Town Planning Services: Perception and Relationships – The Dilemma of Practitioners

A paper delivered by Fola Arthur-Worrey at the Assocoation of Town Planning Consultants of Nigeria Workshop on Professional Development,

8th May, 2019, Lagos


My topic today, “Town Planning Services: Perception and Relationship, the Dilemma of Practitioners”, is one I struggled with in terms of what exactly I was supposed to address, especially since I am not a town planner, but linking it to the main theme of this conference, “Professional Services and Practice, the Ethical Dilemma”, I decided to explore it from the perspective of whether planning serves the public interest, what the perception of town planning is generally in the eyes of said public, and how you might possibly tackle the dilemma often faced in attempting to resolve the conflicts between competing interests that often arise in the practice of your profession.

Planning theory has tended to treat planners as though they operated in a vacuum, with little account taken of the sociopolitical, cultural and economic contexts in which such activities are embedded. The reality is that planning, as a form of state intervention in land and property development administered at the local level, is inevitably subject to the pressures and vagaries of governmental and societal change.

Over the years, as citizens have more and more been subjected to the effects of changing planning policies and rules, many of them disruptive of their lives (as, for example, when a street which was designated low density residential is suddenly redesignated as commercial, or when a community is uprooted by demolition to make way for a bus terminal or shopping mall), fundamental value questions have arisen concerning the role and purpose of planning and, in addition, whether it is always done in good faith and in the public interest, or whether outcomes are largely influenced by political, private economic or relationship interests, rather than professional.

So the issues arising appear to be: what are the different obligations which at various times influence the individual planner’s behavior or actions, and how do these correlate with the changing nature of planning and the consequent implications for contemporary conceptions of the public interest? How do we resolve the competing tensions of contemporary practice as viewed from the perspective of the obligations owed to individual values, professionalism, employing organisations, politicians, and the public?

Some argue that the decisions involved in town planning are inherently political, rather than technical; that there are no objective or best solutions to the problems that planners commonly encounter in managing change in the built environment. Instead, these people contend, there are a series of competing claims and interests which are balanced and judged politically, or emotionally rather than technically, e.g., political benefits or costs of demolition to allow for a public development such as a road or hospital, or redesigning an area to reward political allies (or in the days of military rule, where a military administrator will order a redesign of an area to satisfy an ‘oga’s’ demand for land in a prime area) or planning for self or group interest.

We have to concede that planning as a profession has always exhibited characteristics which have set it apart from the older or more traditional professions. First, it is an activity embedded in the state bureaucracy and the overwhelming majority of practitioners are employed by the state. Second, there is no clearly identifiable client except in a general collective sense. Third, planners as mostly paid employees have obligations to their employers, giving rise to the possibility of a conflict of interests between the exercise of their independent and autonomous professional judgment and the corporate or political wishes of their employing authority.


One thing is clear though….despite the tensions and contradictions, planning authorities and practitioners have to accept one basic truth: the legitimization of planning rests on the proposition that state intervention in land and property development is necessary to safeguard the public interest against private and sectional interests. Of course, as we have noted, what constitutes public interest has always been contentious but its value as a legitimizing concept cannot be ignored; indeed practitioners have always taken comfort in the assumption that their actions are justified through their association with furthering the public interest. But that is why serious efforts must be made to push back against the increasing tendency of the public, however configured, to challenge whether the state is actually acting in the public interest in terms of some of its planning decisions as this attitude has the potential to undermine the legitimacy of the process.

Some observers take the view that ‘public interest’ is increasingly used by government as a device to mystify rather than clarify. To them, the term is often used as a device to cast an aura of legitimacy over final resolution of policy questions where there are still significant areas of disagreement. To them it is therefore merely an expression of approval or preference for a particular policy, and consequently cannot be used as a standard either by those who make policy or by those who evaluate it. But what concept then would these critics have us apply to the resolution of the question of what standard or guiding philosophy we should apply to planning decisions? In my respectful view, there seems to be no apparent, all embracing ‘other’ than public interest. It is rather how this concept is applied in decision making that causes the friction rather than its essential validity.

As Flathman stated in his paper on planning and the public interest:

“Determining justifiable government policy in the face of conflict is central to the political order….The much discussed difficulties with the concept [of the public interest] are difficulties with morals and politics. We are free to abandon the concept but if we do so, we simply have to wrestle with the problems under some other heading”.


There are no absolutes in defining what amounts to public interest, but I believe it is incumbent on governments and practitioners to try as much as possible to resolve the conflict in a manner that at least appears to be in the public interest and is as justifiable, fair and compassionate and non-disruptive as possible, and on the other side of the coin, critics must realize that progress involves fundamental change and that sacrifices will have to be made from time to time, also in the public interest. But these sacrifices will need to be mitigated in a realistic compensatory and beneficial manner.

Of course, other interests may use the same public interest argument to justify non-action by the state and its planning institution, as for instance where government wants to clear a slum and repurpose the land for better and healthier living and an NGO argues that it is NOT in the public interest to do so because many people will be dislocated, businesses and livelihoods will be disrupted, and traditional communal bonds will be broken. This argument is often strengthened by the historical experience of such exercises where the interests of such communities were often ignored, promises of resettlement or speedy compensation broken, and the new development ultimately others not of the community, or in many cases becoming worse than the old. We’ve seen this in Maroko, for example, and in many other cases. It is therefore important, as I have said, that the claimed public interest reveals itself clearly in the way planning exercises are carried out and in the final outcomes.



There is also the question of whether planning outcomes are the result of value-neutral inputs into the decision/policy-making process, or whether within organisations or institutions concerned with planning, wider trends in society and the state confront individual values and particular professional cultures, whether relationships and the obligations attached to them affect outcomes, or whether shared beliefs and values, e.g., religion, impact on the process, as for example, where there is a choice between turning an open space into a park with accessibility to all, or into a religious or commercial space, which necessarily excludes some members of the public.

A striking feature of planning, in contrast to the traditional professions of law and medicine, is the range of obligations planners must take into account in their daily activities. Richard S Bolan of the University of Minnesota identifies eleven ‘moral communities of obligation’ as follows: self; family; friends; employer; clients; colleagues; the profession; the local community; the nation-state; past generations; and future generations. Bolan’s purpose was to set out the framework of influences which might shape the ethical foundations of an individual’s actions in planning practice, but I think he leaves out a critical element: obligations to politicians or political heads. This is vitally important because tensions between political objectives and professional judgments have become more prominent in recent times and are giving rise to significant ethical and choice dilemmas and impacting on public interest.

So I have decided to create my own set of categories of obligation as follows: individual values; the profession; the employer; politicians; friends; family or associates; and the public, to me the most important category.

And what about the public interest? How is that determined, and whose interest are we really protecting? This is important because the rhetoric of serving the public interest is central to the folklore of planning, and for individual planners, this overriding obligation is very much taken for granted as part of what it means to be a professional, especially for those working in the public sector.

But as we all know, what constitutes the public and its wants, needs or interests, is problematic. Society is not monolithic but pluralistic. For a planner therefore, his or her claim to a distinctive professional expertise is based on his or her ability to be synoptic in an effort to harmonise the pluralism to arrive at a wise and fair policy decision, taking all views and relevant information into account.

But sometimes, this attempt to be wise and fair is problematic because, first, not all relevant information is available and readily to hand, and in particular, poor or other disadvantageous groups might not be in a position to state their claims and make their voices heard. To quote Keating, a social scientist:

“The key question in policy is not…..the tastes or desires of individuals but the distribution of resources (land) and services among groups…These questions can be resolved in broad political forums, and outcomes legitimized through a concept of solidarity and community interest; or they can be fought out in a pluralist setting. In both cases, outcomes will reflect differences in power and access (political influence);

But we must be aware that any attempt to resolve the tension between individual tastes or economic status and so-called public interest must take account of the times in which we live and the political or constitutional or social structure that we operate under. For instance, what are the effects on planning policy of a constitutional revenue sharing order that compels states to seek any opportunities they can for an increase in internally generated revenue (even if that disrupts ‘public interest’ planning), or the consequences of the emphasis on market driven economic policy, consumerism, individual freedom and the erosion of any concept of a public interest which is inclusionary and reformist?  In a state like Lagos for instance where most of the revenue generated goes into the national treasury – VAT, company income tax, port charges and customs duty – planning becomes a vital source of revenue (which is why we fought so hard to have the supreme court declare it an exclusively state function) which may influence policy as in the preference for a large commercial development which would create tax paying employees rather than, say, a remand home for boys, or might compel the planners to ignore the pressure a new high-rise block of flats may place on existing public utilities in the neighbourhood.

And with modern elite interests redefining concepts of life-style involving the move from the traditional communal space and family house model, generally not planned in the technical sense, but based largely on cultural norms of inclusion, to the more aspirational, privacy-based nuclear, and therefore smaller, household, the whole philosophy of planning for all is necessarily under pressure. That is why some analysts, both here and in other countries, posit that although town or city planning ostensibly concerns itself with general social needs, in actuality it is planning for certain people only: the planner himself or herself and his close associates, his or her professional supporters, and the upper middle class and wealthy citizen in general. Insofar as the planner is seeking to create the kind of city or town he himself likes, he is planning for himself and his social or political peers.

For some planners, such dynamics present an ethical dilemma: a planner may be, by virtue of his background and social values, sympathetic to the interests of those in less influential classes and whose interests may have to take second place in a planning proposal or review. Such citizens may be asked to surrender land which they have occupied for decades (often without formal title), even generations, but which is desired by the elite to be turned into a high-brow estate, or by the state as a right of way for a proposed highway, or a five-star hotel. What can the planner do in these circumstances where his conscience is troubled by this type of situation which results in tension between his own concept of right or wrong and/or good or bad and those of his or her senior officers, political masters or the organizational culture as a whole? Truth be told, ethical behavior is mostly situational and not deterministic. Acting on principles depends upon an assessment of the circumstances of the particular situation and not simply applying a set of hard-and-fast prescriptive rules. In such circumstances, a practitioner may be satisfied that he or she has argued a case as forcefully as possible, and then concedes that in the end others (whether senior officers or elected/appointed politicians) carry ultimate responsibility for the decisions taken.


The general, often ill-informed, perception of town planners in Lagos and other Nigerian cities, apart from maybe Abuja, and their impact on city planning is a negative one. You hear comments like: “The city is unplanned”, “I don’t know what these planning people are doing”; “Why have they approved a night club on my street”. Of course many of these commentators hardly ever take part in any of the pre-plan discussions, even when it concerns their neighbourhood, though I have to say that more efforts need to be made in getting more people involved in the process. A letter of invitation to each resident or business within an area being considered for redesign dropped at each premises would be a simple and straight forward way to broaden participation, even among our observer-elite. When my street was converted from serene residential to commercial, I had no clue. It often seems that we do planning by stealth.

Another complaint is that towns and cities have no defined structure, no central square, no accessible bus terminals, no designated places for particular activities, too many slums and informal settlements, poor placement of certain structures such as markets, churches, mosques, petrol stations, motor parks and events centers, which add to congestion and traffic woes. It is sometimes difficult to appreciate just what planning philosophy is at play in Lagos, Ibadan, Onitsha or Kano, or whether there is any serious planning at all. Mushin for instance is difficult to define, as is Bariga, or Ojodu. The planning, where it exists, seems to encourage congestion and squalor, and the narrowness of the roads just adds to the difficulties. It often appears that the different departments of government that ultimately impact on the environment: planning, works, and environment, operate in independent silos, with no synergy amongst them.

It must be recognized however that planners also have to contend with a very difficult and challenging planning environment. Many Nigerian cities, towns and settlements had been established long before the concept of modern planning took root (though some towns like old Benin were well laid out with areas properly designated for certain activity) and would require a herculean effort, a change in culture, and mass dislocations of communities to reform and redesign them into modern spaces. This is compounded by the level of immigration, particularly with the severe security and economic challenges we face at the moment, and such immigration pushes up population figures and encourages the mushrooming of informal settlements with their lack of sanitation and environmental insult.

And we must accept that we are still a poor third-world country with very limited resources and a continually devaluing currency, coupled with limited internal engineering capacity. Planning is just the first stage of the process of modernizing and managing a built environment. You then need huge resources to do the actual physical transformation which depends a lot on foreign input, and there are so many areas needing attention.

But generally, the perception of town planning is not a positive one (except for those who benefit directly), and there is growing public disaffection with the planning system. The process of obtaining planning approval is excruciatingly slow and very expensive, acting as a disincentive to investment, and the number of allegations of impropriety, misconduct, favouritism and out-and-out corruption in the operation of the planning mechanism is cause for concern. There is also clearly a need for the authorities to be more active in addressing planning violations. The reluctance of them to act in many cases, the way they seem to turn a blind eye to blatant non-compliance, even after formal complaints, is dispiriting and encourages the perception that things are exchanging hands under the table or that politics and favouritism is trumping due governance. The number of collapsed buildings is an embarrassment. Is it a capacity problem or a relationship one?

In Lagos, people wonder why there are insufficient parks and decent public open spaces where people can just hang out or skateboard or roller skate, and why access to the beach on one side, and lagoon on the other is now severely limited by private control. We have boat regattas, but nowhere to stand and watch them. And the Bar Beach which everyone used to enjoy is almost completely barred to the public. There is limited space for normal social activities such as angling or just sitting in a waterside park and relaxing, everywhere is privately owned or commercialized, with limited access only on payment. The old and wonderful Ikoyi Park where every social group used to gather for picnics gave way to the ultra-elite Park View Estate. The aquatic assets of the city that ought to be and used to be accessible to all for their leisure, have been captured, adding to the neurotic conditions of many inhabitants denied the calming proximity of the water. Everywhere you look are noisy events centers. There is a lot wrong that needs to be corrected, in the public interest.


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