The first lesson my fellow undergraduate coursemates and I were taught at university was that ‘planners do not plan towns’. A useful clarification, but what followed was arguably more noteworthy. It was explained that we had picked an exciting time to be involved in planning, even if we were not to be gifted a blank slate on which to design new settlements.
The significance and excitement of planning has only become more apparent to me since joining Deloitte Real Estate in September 2016.
My decision to study planning at university was, in hindsight, a slight jump into the unknown. It was only when completing work experience at a private sector consultancy just before starting university that I began to first understand the planning process. What first attracted me to planning, however, was my love of human geography, as well as a long-standing interest in cities and the buildings and streets which form them. From a young age I always enjoyed seeing the computer-generated images which preview how a new development will look, and my subsequent interest in how these developments came about provided just the incentive I needed to choose the subject.
My university course was a mixture of planning and urban design theories, as well as their practical application. The first year of my degree included an introduction to the history of urban form, lending some explanation to why cities look the way they do today. The year also introduced us to the social, environmental and ecological challenges which need to be addressed. The remainder of the degree focussed heavily on these challenges, whilst gradually covering more on the everyday practice of planning, with modules on planning policy and legislation. Several university trips allowed us to see first-hand some of the case studies we had looked at in class, including the New Town street formation in Edinburgh, and the famous Bijlmermeer development in Amsterdam. The opportunity to sample the local pubs and bars was of course also welcomed…
It would be easy to suggest that much of the theory I learnt at university has been irrelevant to everyday practice in the private sector, especially when much of it has been around for a considerable length of time. However, I have found that an awareness of planning theory has forced me to think more of the wider implications of the work I do on a daily basis. For example, the work we looked at by Jan Gehl, such as his book Cities for People (a personal favourite), has made me think more of how the spaces and projects I have worked on will be used by the people they are designed for. Similarly, the lessons from Kevin Lynch’s Image of the City (now more than 50 years old), can help understand the importance of ‘legibility’ (that is the way we recognise and use places) in major residential developments, and how residents will rely on landmarks to navigate their way around an area.
Learning from historic approaches, successful or not, to challenges, is helpful for me in what feels like an increasingly turbulent time for the planning and housing industry. Four months before I started at Deloitte Real Estate, London saw the arrival of a new Mayor, Sadiq Khan. His priorities were clear. His manifesto explicitly stated that his “…first priority will be tackling the housing crisis…”, and the influence of this priority is now evident, through the publication of policy documents such as the Affordable Housing and Viability SPG, and in the higher provision of affordable housing in residential planning applications since Khan came into office. This, combined with the political climate, meant that my first year was far from typical.
I have enjoyed the range of work I have been involved in, and every day seems to present a different range of tasks to complete. At one moment I can be working with colleagues to devise a strategy to secure permission for a large, complex development, and then the next I can be describing the inclusion of a ha-ha wall in a proposed residential development (although admittedly this has only happened once!). I have worked on vast residential schemes, temporary structures in Bloomsbury, historic estates in Greenwich, the major refurbishment of several university buildings, the redevelopment of underground stations, and much, much more. I have enjoyed my involvement in the very early stages of some of these projects, and look forward to seeing how they progress towards completion. Seeing the final, physical results of a project I have worked on is something I particularly like about working in this industry.
The abovementioned variety of projects I have been working on is particularly evident when considering their location in London. Whilst I have worked often on historic, listed buildings in Central London, I have also worked on several projects in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. The Central London work has introduced me to some of the issues that only historic buildings present, but also to space constraints; both horizontally and vertically (especially with the protected views which exist across the city). The projects in the Olympic Park, arguably some of the most exciting in London, will help deliver some of the much-promised Olympic Legacy, and to a certain extent do provide some of the ‘blank slate’ opportunities I never expected to experience.
My fledgling career to date has shown exactly what was meant by my lecturer when they explained that it was an important but exciting time to be in the industry. It is clear the delivery of housing is a crucial issue, and it seems concerns related to climate change are likely to worsen in years to come. However, it is not all doom and gloom, as new technologies will, for example, dramatically alter house-building (e.g. 3D printed homes and flat pack style homes built off-site), and will make us rethink how streets are used (e.g. self-driving cars and ‘smart cities’). Whilst it is not clear how these new challenges will play out, the role of planning in addressing them is unquestionable. What an exciting prospect!