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Storytelling in Spatial Planning has Never Been More Important

Storytelling in spatial planning has never been more important

With Regan Powell and Matt Davies.

As a communications and engagement professional in spatial planning projects, your role as chief storyteller is crucial. It’s not just about presenting information; it involves working with technical experts to explain the challenges, opportunities, and trade-offs that need to be considered in the future. Communities now expect more input into the future of their spaces, making your role even more essential for project success.

So, what is spatial planning?

Spatial planning is a fairly new process in New Zealand but is becoming more well known as councils across the country begin carrying out their own spatial planning processes.

Put simply, a spatial plan is a blueprint for a district, sub-region or region that provides the foundation for future planning and investment. It considers topics such as growth, housing, the economy, the environment, heritage, culture collectively and maps out the future spatial distribution of activities e.g. where growth should occur.

A spatial plan is the umbrella that sits across all other plans (transport plans, environment plans, economic wellbeing plans) and provides the overall direction for an area.

Last year, the Government passed The Spatial Planning Act 2023 as part of the resource management law reform requiring spatial planning at a regional level.

However, many local councils are getting ahead of the game and creating their own sub-regional and district wide spatial plans to map out what the future of their villages, towns and cities could look like in 30+ years’ time.

Getting the community involved

It is always tricky getting the community involved in a project that isn’t a new bridge, highway or community facility. People are generally concerned about the ‘here and now’ and it can be difficult to elicit meaningful feedback on something that is more than 30 years away.

That, and the fact that we are living in an engagement heavy environment where communities are frequently being asked for their feedback on various Council led projects and it is not uncommon to hear ‘I already told Council what I think, why hasn’t anything happened?’.

So, how do we create meaningful engagement in the spatial planning process? We tell a story – one that people want to be part of – and through that story we create a space where Council is able to work collaboratively with its communities to shape what the future looks like.

Storytelling and spatial planning in action

Engaging with the community to participate in the spatial planning process requires creative, effective, and simple messaging and the use of great tools. Luckily, we have a number of those at our fingertips for both online and face-to-face engagement.

In the online engagement space, useful tools include StoryMaps and Social Pinpoint which are used for gathering and sharing information in a way that is interactive and easy to understand.

Ahu Ake – Waipā Community Spatial Plan is a great example of where StoryMaps was used early on in engagement to help create an understanding about the purpose and function of a spatial plan and share a range of possible future scenarios with stakeholders and the wider community.

However, while digital feedback is important, face-to-face engagement (kanohi te kanohi), is still number one when it comes to really engaging with communities and having meaningful conversations. Even with the impact of COVID-19, people still value the opportunity to speak to decision makers and experts in person.

As part of the first round of engagement for Ahu Ake – Waipā Community Spatial Plan, the project team held 15 events in 11 towns and villages across the district where residents were able to share their ideas. A useful tool to help facilitate these discussions was a 5x5m floor map on which residents could take a ‘tour’ across the district and discuss the different issues and opportunities at play with councillors and staff.

Check out www.ahuakewaipa.nz for more information on how Waipā District Council is carrying out their spatial planning process.

Community input in spatial plans is vital

All good spatial plans at their core should be built on meaningful engagement with the communities about whom they are for.

Overcoming engagement challenges in spatial planning will require a combination of digital and face to face methods and above all, a great story that will take people on a visual journey, so they are able to see the change they are helping to shape.