The value of planning: How to rebuild trust in the democratic process and show that good planning has value and is valuable

Posted October 23, 2019

  • State government

Article based on a presentation given at the University of Melbourne Value of Planning Symposium, 22 Oct 2019.

The photo below is one I took outside Melbourne’s Treasury building during the global climate rallies in September 2019. In this photo (and some of my other photos), the posters say:

  • Stop denying, stop lying, start trying, before we’re all frying
  • Ignoring science, that’s a paddlin’
  • Unlike our government these kids respect truth
  • Denial is not a policy
SGS Economics and Planning the value of planning phoebe harrison

Australian's have become more distrustful of democratic processes

Satisfaction with Australian democracy is at its lowest level since 1996. [1] From 2007 to 2018, Australians’ trust in politicians decreased from 86 to 41%. [2] Despite 25 years of economic growth, Australians have become ‘more distrustful of politicians, sceptical about democratic institutions, and disillusioned with democratic processes.’ [3]

This leads me to ask:

  • What tools can we use to get things done, and
  • How can we rebuild trust in Australian democratic institutions?

To answer these questions, I suggest that cost-benefit analysis and knowledge sharing are two distinct tools that show that planning is values-based, has value, and is valuable.

How can we value things?

'Good organisation and harmony in urban governance can bind the populace in common purpose, deliver prosperity and security'. [4] But to those outside the profession, how can we demonstrate this? And how can we convince the people in my image, that we’re doing anything at all?

The planning process is powerful. And, planning has value. In fact, the pay off for good planning is high – and the benefits far-reaching. Unfortunately, as a values-based profession, planners often struggle to demonstrate the economic, social and environmental benefits of our work outside qualitative terms.

Cost-benefit analysis is a tool for communication that shows us how planning pays off. Planners know the many benefits of a local, walkable neighbourhood, having access to work nearby, with shops and open spaces close to home. In fact, we can assign a dollar value to these things:

  • The Productivity Commission says the value of better functioning cities and towns is about a $29 billion increase in GDP in the long-term, supported by land use and planning policies. [5]
  • Walking infrastructure delivers a $13 benefit for every $1 spent. [6]
  • Increasing the level of walking connectivity by just 10 per cent would increase the value of Melbourne’s Hoddle Grid economy by $2.1 billion a year. [7]
  • If 50 per cent of short private-vehicle trips were instead made by walking, it would save the Victorian economy approximately $165 million a year in congestion, health, infrastructure and environmental costs. [8]
  • The growing, avoidable social cost of congestion for Australia’s eight capital cities is may reach $31.4 billion by 2030. [9]
  • The City of Melbourne’s new transport strategy would benefit the Victorian community by $870 million over 10 years. [10]
  • Car share programs in the City of Sydney outweigh costs by a factor of 19, had a net present value of $203.26 million, and most benefits were related to the cost-saving associated with deferring car purchases ($171.86 million on its own). [11]
  • In the US, a study found that for every US$1 spent on planting and maintaining trees in Californian cities, there were US$5.82 in benefits. [12]
SGS Economics and Planning walking in the hoddle grid Melbourne

Match the communication tool to the context

Planning doesn’t typically ascribe standard values to its ideals. Depending on our audience, this can expose us to value judgements or undermine an otherwise persuasive argument. It can make important projects appear soft, despite a sound evidence base. Using a cost-benefit analysis approach, we can list out our benefits and disbenefits, then assign (cold, hard) dollars to planning values.

In this process, time (spent or saved) has a value. Access to jobs, open space, high amenity places: these things can be valued. Our open space won’t lose out to a road if we can frame the benefits by speaking the right language for the right audience.

What is an hour of time spent in public open space actually worth? What is the value of getting to work in 30 minutes instead of 60 minutes? We can use cost-benefit analysis to reveal the better option, with a greater pay-off - that is, testing scenarios to evaluate our options.

A base case can be valued and compared to the value of time spent in open space. If that space also has a variety of activities on offer – running tracks, sports fields, play and gym equipment - then the approach lets us test the value of a mix of things. Against that, we can measure our willingness to pay.

The cost-benefit analysis also helps us understand redistributive benefits. It distils crucial information into a language we can understand. The variety of options available to us have a value. It shows:

  • what’s efficient
  • who benefits
  • whether we can afford to redistribute the benefits, and
  • compensate those that miss out on direct benefits.

What other tools are available?

The cost-benefit analysis should be seen as one tool in the belt when we’re trying to communicate that planning has value and adds value. Planning has much to offer the process to rebuild trust in institutions in Australia. There is a real opportunity for knowledge-sharing and coproduction of preferred future scenarios.

In many projects throughout my career, we have sought to engage the public in our work, seeking feedback on reports and recommendations, attempting to involve people and local expertise in planning outcomes. There is evidence that engagement can help share power, to enable people to become involved and be custodians of planning decisions through a form of deliberative democracy. However, with trust in the engagement and planning process diminishing, I have also often experienced open disdain from the public when seeking to identify a preferred outcome. This erosion of trust and decrease in people’s belief that planning can get anything done worries me. When people say plans 'end up on a shelf', what they might be saying is, planning is ‘process and not outcomes’.

Planning offers us an opportunity to intervene in market forces and consider what outcomes might benefit the most people. There are several values in planning decision-making which underpin the planning system. [13] Those values matter deeply to people and places, despite the difficulty of qualifying them in monetary terms. I think many people are ready to do things differently.

My proposition is that opening up institutions, and knowledge sharing can help us do that. Because values still matter deeply. I propose this is a counterpoint to cost-benefit analysis.

Davoudi says, ‘if we readily and uncritically appropriate the discourses of [market] rationality and mimic its ways of…measuring values, we risk embedding the rationality itself deeper and deeper into everything we do, including our planning research agenda.’ [14] We need the community to help establish what the politics of value really are, to define what value is, and how we encompass that in our planning project. [15]

I’m not arguing for a disingenuous process of participatory planning of the inform kind. [16] Rather, I'm arguing for deeply embedding processes such as citizens’ juries and participatory budgeting. These approaches require genuine power-transfer, deep knowledge sharing and real co-creation of decisions. Bottom-up approaches – especially when implemented with the help of local government - have had success in Australia. See citizen’s jury and participatory budgeting processes run by Canada Bay City Council in NSW, the City of Melbourne and the City of Darebin in Victoria, and the South Australian government, among others. [17]

Where to from here?

'In the context of planning for climate change, cities are centre stage:

  • They are the villains - producing over 70 per cent of greenhouse gases
  • The victims - where a majority of the world’s population live and are exposed to increasing risks, and
  • The agents of change - where mitigation and adaptation solutions are being created and implemented.' [18]

Returning to my climate-rally photo and beyond, people are ready for proactive engagement. We need that for a transition to occur. Change driven from the bottom-up will drive urban resilience. I do believe we need stronger institutions to support this. However, looking at the people in the photo, I also believe that with the right communication tools we can achieve a lot right now.

— Phoebe Harrison


[1] Museum of Australian Democracy (MoAD) and the Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis at the University of Canberra (UC-IGPA), Democracy 2025 (2018), URL:[2] Ibid. [3] Ibid. [4] Spiller, M., 2011 Value of planning in Dublin and Melbourne [5] Productivity Commission. Shifting the Dial: 5 Year Productivity Review, Inquiry Report, August 2017, URL:[6] Arup and Walking Victoria in DELWP Creating a more liveable Melbourne https://www.planmelbourne.vic....[7] SGS Economics of Walking[8] Arup and Walking Victoria
[9] Productivity Commission. Shifting the Dial, 2017. [10] Deloitte Access Economics, 2019[11] SGS 2012 City of Sydney value of car share program CBA https://www.cityofsydney.nsw.g...
[12] Cited in the Melbourne Urban Forest Strategy but from this study:[13] Davoudi, S, ‘The value of planning and the values in planning’, in Town Planning Review, 2016 87(6): 618. [14] Ibid. [15] McAuliffe, C. and Rogers,D, ‘The politics of value in urban development: Valuing conflict in agonistic pluralism,’ in Planning Theory, 2019 18(3): 300-318. [16] Arnstein, S., ‘A ladder of citizen participation’, in Journal of the American Institute of Planners, 34(4), 1969: 216-224. (And many others since this paper!) [17] Fenton-Menzies, D., Review of participatory budgeting 2018 process, Magical Learning Pty Ltd, 2018. [18] Newton, P., Bertram, N., Handmer, J., Tapper, N., Thornton, R., and Whetton, P., ‘Australian Cities and the Governance of Climate Change’ in Tomlinson, R and Spiller, M. (eds.) Australia’s Metropolitan Imperative: An agenda for governance reform, 2018: 193:210.

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