General principles of successful strategic urban planning

urban planning

Managing housing markets, transport networks, river basins, energy supplies and investment in skills requires coordination across multiple local governments. The solution is strategic planning. The Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) a leading body for spatial, sustainable and inclusive planning and the largest planning institute in Europe has studied how planning has worked in a number of settings and identified the following principles that strategic planning should follow, irrespective of location.

Be sharply focused

Planning should be about efficiently using resources and have a clear purpose. It is easy for strategic plans to become unwieldy and cover a wide range of issues that are adequately addressed either by regional or national planning policy (e.g. Scottish Planning Policy and England’s National Planning Policy). It is not entirely clear why strategic plans need to include broad policy statements like “all development will seek to mitigate climate change,” especially if this objective is covered by legal and national policy provisions.

Be genuinely strategic

Planning should deal only with issues that require treatment at a level higher than individual municipalities. Strategic plans need to set out where major investments in housing, transport and economic growth will take place. Decisions taken at the right geographic level will ensure appropriate investments, environmental safeguards and a degree of fairness between localities.

Be spatial

Planning should make choices between places, not simply establish general criteria for later decision-making. All policy-makers, not just planners, must recognize that some activities for example, largescale housing, employment and higher education are better undertaken in some places within a city, county or region than others, and act accordingly.

Be collaborative

Partners must work together to deliver each other’s agendas and collaborative governance structures can ensure proactive engagement by all stakeholders. This contrasts with what might be termed “cooperation”, where participation is restricted to proposal consent as long as it does not interfere with respective agendas. Evidence from England has demonstrated the value of allowing areas to determine their own associations. There are also strong advantages to permitting strategic planning collaborations to determine their own internal governance arrangements, subject to compliance with issues such as accounting practice.

Have strong leadership

To ensure negotiations between places are productive and not protracted, the leadership must be both political and professional. Participants must have the full support of their areas when entering into negotiations or they will be hampered. To reach that position, trust in the leadership needs to take root and flourish.

Be accountable to local electorates

The process should ensure that governance arrangements are sensitive to the interests of local culture and communities. A common approach is to have a joint board comprising elected representatives of each area dedicated to strategic planning. Another is for a leaders’ board to take strategic decisions. The latter has the advantage of facilitating closer links between spatial planning and other objectives.

Be responsive

Strategic planning needs to be efficient, with a dynamic review mechanism capable of adapting to change. In several cases, the strategic planning function acts as a guide to other decisions (for example, on planning or investment) taken further down the line. If the plan is cumbersome to prepare, it could delay those other decisions.

Be deliverable

For strategic planning to be to be effective, it must be linked to expenditure programmes. From the experiences of Glasgow and London, it is clear that strategic planning only in name serves no purpose; implementation bodies must also buy in to the process.

The RTPI has explored this critical factor in its Planning Horizons paper, Making Better Decisions for Places. Furthermore, RTPI has identified six key factors affecting successful strategic planning:

1. Cooperation between local authorities brings major benefits to all participating councils

2. Strategic planning benefits from being locally designed the principle of subsidiarity

3. Strategic planning may flounder if the scope is insufficiently wide

4. Effective strategic planning requires deep political involvement

5. While business engagement may be elusive, it is critical

6. Cooperation needs to reach beyond the core strategic planning area

This case study is a summarized section form Strategic Planning: Effective Cooperation for Planning Across Boundaries, from the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI). Available here.

*)This case study is an extract of the World Economic Forum report:The Future of Urban Development & Services: Urban Development Recommendations for the Government of India and was written by Alice Charles, Cities & Urban Development Expert, Urban Development Lead, World Economic Forum & External Board Member, NAMA

Alice Charles

**) Featured image: Steve Jurgetson (cc)


  • My oldest son, who is going to be graduating high school soon, told me the other day about his interest in potentially learning more about the concept of urban planning through schooling. I hadn’t thought of “leadership” as being a quality that would be beneficial in this kind of career, but I can definitely see how having both political and professional leading skills would help a person work out negotiations easier. It seems like this is a field that is complicated but necessary for our modern day life! I’ll be sure to share this with him.

  • Hey,
    You have mentioned the importance of town planning in your blog. Reading to your blog I got the idea about town planning . It can be a great career to pursue for civil engineers.

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