Planners, and the context in which they plan

Many years ago I was made a Honorary Fellow of the Royal Australian Planning Institute, for reasons that had more to do with higher education than with architecture or town planning. I served on a judging panel or two, and tried to make myself useful. Some time later I became the Chairman of the National Capital Authority, which increased my interest in planning and enhanced my fascination with cities, especially developing ones. So I read what the Planning Institute of Australia (it dropped the ‘Royal’ not long after I became an Hon. Fellow) published in its journal, and profited much thereby.

Towards the end of last year I discovered that the PIA had published a document called Planning in a Changing Climate, which began in this forthright way: The Planning Institute of Australia (PIA) accepts the scientific assessments of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that human activity is changing our global climate, that irreversible change is already locked in and that the planning profession must address the reality of a changing climate.

Woah, there! I thought. I didn’t know that such a statement was being prepared, and certainly I had not been asked my opinion about a draft, which one might expect was the proper process in a professional body. So I read on.

PIA acknowledges that the effects of climate change are already being felt and that a changing climate poses significant challenges to our ecosystems, communities and economy… PIA notes that there is near-unanimous agreement among climate scientists that human-caused global warming is real and poses risk for human activity and natural systems… PIA recognises the need for urgent and deep reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and the need for complementary mitigation and adaptation strategies for reducing and managing the risks presented by climate change.

Wow! This is the orthodoxy, pure and simple. Now it is true that planners need to know that if  there is a problem that applies to everyone they can rely on some agreed principles with which to address the problem. Indeed, the Statement goes on to spell out those principles, which are innocuous enough, though they bring in the word ‘resilience’, about which more anon. Eventually I thought I ought to write to someone, in this case to the new President of the NSW Division, Marjorie Ferguson, in whose journal, New Planner, I first read the Statement. Mine was a polite and simple response that questioned some aspects of the Statement.

The Statement says, correctly, that various levels of government have adopted policies that are in response to the view that human activities are the main cause of increasing global temperature, but it will clear to you that none of them have done so with any real force. The reason is straightforward. Our whole society depends absolutely on reliable, cheap electricity, and coal is the basis of about 73 per cent of it, with natural gas making up another 13 percent and hydro about 7 per cent. Renewables are tiny in comparison, and will be tiny for at least thirty years unless someone solves the storage problem and the intermittency of both wind and solar. No government is going to do anything drastic to affect the basis of our civilisation.

The Statement talks of ‘the reality of a changing climate’, and then its risks, but doesn’t say what the reality is or what the risks are. I certainly agree that ‘the planning profession needs to strengthen its understanding of climate-related issues’, but it won’t be helped in doing so by this Statement, which is simply empty of argument and evidence. Given the figures above, is the PIA seriously suggesting that reducing greenhouse gas emissions is a priority? It would mean reducing the supply of reliable electricity to everyone, including hospitals, schools and factories. How would you propose doing this? Are the framers of the Statement aware that, as US Secretary of State John Kerry said in Paris the other day, that if the USA simply shut down its entire industrial base, you would not see any appreciable lowering of global temperature?

There was a little more in this vein, and towards the end I added the kind of warning I feel should go to every such organisation. Dealing with political expectations within the electorate, which is where all the fuss about greenhouse gas emissions and caring for the environment has come from, is a job for political parties… I belong to a number of academies and professional groups. I think they are always well advised not to enter the realm of political advice or pleading, which is essentially what this Statement does. 

Well, President Marjorie, or whoever handles her email, didn’t acknowledge my contribution, let alone respond to it. I’m sure no president wants to deal with letters like mine once they have made a decision. But I didn’t feel that ignoring what I wrote was particularly professional, and left it at that. I do feel some sympathy for planners. They are constantly being told by governments that they must take account of this or that new factor, and it may well have been that the PIA felt that it should get in first, on the assumption that State and Federal Governments would go down the ‘climate change’ road together. I see no sign of that actually happening. Indeed, I don’t see any government doing anything of consequence in this area, and in a later essay I’ll look at some of the reasons that make me think that the waning of the AGW orthodoxy may be speeding up.

But the March issue of New Planner has made ‘Resilience’ its theme. Now what is ‘resilience’? Well, it’s a term psychologists use about people who are able to recover quickly from adverse circumstances and events. It is now being applied to communities too, and Sydney seems to have been asked to be one of the world’s hundred resilient citiesResilience is about surviving and thriving, regardless of the challenge. I looked hard on the website, but I couldn’t see ‘climate change’ as part of the ‘challenge’ that cities have to face.

In the New Planner’s resilience theme, too, there is not much reference to anything about ‘climate change’, though there are nods to environmental and social sustainability without which there can be no economic sustainability, and an article whose authors seem unaware that food production has greatly increased, in part because of increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. I’m not sure that anyone has yet provided a workable definition of ‘sustainability’, and I’m beginning to think that ‘resilience’ is yet another buzzword that enables some of us to go forward on the happy assumption that we know what we are talking about and that it makes real sense.

For all that, it was good to see that, having introduced its new Statement on ‘climate change’, the PIA is taking up instead the cause of ‘resilience’. Our large urban areas already accommodate 94 per cent of our population, and managing them and devising ways to make them better is a real task for planners. Dealing with the fantasy of catastrophic climate change is not.

Join the discussion 17 Comments

  • Len Walker says:

    Don. A re-run of the Institution of Engineers last year. I’m not sure whether they believe in the AGW story, or are taking it up as a means of promoting their discipline, as the IEAust did quite openly.

  • Alister McFarquhar says:


    For most of my career I was employed In Dept of Land Economy in Univ of Cambridge

    Planning use of Land Property Finance and Environment

    Before that I was Economist planning Nigeria in the shape of Its Development Plan

    On consultancy Projects I planned Blue White Nile Gezira irrigation project, State Farms in Bulgaria [IBM} World Coffee [FAO], PNG [UK Govt] Sri Lanka Agriculture [ADB] Developing Member Countries Of ADB including PRC and India via ADB DMC Policy Report

    So I have some experience with Planning in practice

    Planning was driven by Socialism in Russia which thought Govt investment was better than the marked. It spread in India with its Development Plans copied in much of the less developed world
    where it facilitated transfer of aid from Rich Countries to projects like the infamous Groundnut Scheme in E Africa replicated over Colonial Africa

    Every local council now has a Planning Dept to press whatever is politically fashionable… Centralisation, decentralisation Environment Climate Change Renewable Energy ……whatever will get votes at the time

    Planning can be assessed mainly as a tool of the moment

    Does it win votes? Probably

    Does it achieve economic growth… Probably not

  • Aert Driessen says:

    A beautifully crafted piece Don, filled to the brim with gentle messages. I have long admired your insight and intellect and now I ask myself what it is in someone that makes them so tolerant of ignorant fools? I would have thought that such genes would have been eliminated from our DNA in the brutal course of evolution, but thankfully they have not. Keep writing.

    • Doug Hurst says:

      Evolution is not always brutal Aert. Sometimes it produces creatures better able to hide, evade or to ride with the punches – or write harsh reality in gentle ways.

      Otherwise, I agree your comments.

    • Maureen Hanisch says:

      I, too, Aert, appreciate the gentle approach to argument. One resists the sledgehammer whereas the small, unrelenting prod will start the cogs turning and little lights to twinkle. One will eventually convince oneself, will actually have known all along.

  • NameGlenM says:

    It is plain to see that CAGW is a meme in the way it permeates all the institutions and subsequent thoughts.Some years ago- say 20,when I believed in all this nonsense( sign Kyotoetc.) its effect on the polity was not great;CO2 was warming the planet and man was to blame.Point is that these days this little number has permeated all strata that it is hard to find any refuge from it.

  • beththeserf says:

    Hi Don,
    I came across two fascinating books by Jane Jacobs from an article by
    Ray Evan. Have you read her books ‘The Economy of Cities ‘ and
    ‘Cities and the Wealth of Nations’

    Unlike Adam Smith she argues that wealth is generated by import
    replacement and innovation evolving out messy trial and error
    interactions that top down planning is more likely to inhibit. In my
    21st and 23rd Editions of Serf Under-ground Journal I tried to give an
    overview of her theories and case studies of successful cities from
    Venice to London to and Tokyio. Without wealth generation on the
    streets, cities stagnate.
    so to speak

    • Don Aitkin says:


      Yes, I know JJ’s work, and think she’s most important. And I don’t know where your extra phrase came from! 🙂

  • beththeserf says:

    Now where did that extra phrase come from ? (

  • gnome says:

    I’m not sure if it’s on topic or not, but some years ago I sent an email to Kate Carnell in her role as the Food and Grocery Council CEO. Nothing in particular, probably about global warming, which is my longstanding obsession. All I can recall of the response is what a gracious and sensible response it was. And prompt. And that’s worth remembering. The lady has real class when it comes to representing her organisation.

    I like planners. They’re often a little unworldly, they’re sometimes a little politically correct, but they are in a class of their own when it comes to connecting the public and private sectors and explaining why things must be. No other profession can match them for that. They are being seriously let down by a CEO who can’t answer a simple email.. That’s worth remembering too.

  • David says:

    Don in the past you have argued that a ten-year span was what you have been used to for strategic thinking. I was wondering how this time limit fitted in with the culture of the Planning Institute?

    • Don Aitkin says:

      They probably would like to think in terms of longer time-spans. The reality is that town planners are governed by the much more transient timescales of elected governments. Higher education is in much the same pickle. Each new Minister has a new priority; the result is that there are not true priorities. Today offers us the announcement that the Turnbull Government has yet another plan for the ship-building industry in South Australia. Ten years, in such a context, looks an amazingly long time.

      • David says:

        Yes true. The next election is usually the relevant time frame for a politician. And contracts for the F35 written for 2035 and planning extending beyond that ,

        • Don Aitkin says:

          Agreed. And planes, dams and other large infrastructure items have larger planning horizons too. The point is that the longer the planning horizon the more likely it is to be overtaken by events. As you point out, I’m used to ten years, and even that is risky.

          • David says:

            So what advice did you tender as an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Australian Planning Institute, when the Institute was providing advice on planes, dams, and other large infrastructure items?

          • Don Aitkin says:

            Not asked. Hon Fellow only and not part of the executive.

  • Mike says:

    Thanks Don after my years in the public service it all came flooding back. Planning in a changing climate. Isn’t that grand it makes me feel warm all over. How dare you counter her wish to be seen as someone, by presenting her with logic and fact. She has shown her innovation and how she can separate herself from the crowd and write it up in her Curriculum Vitae. I think after this what is needed is to incorporate it in the Mission Statement and make sure the Business Plan is cognisant of the new agenda. Seminars can be arranged for the staff to become fully aware of the new agenda. These should be arranged at luxurious holiday sites. It’s a game which is used to advance the organisation and not to be taken seriously.

    I wonder if we could incorporate a climate change statement in the “welcome to country” statement?

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