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Planning in an unplanned place

Sunday, March 9, 2014

I am a young urban planner trying to find my feet in a largely unregulated system of land development. A look at our built environment will reveal that development falls roughly into three categories:
1. The buildings that are constructed brick by brick and are largely unregulated. Development is piecemeal and financed through an informal network of family and friends. 
Many within this category are unaware of the regulations and requirements of bodies such as the municipal corporations, the Town and Country Planning Division (TCPD) and the Environmental Management Authority (EMA) for land and building approval. 
For those that do, the constraints of their parcel of land may mean that they cannot conform to these requirement and a feeling of discrimination ensues. 


Emboldened by the general lawlessness of our society, others knowingly risk eschewing the rules for the sake of a better life for themselves and their families.


2. At the other end of the spectrum are those who have the capital to at least initiate and finance much of their development without relying on loans from financial institutions. 
If any illegal works do come to the attention of the regulatory agencies, these people are well placed to negotiate “ministerial relief,” with agencies under these circumstances largely functioning as a “rubberstamping” agency, “regularising” development they would not ordinarily approve.


3. Finally there are those that actually comply with the rules set by the regulatory framework. 
For the most part, it is these people in the middle who are squeezed most by its bureaucratic inefficiencies. For many in this category, agencies such as the TCPD are simply another administrative hurdle to cross in order to secure financing. In fact, the clandestine nature of our governmental agencies seemingly encourages an environment that easily facilitates corruption—some are even under the false impression that there are processing fees attached to development applications. 


Moreover, even within this category of built development, due to lax monitoring and enforcement, there are instances of developments being built that do not conform to the plans that were approved. The reasons for this status quo are already well known and well ventilated: institutional convolution, a centralised system, lack of capacity to enforce and regulate effectively, legislative loopholes and persistent political interference (sometimes well intentioned, but inevitably almost always tied to inappropriate short-term horizons). 


These factors have resulted in a development control system that is perceived as largely negligible, and of little consequence to many, save perhaps for being a bureaucratic nuisance from time to time. In a perfect world, wrong is wrong and right is right, but how can natural justice apply when so many in the society are implicit and tainted whether we want to accept it or not? 



Many do not know what they do, allowing them to hide behind a facade of ignorance, complicating the situation even further. Does this make them less culpable? The entitlement to do whatever we want with our “piece of land” is a powerful cultural urge that pervades all classes of citizenry. We as planners, old and young, have failed to adequately grapple with this mindset when approaching our jobs and, therefore, have not discovered meaningful ways to address with this ultimately selfish modus operandi. 


Quite plainly, the underestimation of this urge has been the greatest misstep of our profession in trying to maintain its relevance. So what should I do, call it a day and find a new career? Bury my head in the sand and endure within this broken system? Admittedly there are small victories and days when I feel I have helped people. However, if I were to accept my original premise that most built development occurs outside of the regulatory framework, has the tipping point already been breached? 


Look around again at your neighbourhood and the built development that you interact with on a daily basis. Do you see the connection between how we have settled and the everyday issues we deal with? The congestion, the flooding, the high food prices and many of the other issues that seem beyond our control are in actuality intimately interrelated to this failed experiment of condoned anarchy. 


Until these connections are instilled within the psyche of the general populace, no amount of legislative reform can help us.


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