userGerman Working Group
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The future of planning


The challenges

The modern political and administrative system of spatial planning arose in the 20th century, initially in response to the ills of the industrial cities of the 19th century. In 1965, at the height of planning euphoria, the multi-level system of spatial planning in Germany was established, with limited federal spatial planning (Bundesraumordnung) and comprehensive planning at the federal state and regional levels. In spite of all crisis-related debates, it has remained remarkably stable to this day. During that time, not only have the methods and understanding of planning changed drastically, our society, economy, and state have undergone fundamental changes in the past 50 years which pose new challenges for integrative spatial planning.

What is also striking is that in contrast to the constancy of its organisational structure and its formally unchanged mission to regulate at both the federal and state levels, the political stature of spatial planning has diminished considerably. In basic policy debates with clear spatial planning relevance, for example about equivalent living conditions, the energy transition, demographic change or new forms of mobility, spatial planning actors are rarely or never seen. From a political perspective, spatial planning is in danger of becoming increasingly irrelevant in spite of its seemingly secure official existence and the great relevance of space-related challenges. There is also criticism relating to practical aspects such as extremely long processes, complex and inflexible plans in times of rapid change, and deficiencies in implementation.

The question thus arises as to whether the system of federal, state, and regional spatial planning can remain unchanged in the future. The political system as a whole is in a process of fundamental change in the 21st century. We are experiencing a crisis of liberal democracy and the growth of populist movements and autocracies. Widespread scepticism about government action, disenchantment with politics, and the propagation of ‘alternative facts’ are systematically calling into question the ideal of rational, scientifically-based planning. It almost seems as if policy is now being made more on Twitter than in parliaments. Today anyone can take unverified information from dubious sources and distribute it on social media, contributing to an extensive system of disinformation. Echo chambers and social bots create alternative realities in parallel societies online. What do the new technologies and social trends mean for participative processes based on a utopian concept of ideal discourse? Angry citizens and internet trolls are withdrawing from any kind of cooperation and compromise and thus from the foundations of balanced planning in the interest of the common good.

Thus far there has been virtually no debate about how spatial planning as a field of policy can adapt to these new realities, but such a debate will sooner or later become inevitable. The trends described also harbour opportunities for planning. Is it not the case that rational and participatory approaches to balancing interests and reaching agreements will be needed more than ever in the future? But how might they be organised given the changed conditions, and how can they be made more appealing to policymakers and the public?

Aims and intended outcome

The Working Group’s aims are to analyse the decline in significance of spatial planning as a field of policy, provide a critical appraisal of its current situation, including its obvious shortcomings, and to develop scenarios for alternative future ways of organising and orienting spatial planning at the federal, state, and regional levels. Even against the backdrop of current theoretical and societal debates, the focus will be on fundamental challenges and long-term perspectives. The objective is to consider planning for the ‘day after tomorrow’, and the political value of integrative approaches to responsible spatial development at supra-local levels in the 21st century.

The Working Group’s efforts will involve two phases. In the first phase, discussion forums (whose format is yet to be worked out in detail) will address the current situation of supra-local spatial planning and discuss potential scenarios in two or three workshops. With help from external ideas from other fields such as political science and futurology, and also from other countries, spatial planning’s internal perspective is to be expanded by views from outside the discipline. The main focus of this phase will be on questions related to the future of spatial planning: Where is spatial planning headed in an increasingly complex world? How relevant will spatial planning dedicated to the common good be in a world of hard-headed interests? What potential services could spatial planning provide in the political system of the future? 

During the second phase, in cooperation with planning practitioners and theoreticians, the results of the preceding phase will be used to develop scenarios in the form of a strategic outlook for the future of planning at the supra-local levels in Germany, to discuss alternative futures as a basis for action strategies, and to draw up recommendations for the future of planning.


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