Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Can planners switch countries?

Whilst planning is many things to many people, in essence it is the management of people and places. It requires a strong understanding of place – whether this is the street, the neighbourhood, the city or the country. Professional planners must therefore always work within the rules, regulations and legal framework of a specific country (even if the regulations then diverge between regions and cities). This raises the question of whether planners can easily switch between countries to practice in. Architects commonly have international commissions and open offices in a range of countries. But if a planners’ strength is his/her knowledge of the local ‘planning system’ then how can this be transferred to a new country with alien processes? Whilst some planning systems share similarities in environmental regulation and ‘best practice’, many systems are rooted in the specifics of that locality. Can a UK planner ease into a similar job in France or the USA?

When picking up the phone to a London Planning Department there is a good chance you’ll be met with a broad Antipodean accent – suggesting the move is possible. But this might be something specific to the relationship between the British and Australian planning systems. Urban planning, like many professions in the built environment sector, aims to formulate ‘best practice’ (a horrible term I must admit!) in key areas and these should be transferable between cities of different nations. The promotion of active frontages on the ground floor of buildings is a good idea whether it be Madrid or Manchester.

I think the extent to which planners can switch between countries depends hugely on their specific role within planning. If one is talking about a planner who just provides dry advice on the specifics of the planning system and what is required to obtain planning permission, then perhaps that role is country specific. But if one thinks of a planner as an active agent of change that brings stakeholders together, then this should be a skill that can cross borders. But I fear that planning in Britain is becoming too dominated by the processes and the role of the planner is seen in bureaucratic terms, meaning that the possibilities for cross-border learning are narrowing.

Now, where was my passport…………


  1. Although I don't know much about planning as a profession, I would suggest that moving to an office abroad is an almost essential part of any ambitious planner's career. As with anything, staying in the same place for too long can become too comfortable and make the mind stagnate. I could imagine that the job could start to become repetitive, always having to adhere to the same rules and regulations and deal with the same types of organisations.

    While the ground work with becoming professionally competent in a different country may be that bit harder at the offset, I am sure it would always be worth it in the long run. It could be a real case of one step back leading to two steps forward. As you mentioned, there is no reason why excellent ideas from one city or country cannot be implemented abroad. If the individual has the right objectives, I am sure anything is possible!

  2. I completely agree Dan. Without disrespecting anybody who stays at one company for a lengthy period, it strikes me as unambitious - especially when young. Just being in a different environment (whether it be country or company) forces oneself to be pushed and to explore things from a different perspective which can only help in the long run.

    I am very interested by the concept of 'policy tourism' and the extent to which good ideas can transfer to different countries and hope to explore this in some further posts.