Time to ‘decide and provide’

Can you imagine what your city will look like in ten, thirty, or fifty years? How will the community evolve, and which services will be mostly asked? No need to gaze into the crystal ball. This kind of questions are normally directed to city planners, who rely on different data sources and their expertise to develop land use plans and programs, accommodate population growth, and advise how to shape public services for better urban living.

‘Predict and provide’ is one of the conventional models for city planning. Basically, if you want to foretell the impact of a certain action, investigate what happened in the past under similar circumstances, and decide accordingly. The approach is specifically used in transport planning, where past traffic trends are leveraged to determine the future need for mobility infrastructures.

But transport planners are precisely the ones who highlighted the limit of this model: if your decisions are based on past behaviors, you are maintaining the status quo, thus perpetuating the historical dependence on cars that has been affecting cities for years.

New mobility habits are emerging after Covid-19, with people looking for more walkable communities and decentralised cities. The 15-minute city planning concept is taking off, together with a renewed idea of proximity. Should urban planners change their game?

In the UK, the Oxfordshire County Council is piloting a new approach, called ‘decide and provide’. The idea behind it is to define your preferred vision and then provide the means to work towards that, of course with some flexibility to accommodate the uncertainty of the future.

Oxfordshire aims at creating a net zero transport system by 2040. A few weeks ago, the council’s cabinet approved new requirements for transport planning that will discourage unnecessary private vehicle use and make walking, cycling, public and shared transport the first choice for people living and working in the area.

The ‘decide and provide’ approach will be acted when, for instance, planners acknowledge a certain scheme will lead to an increase in private cars. As this scenario should not be favored, they will be forced to find alternative solutions for quality, sustainable and active travel arrangements. In the medium-long run, the model should help the county council focus investments on inclusive, integrated, and sustainable transport networks.

Data are – and will continue to be – the necessary foundation for evidence-based decisions, but nowadays city planning should be driven by a far-sighted vision to act for the good of people and communities, improving wellbeing and setting the scene for future growth and development.

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