Planning My Place

Consider a desert. Make that a featureless desert of endless sand dunes, each indistinguishable from all the rest.

Now, consider the opportunity you might have been given to take ownership of one small bit of this endless sea of sand. Let’s say you have been allocated 100 square meters to call your own. So you take out some pegs and place them on the GPS coordinates your friendly land authority may have provided. You rope off your bit from all the rest. Now stand in the middle of your kingdom. What, apart from these pegs distinguishes this place from the rest of the place within which it sits? If you took away those pegs, and your GPS, do you think you’d be able to recognise your particular place in the sand if you came back in a week or so? Probably not. There’s not much to feature your place as a Place apart from all the rest.

So, what makes a place a Place? Something with which to identify; something to make the place your Place. Maybe a home. Maybe just a tree. Or a termite mound. It doesn’t really matter if the only person who recognises your Place is you; what matters is the identity you build with that Place in your mind or in the minds of those with whom you might share that Place. Your Place might be a favorite camping spot beside a river; or a spot where you might have been thrown from your horse; or the Place separated from all similar Places by the presence of your workplace desk; or farm.

For years I have lived on a farm. This farm is like every other farm and there are farms adjoining farms as far as you can drive in a day. Of course, my farm is my farm; my farm is my Place. But my sense of place might only extend to our boundary fence without the presence of some kind of community space. Consider the village store. We have one of those. While the village store might belong to some person who calls that store his particular Place, the store is effectively a shared common ground across all those farmers within a half hour drive or so. This store is a bit like the shaded cross-over venn diagram core connecting a whole mess of otherwise separated Places. It is the hub of a wheel of Places that would otherwise barely connect. The spokes of this wheel are the journeys we all need to take to get to the hub, and back again.

The village itself is nothing but a collection of about ten houses relatively closer together than anywhere else in a neighbourhood of farms. If you came across this village, you’d probably not recognise it as such until you noticed the store. With the store in place, the local authorities agreed to locate a telephone box, a park bench, and a public amenities buildings all close by. There’s even a small church. People from outside the Place stopped for drinks. So the store keeper added a bar. And then they became a pub. A public Place. We who live around here identify ourselves to this Place (it’s called Wollomombi). When I am asked ‘where are you from’, I could give the name of my farm, but that would draw a blank. So I tell people I am from ‘Wollomombi’, despite the fact that getting there involves a 45 minute drive (or a one hour overland mountain bike ride). I live in a rural Place and the Place is identified by the presence of this village and the village is defined by the presence of it’s store.

It’s a curious thing, but there’s another Place within a 45 minute drive from where I live. This time, it’s an officially designated ‘city’ called Armidale. Instead of a village of 10 houses, Armidale is a Place where 20,000 people live and work. It even has it’s own university (as sadly managerialist blighted, tenth rate of a place). No one I know around where I live identifies with that city Place. Though there are plenty of journey spokes we all travel down to visit that particular hub, it’s such an alien urban Place that those spokes don’t really seem to connect from the Places on our rural rim. Our rural identities are sustained when we head off to the Wollomombi store. But when we visit Armidale, we have to get all dressed up and feel compelled to ‘citify’ our rural minds. There’s a real cultural divide to be negotiated when we travel into town. It’s a Place with its own cultural rules; its own protocols through which individuals engage. There are no traffic lights in the Places we Wollomombi people live! Or roundabouts; or regulated parking, or multi laned roads, for that matter. Despite its claims to be otherwise, Armidale is not a rural town. It’s just like any suburb of Sydney, or Tokyo. That Place is not my Place.

Yes, we all spend lots of money in that big city Place (in my case, mostly at the local bicycle store…). And that City Place keeps on delivering bills we rural people have to pay; particularly rates from the local Council (rates pay the salaries of those who levy the rates we have to pay via an endless wheel of otherwise worthless city-serving enterprise).

All of which leads me to an observation worthy of note. I once led a team of researchers (at that local university which, then, was much better than tenth rate…) who roamed far and wide asking people in all manner of Places what it was that they think made their place a Place. Because once we understand what it is that makes a place a Place we can then, and only then, start to imagine where that Place might be wanting to grow and go (or maybe just stay the same in a robustly resilient kind of way). Nearly everywhere we went we found that people had rarely, if ever, given such matters much thought. People identify with Places in very intuitive ways. Our job was to tease their thoughts out and share them about; to develop pictures of the Place with which the whole group could identify. The results were always, invariably, enlightening to those who took part. I never met anyone who thought the exercise to be a waste of time. Indeed, these collaborative conversations almost always helped to cement notions of Place to the point where identifying future pathways became almost automatic. We called this practical community-driven regional development planning. All we ever had to do was catalyse conversations around the notion of Place. The people would then take it from there. No bureaucrats need to be involved. No professional planners need to drive this kind of development machine. It’s low cost and ruthlessly effective.

Until the bureaucrats decide to intervene.

We seem to be living in an era of big ‘P’ Planning. Planning with credentials, sixteen levels of bureaucracy, procedures manuals and an ocean of policy through which to keep the entire show on its rails; linear, direct, command and control rails bound by policy steel. The planning my group sought to catalyse was small ‘p’ planning. Because the planning was handed over to the people who self-identified with their Places rather than to those from outside. The job for small ‘p’ planning is for Place-based groups to plan their interface with the bureaucracies with which they choose to strategically engage (to engineer the outcomes they decide to pursue).

The deal for big ‘P’ planning is entirely the other way around. There, the credentialed planners turn up and declare the rules of the game. A game which which the locals will probably never, ever, identify. The inevitable response is the over-priveliging of that local few who always volunteer to offer their views and demand the right to be heard on matters concerning mainly themselves. We all know the kind… I’ve heard these types described as the local ‘gazelles’. Those who take the running of local affairs. The problem here is that the Places these gazelles seek to represent are represented only by the impressions of Place that the gazelles hold for themselves. There is never any attempt to elicit a shared notion of Place. Or, indeed, who might actually identify with the Places involved.

All of which, in turn, contexts a process I am watching in this city Place next to the rural other Place where I live. I am watching a government sponsored regional planning process constituted through policy and implemented through bureaucracy. I am watching the head of our local university conversing with these big ‘P’ planning officials holding their inner sanctum regional Planning discussions with a view to delivering some kind of regional progress plan. This Plan will seek to ‘make’ the university locally relevant! They say. They will brainstorm a list of regional planning priorities and channel available funds and resources down funnels of their own exclusive design. The result will signify nothing and do nothing for anyone but them. Key performance indicators will be tick boxed off and notes duly noted in the official minutes. Money will be spent and no one will notice the difference. They’ll probably even erect a sign beside the main road. That’s big ‘P’ planning at work!

The worst thing to observe from this parable of mine is that it is all actually real. Regional planning really works this way. There’s a word for the big ‘P’ planning approach. That word is ‘managerialism’ (managing a world imagined as a machine). Managerialism is probably the most odious, obnoxious, dangerous and insidious disease facing the world today. Managerialism ensured the worst possible outcome from the Global Financial Crisis. Managerialism has given us sixteen layers of government through which to strangle every possible attempt for communities to self-articulate themselves. Managerialism, perversely, killed my local university research group from it’s community-endorsed small ‘p’ planning endeavours. Managerialism explains why our politicians can speak only in a language of platitudes and the convoluted non-sense of marketing spin. The machinery of governance is now too complicated to understand, let alone direct in any kind of meaningful way. The whole world of planning is now restricted to the one set of rails; a steel band of unbreakable connection between command and control all the way down the line.

And all of which, again, contexts my concern that the store in my local village has just shut it’s doors. There’s a store there no more. The houses are still there, so is the telephone box, and the church. The main road now by-passes a hamlet without any kind of public enterprise. What will happen now? Will the Place become a faded place and loose all our well trodden Place-making spokes? Or will the local bureaucrats turn their attentions to the Place and turn it into another kind of place through which to self-validate their master plan? It’s time for a local meeting, I think. Before the bureaucrats turn our Place into some place else rather than the Place of space with which the locals can continue to identify.