A Personal Reflection on BEFS Annual Lecture 2016

Dr Fiona Stirling, Design Advisor at Architecture & Design Scotland, reflects on the BEFS’ Annual Lecture: Planning for wellbeing – How can the planning system contribute to wellbeing in a fairer Scotland?

The BEFS’ Annual Lecture asked ‘how can the planning system contribute to wellbeing in a fairer Scotland’. On the night we heard from Alex Neil MSP, Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice, Communities, and Pensioners’ Rights, Sir Harry Burns, Professor of Global Public Health, University of Strathclyde, and Nick Wright, Convenor of the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) Scotland.

Alex Neil MSP emphasised that a good planning system is fundamental to supporting wellbeing. He spoke about the current housing shortage as an example: that good quality housing is fundamental to closing the educational attainment, inequality and health gaps, and to maximising sustainable economic growth. To be effective, he suggested that planning needs to take better account of all the services and facilities needed to create a community.  For planning to succeed, it needs to work with communities and ensure that they are properly engaged in the system of decision-making.

Sir Harry Burns told us that wellbeing or wellness is a dynamic thing; it’s a state that we can move into and out of within a single day. A sense of purpose and a sense of control are important factors that enable people to respond to, and deal with the challenges of everyday life, as are the conditions and opportunities presented by the built environment.

Nick Wright advocated the role of planners in delivering healthier places. He emphasised the importance of mainstreaming decisions that create healthier places, of the need to better link spatial planning and community planning, of the benefits of approaches that support more genuine community engagement, and of the potential for planners to act as brokers.

We heard about some good examples, and the need to mainstream good practice; to move away from the current focus on land use and numbers to a system that is more pro-active about the sorts of place we want to create, and one that engages people at the heart of decision-making.  As a landscape architect, employed in the public sector and involved in the planning system, I agreed with much of what I heard.  And arguably the current policy context in Scotland supports a system which enables good practice to happen. However as Scottish Planning Policy states, it’s ‘People [that] Make the System Work’ (paragraph 5).

Perhaps unsurprisingly – given the title – we heard a lot about planning and the role of planners in particular.  But it struck me that achieving places that promote well-being and wellness is much wider than can be delivered by planners and the planning system alone. Sir Harry Burns reminded us that it’s a complex world out there and that we often fail because we try to simplify it too much. Planning and planners have a key role to play, but so too do public sector service planning, ongoing management and ‘place-keeping’, and wider private sector investment and decisions.

Planning successfully for wellbeing is about all of us – not just those involved in the planning system – making choices and decisions that help support and promote wellness. Nick Wright encouraged us to think beyond our defined job descriptions in order to help bring people together, to connect and to make things happen. This seems crucial; good places – places that promote wellness – seem most likely to be achieved through collaborative, inter-disciplinary approaches rooted in a firm understanding of people and places. It’s about understanding what exists, what works and why, what needs to change and adapt, and where new elements are required. That’s wider than the planning system.

With the Community Empowerment Act, and discussions on Land Reform and the Independent Review of the Scottish Planning System ongoing, it’s a particularly interesting time for the built environment in Scotland. Whatever decisions and changes might be on the horizon, in the short term, the main message I took away from the evening’s discussions was to think on a day-to-day basis: ‘what can I do to help make this a place that supports wellness?’. As Sir Harry Burns pointed out, lots of small changes can add up to something big!