Soft infrastructure for hard times

Waimakariri District Council staff create interest in a draft long-term plan. Image: Waimakariri District Council. – In the Waimakariri District, a planner told the research team that it was important to have a “good communication team who experiment and who are not afraid to engage. We have a videographer on staff and we use those videos as a tool to engage. We also use Facebook and other social media. We’ll try new things. Like with high school students, we used pipe cleaners to design a local park. And we dressed up as Dr Seuss [characters] to raise awareness of the Long-Term Plan. The comms team want to help us achieve the results.”

It’s often said that the journey is as important as the destination; this turns out to be true also in disaster recovery, where a Building Better Urban Wellbeing team writes that the recovery planning process is as important as the planning objective.

In a recently published report, Soft infrastructure for hard times, the research team, Suzanne Vallance, Sarah Edwards, and Zohreh Karaminejad, from Lincoln University, and David Conradson, from the University of Canterbury, write that “a focus on the journey can promote positive outcomes in and of itself through building enduring relationships, fostering diverse leaders, developing new skills and capabilities, and supporting translation and navigation. Collaborative planning depends as much upon emotional intelligence as it does technical competence, and we argue that having a collaborative attitude is more important than following prescriptive collaborative planning formulae. Being present and allowing plenty of time are also key.”

The team investigate seven disaster recovery projects following the 2010 and 2011 Christchurch and Canterbury earthquakes, which involved the restoration, repair, and rejuvenation of both hard and soft infrastructure.

The researchers say that although their investigations are within a disaster recovery context, the lessons learned are widely applicable for any collaborative planning contexts.

The team offers an expanded understanding of what planning is, where it happens, and who is involved. They also suggest more attention be given to values, particularly in terms of their role as a compass for navigating the terrain of decision-making in the collaborative planning process, and offer a revised model of a collaborative decision-making cycle.

The revised model involves the inclusion of six elements: Exploring the issues and options; Co-developing a range of ideas and solutions; Monitoring the process; Co-select a composite range of state- and community-led solutions that can be implemented over different timeframes; Partial and iterative implementation; and finally Monitoring again the process and the planning outputs/outcomes.

Those who define a problem also tend to shape the possible solutions. There may be a series of problems but also a range of other issues and opportunities. This makes it important to invite those affected by decisions to be part of the problem framing. As an example, as one of their participants noted:

“The first new business in Linwood Village post-quake was a bottle store. For those who can’t afford to go to the pub, they need a place to drink safely. Why make it so easy to get alcohol then punish those who drink? So we have to reframe the conversation as not about ‘alcohol’ but ‘safety for everyone’. This leads to different kinds of solutions. If it’s about alcohol, the solution is an alcohol ban. If it’s about safety for everyone, it might lead to Māori Wardens.”

The researchers found that during collaborative planning processes, it was best to include state- and community-led actors and agencies in all stages of the process, from decision-making to implementation. “Start with ideas and a range of potential actions. Some long term and large like housing renewal and others small like moving a park bench.”

When monitoring the process (rather than the results of outputs including the plan or programme), the researchers suggest a number of criteria for success. If framed as questions, these are:

  • Are new leaders emerging?
  • Are different people taking responsibility and showing ownership?
  • Are new skills and capabilities being developed?
  • Is there evidence that information is being translated and shared?
  • Are new relationships (especially bridging and linking capitals) being built?
  • Are a broader range of people (not just ‘the-usual-suspects’) turning up with questions and suggestions?

The research suggests that during collaborative planning processes, select a mix of options, some of which “function to bring people together” and that “can be enacted by people locally”. For example, after a flood event, the Selwyn District Council provided emergency toilets, but told the Community Response Teams ‘You decide where they should go’. Set aside some contingent funding to help pave the way for implementation, but also mediation, conflict resolution, and community advisors.

Finally, the team recommends monitoring the results and outcomes of the plan, as well as monitoring the outcomes of the process: An important question to ask is ‘How will this process inform and shape future engagement’?

Read the report:

Vallance, S., Edwards, S., Conradson, D. & Karaminejad, Z. (2019). Soft infrastructure for hard times. Report for Building Better Homes, Towns and Cities Urban Wellbeing: Shaping Places: Future Neighbourhoods, 57pgs. Wellington: BBHTC.

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Date posted: 6 November 2019