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How do we discuss the ideas behind agile in urban planning?

Updated: Sep 20, 2023


This mini lesson provides starting points for practitioners that want to consider their use of language when discussing (parts of) an agile way of working in their practice. It also poses reflection questions. Are you not yet familiar with an agile way of working? We recommend you first familiarize yourself with it here.

 

"What if our language does not simply mirror or picture the world but instead profoundly shapes our view of it in the first place?"

- Fischer & Forester, 1993, p.1


The above quotation in the context of planning makes us think: how important is language and what role does it have in constructing reality? Can it be used as a tool to change it?


In prior posts, I have mentioned how the ideas behind an agile way of working resonate more with practitioners than the word 'agile'. I then questioned using the term because of misunderstandings and negative perceptions. Further, I suggested considering using wording such as a "people-centered" or "human-centered" way of working, in order to shift the focus to the concepts themselves: learning, iteration, experimentation, etc.


Agile ideas in urban planning


In the urban planning field, the ideas behind agile are gaining popularity. This is visible in the rise of tactical urbanism, and a push from many governments to transition to a sustainable mobility system quickly. However, active use of it has yet to near reaching a saturation point such in the IT fields. Given that use and perception of this way of working is still actively being shaped, and that as urban planning practitioners we play a part in this shaping, it is worth giving consideration to the language that is being used.


Where to start, then? Say for example, you are introducing the idea of an agile way of working an organization where you work that has a 'clean slate'. Do you choose to talk about agile from the perspective of software development, from the concept of tactical urbanism, or in another way?


The word 'agile' may have too much baggage to the point that some people see it as something that isn't agile at all. To the point where it becomes very distracting from its actual ideas and utility. In this case we may forget that its goal is to connect people, keep information flowing, and allow learning and growth. And importantly, that it is a tool for urban planning to work in line with its purpose, which as one practitioner with 60 years of experience stated:


“The ultimate role of the planner is to help a community become a better place”

-Bolan, 2016, p. 285


People. Photo by author.


The concept of tactical urbanism is "all about action". It is taking short term steps with low-cost materials in public space, in order to trigger longer term transformational change. This encompasses part of an agile way of working, and may apply to your case depending on its context.


Scope


As a professional, it is neither needed or perhaps desired to report on a full theory of what agile working is to colleagues, citizens, or an organization. Instead agile ideas may come up on a project or task level. In fact, discussing in this way is more incremental and agile anyways. 😉


In considering which language to use, prioritize what is understandable to whomever you are speaking to. Directly so, and concisely communicating your intended meaning. You can look for common ground that you are both versed in.


An example of a common threads that colleagues would be invested in and understand is people: thinking about people both in terms of the way of working and in terms of the community you're planning for. Another could be learning and iteration - we are learning about our communities, adjusting, and developing solutions to build the society we want to live in.


Perhaps the ideas are too diverse to be represented in one "vision" for urban planning. And instead, short threads such as these comprise a collection of characteristics and practices.


Language as creation


Given that our use of language contributes to shaping our view of the world, consider what worlds we are painting a picture of with these terms. Dwelling too much on details could lead to wasted time. However, the language that you don't think about may be passively shaping your vision. Consider: Which language can we use to shape the world that we are still looking for?


Reflection prompt: In which situations during your work as an urban mobility professional do you think benefit could be derived from an agile way of working?


References


Bolan, R. S. (2016). My 60 Years as a Planner. Journal of the American Planning Association, 82(3), 280–287. https://doi.org/10.1080/01944363.2015.1137779


Fischer, F., & Forester, J. (1993). The argumentative turn in public policy and planning. Durham: Duke UP.

 

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