Posted March 7th 2014 at 3:14 pm by
in MIT and UTM

The Fundamentals of the Planner's Role

I went to Malaysia this past January as part of the Malaysia Sustainable Cities Practicum. I learned a great deal about Malaysia while I was there, but the trip also reaffirmed three things I strongly believe in as a planner.

1. The planner has an obligation to do good work. In Malaysia, change is happening so quickly, and on such a large scale, that a planner’s actions are really critical. By directing the pattern of growth through major transportation investments, FDI and tax policy, and public-private partnerships, planning is laying the foundation for at least the next twenty years, likely even longer. As a result, planners need to be very thoughtful about what they are doing. If they choose, they have the opportunity to skip over potentially problematic stages of development. For example, they could go to the car, but also to public transport as the dominant means of transportation, if they build the required infrastructure. In the US, a planner’s menu of options often feels very limited, because we are working with so much that is already built.  At the same time, however, planners in both the US and Malaysia both face resource constraints, political challenges, and difficulties effecting major cultural change.

2. The nature of the planner’s role is multidisciplinary. To be effective, planners in Malaysia need to understand the economics of real estate development and taxation, in order to address the influx of FDI and interface with the private sector; ecology, in order to consider challenges related to preservation and mangrove protection; and public policy, in order to understand how development will affect all members of Malaysia society. Generally, as a profession, planning requires an equilibrium between ‘broad’ and ‘deep’ knowledge.  It is not possible to know everything but it is important to know enough to ‘flag’ potential problems before they occur. This issue, how to strike the right balance between being a generalist and a specialist, is something that I think about often since coming to MIT.

3. The planner needs to be prepared to negotiate with the private sector. Private development is exerting a surprisingly strong influence in Malaysia right now. For instance, the government anticipates – indeed hopes – that private investors will lead the development of the key port of Johor. The Iskandar Regional Development Authority (IRDA), which oversees all development activities for the region, including the port, views its primary role as guiding private investment in ways that support Malaysia’s larger economic and social goals. To achieve the best outcome for the public sector, planners must be prepared to negotiate strongly with the private sector.  They need the economic expertise to concur with or refute private developers’ claims about the real economic benefits and costs of their projects. And planners need to make sure that private developers are actually delivering everything promised.  Currently, the Malaysian government does not rely on the use of exactions or impact fees, which could be useful tools for ensuring a balanced, sustainable path toward development. To ensure maximum public benefit, planners also need track what they are giving up and what they are getting in exchange from the private sector. This is something that we struggle with in the US, as well.

Post by Sara Brown

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