger professionals coming through. But it’s no surprise, he says, that planning professionals are attractive to employers outside the profession.
His degree at the University of NSW “taught us a little bit of everything but not a lot of anything in particular so we came out of that degree as well trained generalists, not specialists”.
People would then choose their specialty. “Mine was a strategy, strategic land use, big picture stuff.”
But this generalist training, focused on query, enables planners to easily take a step out of their own professions into allied areas. Quite a few end up in management.
On the other hand, many planners are values driven, Driscoll says, and they tend to want to make the world a better place, so if they find an employer that aligns with their values they’re likely to stay for a long time.
“They will stay where they are and where they feel their cultural and ethical alignment is.”
Then there’s the bit about being frustrated with lack of cut-through. But Driscoll reckons a good planner should not actually expect to be making decisions. His lecturer made that plain on his first day as a student. The advice went something like this: “I just want you to know that you guys operate in a political environment and if you are here to make decisions maybe you better leave and go into politics.”
In Driscoll’s view planners work in a political environment, along with everyone else, but it’s not their role to make decisions or even expect their recommendations to be followed.
“The best planners build a cogent case and argue that case and if the wind is in their sails it will carry the argument over the line. Quite often it doesn’t happen that way, and that’s okay because it’s the people who are elected who make the decisions.
“Good planners don’t make recommendations based on politics; they make recommendations based on the facts and the garnering of all the relevant information to try to solve the problem at hand. Often there’s no single or right answer.”
So agreed that the politicians make decisions; it’s what they are elected for.
As for what kind of political decisions are sometimes made, that’s another story. And maybe a clue as to why young and idealistic planners are leaving their profession.
Al Gore in Melbourne
Another prompt to think big picture is the visit to Melbourne next week by Al Gore for the equivalent of the Olympics for sustainability, the huge Ecocity World Summit that someone from the City of Melbourne managed to convince to come to Melbourne.
Gore kicked off a big grassroots movement on climate with his film An Inconvenient Truth, and might have been president of the US were it not for a highly contested election in 2000 that some people say was stolen from him and which probably changed the course of history, since we know what the winner Bush did with his court-driven victory.
Gore is important because his appearance in our country will likely re-galvanise the fight on climate, and let’s not beat around the bush here – the sooner we go onto a proper war footing the better.
The other benefit is that Gore will help us with the periodic need to tune into a reality we’d rather ignore, that’s not so much inconvenient as inconceivably painful to contemplate.
Gore will no doubt tell us of the massive deterioration in the planet’s health since his first important missive not so long ago. We can see evidence all around but it’s amazing how familiar horror becomes and how quickly the shock value is absorbed into everyday business as usual.
Our readers, you, are in general the people who won’t turn away, who may not be able to face the horrors on a daily basis but who’ve formulated a personal strategy to deal with the danger of cognitive dissonance that can be bred by such issues.
As a whole many have responded, with better personal practices, better consumer practices and many businesses and investments not just incidentally avoiding harm but fulsomely acting to promote care and repair.
All helping us avoid the nihilism just around the corner.
Thing is we don’t know if we can win, and what winning looks like anyway when there is so much ugliness and inequity in the world.
Win might well be defined by an active daily life that involves fighting rather than submitting. It may not work … At least by trying we can be emotionally buoyed by the vast swathes of others rising up to join our army on a daily basis – from shoppers at the farmers’ markets to the biggest institutional investors in the land. From the small business refusing to use anything but renewable energy to a defiant new president of France Emmanuel Macron calling out Donald Trump’s failure on climate (we wish he’d said cowardice).
Not to mention the dedicated scientists and technology geeks trying to come up with solutions to reverse the damage.
We are a very clever, very adaptive species.