Our planning system was supposed to be a tool for us all to use to help decide the future. It was supposed to bring decisions about the shape and character of our places into public view. It was supposed to form a bulwark against market forces for the sake of better places for us all.
The ability of our current system to live up to these ideals is fundamentally limited by its isolation from popular understanding. Public knowledge of the mechanics of planning – its rules, workings, processes, even its very function – is spectacularly low, and this communication failure will, if not addressed, cause the planning system to slip ever further away from its purpose and from its public.
‘NIMBY culture’ is perhaps an inevitable collective response to our current situation: when the tools to meaningfully effect or prevent change are obscure to us, blind opposition feels like the only way. It is also a powerful assertion of the public’s lack of faith in the planning system as a whole, of the fear that the system is becoming ever more impotent against market forces, ever more a dark art, accessible only to those with that magic combination of money, time and power.
Building Rights is intended as an intervention in this crisis of knowledge. It is an on-line resource of planning expertise that is user-generated, peer-reviewed and independent of the party-politics that tame and distort other resources. It is a place where the rules of what is built and what is not can be shared, tested and generated in public. It would like to be the Mumsnet of the built environment.
Rather than something that planners do, and to which the public are invited at highly orchestrated moments, planning must be reconceived as something that we all do when we need to, whether we are seeking to expand our home or our city, or to protect somewhere important to us. Nobody wants to ‘plan’ all the time, but when we need to, we really need to. We need ready access to the tools available, to best and worst practice, to tangible and legible examples and explanations. Using techniques and models borrowed from programmer communities like Stack Overflow, Building Rights hopes to open up this territory of anecdotal expertise and practiced example, to channel the know-how of the planner to where it is most needed, to make a systemic change in our access to planning knowledge through the incremental aggregation of question and answer.
The proposal of Building Rights is not for a single revolutionary change to the planning system, but an incremental, micropolitical one in which knowledge gradually shifts into the public domain through the actions of thousands of people, each of whom will be changing case law through their actions and, in knowing more about what planning is, becoming more able to demand more of what it could be. In this way they will be contributing to a much larger project, that of re-establishing planning as a popular practice.