Urban and regional planner Phoebe Harrison believes that people are ready for proactive engagement and doing things differently. Photo: Antenna
Urban and regional planner Phoebe Harrison believes that people are ready for proactive engagement and doing things differently. Photo: Antenna

The politics of value: good planning makes dollars and sense

Phoebe Harrison explores how planners and planning have a crucial role to play in reviving trust in public institutions and the democratic systems that should be building our cities.

Satisfaction with Australian democracy is at its lowest level since 1996.  From 2007 to 2018, Australians’ trust in politicians decreased from 86 to 41%. Despite 25 years of economic growth, Australians have become “more distrustful of politicians, sceptical about democratic institutions, and disillusioned with democratic processes.”  This leads me to ask two things: what tools can we use to get things done, and how can we rebuild trust in Australian democratic institutions?

To answer these questions, I suggest that cost-benefit analysis and knowledge sharing are two distinct tools that show that we can use to demonstrate that planning is values-based, has value, and is valuable.

Importantly, I see these two techniques as tools for communication.  Planning is often seen as a political endeavour, especially where several state and territory systems around Australia establish strong links between planning decision-making and elected representatives.  In that context, I am concerned that opinions formed using evidence, by teams of experts, are often thrown out in the same bathwater as politicians. To counter this, planning and built environment professionals need to be smarter with the way they communicate and to learn to use the right tools for the right audience.  With improved communication, I suggest that we can rebuild trust in Australian democratic institutions, like planning, and demonstrate that good processes do lead to good outcomes.

“Unfortunately, as a values-based profession, planners often struggle to demonstrate the economic, social and environmental benefits of our work outside qualitative terms” – Phoebe Harrison @phoebe__h

Can we value good planning outcomes?

Good organisation and harmony in urban governance can bind the populace in common purpose, deliver prosperity and security. But how can planners demonstrate this? And how can they convince people that they’re doing anything at all? The planning process is powerful. And planning has value. In fact, the pay-off for good planning is high and the benefits far-reaching. Unfortunately, as a values-based profession, planners often struggle to demonstrate the economic, social and environmental benefits of their work outside qualitative terms.

Cost-benefit analysis is a tool for communication that shows us how planning pays off. Planners know the many benefits of a local, walkable neighbourhood, having access to work nearby, with shops and open spaces close to home. In fact, they can assign a dollar value to these things. The Productivity Commission says the value of better functioning cities and towns is about a $29 billion increase in GDP in the long-term, supported by land use and planning policies. Walking infrastructure delivers a $13 benefit for every $1 spent. Increasing the level of walking connectivity by just 10% would increase the value of Melbourne’s Hoddle Grid economy by $2.1 billion a year. If 50% of short private-vehicle trips were instead made by walking, it would save the Victorian economy approximately $165 million a year in congestion, health, infrastructure and environmental costs. The growing, avoidable social cost of congestion for Australia’s eight capital cities may reach $31.4 billion by 2030. The City of Melbourne’s new transport strategy would benefit the Victorian community by $870 million over 10 years. Car share programs in the City of Sydney outweigh costs by a factor of 19, had a net present value of $203.26 million, and most benefits were related to the cost-saving associated with deferring car purchases ($171.86 million on its own). In the US, a study found that for every US$1 spent on planting and maintaining trees in Californian cities, there were US$5.82 in benefits.

“Our open space won’t lose out to a road if we can frame the benefits by speaking the right language for the right audience” – Phoebe Harrison @phoebe__h

Cost-benefit analysis brings better options, bigger pay-offs

Planning doesn’t typically ascribe standard values to its ideals. This can expose planning proposals to value judgements or undermine an otherwise persuasive argument. It can make important projects appear soft, despite a sound evidence base. Using a cost-benefit analysis approach, we can list out benefits and disbenefits, then assign cold, hard dollars to planning values. In this process, time (spent or saved) has a value. Access to jobs, open space, high amenity places: these things can be valued. Our open space won’t lose out to a road if we can frame the benefits by speaking the right language for the right audience.

What is an hour of time spent in public open space actually worth? Or, what is the value of getting to work in 30 minutes instead of 60? We can use cost-benefit analysis to reveal the better option, with a greater pay-off. That is, testing scenarios to evaluate our options. A base case can be valued and compared to the value of time spent in open space. If that space also has a variety of activities on offer – running tracks, sports fields, play and gym equipment – then the approach lets us test the value of a mix of things. Against that, we can measure our willingness to pay. Cost-benefit analysis also helps us understand redistributive benefits. It distills important information into a language we can understand. The variety of options available to us have a value. Cost-benefit analysis shows what’s efficient, who benefits, and whether we can afford to redistribute the benefits and compensate those who miss out on direct benefits.

“Planning offers us an opportunity to intervene in market forces and consider what outcomes might benefit the most people” – Phoebe Harrison @phoebe__h

Using good planning to rebuild trust in democracy

Planning has much to offer the process of rebuilding trust in institutions in Australia. Here, there is a real opportunity for knowledge-sharing and coproduction of preferred future scenarios.

In many projects throughout my career, we have sought to engage the public in our work, seeking feedback on reports and recommendations, attempting to involve people and local expertise in planning outcomes. There is evidence that engagement can help share power, to enable people to become involved and be custodians of planning decisions through a form of deliberative democracy. However, with trust in engagement and planning process diminishing, I have also often experienced open disdain from the public when seeking to identify a preferred outcome. This erosion of trust and decrease in people’s belief that planning can get anything done worries me. When people say plans “end up on a shelf”, what they might be saying is, planning is process and not outcomes.

Planning offers us an opportunity to intervene in market forces and consider what outcomes might benefit the most people. The planning system has several values that underpin decision-making. Those values matter deeply to people and places, despite the difficulty of qualifying them in monetary terms. I think many people are ready to do things differently.

My proposition is that opening up institutions and knowledge sharing can help us do that.  This is because values still matter deeply. I propose this as a counterpoint to cost-benefit analysis.

Simin Davoudi says, “if we readily and uncritically appropriate the discourses of [market] rationality and mimic its ways of…measuring values, we risk embedding the rationality itself deeper and deeper into everything we do, including our planning research agenda.” We need the community to help establish what the politics of value really are, to define what value is, and how we encompass that in our planning project. We also need to be careful that using tools like cost-benefit analysis is not seen as the only way to ascribe value to values-based pursuits.

I’m not arguing for a disingenuous process of participatory planning of the inform kind. Rather, I’m arguing for deeply embedding processes such as citizens’ juries and participatory budgeting. These approaches require genuine power-transfer, deep knowledge sharing and real co-creation of decisions.  Bottom-up approaches, especially implemented with the help of local government, have had success in Australia (see citizen’s jury and participatory budgeting processes run by Canada Bay City Council in NSW, the City of Melbourne and the City of Darebin in Victoria, and the South Australian government, among several others).

In the case of the City of Melbourne’s People’s Panel (2016), more than 600 people were involved in general engagement activities (e.g. providing feedback on ideas), while around 40 people took part in the detailed citizen’s jury process to determine Council’s first 10-year financial plan. Among those involved, most people said they hadn’t been involved in a civic process to that extent before but would get involved again into the future. After the process was complete, an independent review found that community engagement was highly effective, meeting all seven IAP2 core values, meaning community members were genuinely engaged and able to influence outcomes (rather than purely receiving and providing feedback on information).

“Change driven from the bottom-up will drive urban resilience” – Phoebe Harrison @phoebe__h

The City of Melbourne People’s Panel, and others like it, function on the basis that three factors define fair systems of representative democracy: “measures to facilitate greater public access to information about government, enhance the rights of citizens to be ‘consulted’ on matters which directly affect them, and ensure that all voices can be heard equally through fair systems of representative democracy”. Citizen’s jury and participatory budgeting processes enable public access to detailed information. In an extended engagement process (the City of Melbourne People’s Panel spanned five full days over three months), people are also given access to experts who can help them navigate the complex information they are being asked to consider.

In-depth public participation in its true sense is an effective means of communicating with a representative sample of the population and encouraging a deeper understanding of democratic decision-making processes across the population. However, as with cost-benefit analysis we must be careful to acknowledge its limitations, namely that government may engage openly but have predetermined outcomes, or that a citizens’ jury process engages a few people very deeply but leaves others in the same position as before. Nevertheless, there is real potential as these processes become increasingly mainstream, that this helps lift trust in planning decision-making to deliver positive outcomes.

Where to from here?

I strongly believe that people are ready for proactive engagement and want to hear about – and be involved with – things being done well and differently. It is the responsibility of planning and built environment professionals to use all means of effective communication at their disposal to advocate for good processes and effective practices. We need that, for transformation to occur.

Change driven from the bottom-up will drive urban resilience. I do believe we need stronger institutions to support this. I also believe that with the right communication tools we can achieve a lot right now.

A Senior Consultant at SGS Economics and Planning, Phoebe Harrison is an urban and regional planner with specialist expertise in statutory and strategic planning and stakeholder engagement. She is a former Board Director for the Planning Institute of Australia and a Program Advisory Committee member for the Master of Urban Design and Planning, Monash University.