Careers Advice: The art of clearly communicating planning terminology

Written by: Dr Laura Alvarez
Published on: 9 Sep 2019


Overall, communicating well is a matter of common sense. One of the main issues planners face on a daily basis is the necessity to convey technical constraints and planning restrictions to non-technical individuals who are also very involved in the planning process. Residents, community groups, councillors and committee members have a significant, active role in decision-taking, yet planners often find it difficult to communicate with accuracy but without sounding too technical. 

Other fields however, have managed to break this language barrier. Take the case of those in the medical profession. Over time, NHS staff have mastered the art of explaining complex processes, facts and statistics to the layman. Maybe planners can take a leaf from their book. Observe how GPs and nurses are experts at explaining what really matters to the patient, instructing them how to behave in ill health situations without going into the scientific details:

“You will not be able to drive when you are taking these tables because they might make you drowsy.”

“You will feel tired and thirsty, that is quite normal when you have a virus. But if your temperature raises and your blood pressure lowers, please call an ambulance.”

NHS staff are so good at explaining because they put an emphasis on what really matters to the patient. They focus on what will make a difference to their daily routines and the changes they need to make during the treatment period. Planners could potentially communicate in similar ways, transferring planning implications on to everyday routines both during and after construction.

Not long ago, I worked on a case where residents were concerned about the impact of new housing on road traffic. The issue was raised at a public consultation event where local officers answered as follows: 

“Transport appraisals for peak hour conditions show that congestion would not be above acceptable levels for residential areas. We have provided one access point every 50 homes in line with the city standards.” 

Understandably, residents did not comprehend what ‘acceptable levels’ meant, what the relevance of the 50 homes mark was or how this was answering their question. Frustrated, consultees felt their local authority did not represent their interest. Rather than quoting technical analysis it would have been more helpful to focus on what the development meant to people on the ground. A much better response would have been along these lines: 

“At the council, the team used a computer simulator to do robust tests. The results showed that queues will not be longer than they are now because we have provided various access points to the development, so not everybody will be trying to get in through the same main road. Traffic will not be better, but it will not be worse than it is now. During construction, in the summer, it might be a bit busier and noisier.”

A direct, clear statement that does not overpromise is always preferable. People appreciate honesty and transparency, and they would rather hear the truth about imminent development. Using this type of modest terminology is not that difficult but it is a cultural change that has been overdue in planning for a while. 

Overall, communicating well is a matter of common sense. No one ever expects that planners should sound highly technical; this is not a requisite to being professional. In fact, professionalism lies in the art of safeguarding places from ill-thought or unscrupulous development, striving for equitable, inclusive place-making and promoting best quality places for all to enjoy. The job of a planner is ultimately to deliver a sound, consistent and transparent service to their communities.

Dr Laura Alvarez is senior principal urban design and conservation officer at Nottingham City Council