13th AESOP Heads of Schools meeting: reflective account by Simin Davoudi.

Guest author: Simin Davoudi, Professor of Environmental Policy and Planning, Director of GURU, Newcastle University. 

On the 20th of April 2018, the City and the University of Newcastle welcomed about 100 delegates representing over 45 universities from across Europe and beyond to the 13th AESOP Heads of Schools Conference.

We were delighted to be the first planning school in the UK to host this event, and to do so in a year when we are celebrating the 25th anniversary of our research centre, Global Urban Research Unit (GURU).

On a personal level, hosting the conference meant a lot to me because the inaugural meeting of the Heads of Schools took place during the first year of my presidency of AESOP in 2006 in Bratislava.  Twelve years on, these meetings have gone from strength to strength and become a key forum for exchange of ideas and experiences about planning education and research.

The Newcastle conference was very well received especially because of the quality of the speakers and the discussions that it generated. Following from a great introduction by Professor Suzanne Cholerton, our Pro Vice Chancellor for learning and teaching, we heard an inspiring speech by Professor Patsy Healey, the founder of the first planning research centre in our school which later became GURU. Patsy talked passionately about her experience of leading a planning school and mobilising its research agenda.  Many of the points that she raised in her talk were picked up in subsequent discussions in four panels as well as the closing remarks by our Head of School, Professor Adam Sharr.

We asked panel speakers to reflect on issues that are at the heart of planning education and research; issues that most planning schools in Europe are grappling with.  The plenary panel focused on the challenges and opportunities of leading or being involved in an interdisciplinary planning school.

I am going to use this Blog to share my own reflections on this theme, which has long defined planners’ soul-searching for disciplinary identity and will, undoubtedly, do so for the generations of planners to come, including AESOP young academics community. It is about a question which John Friedmann asked exactly thirty years ago and I, along with my colleague John Pendlebury, revisited in 2010 in our centenary paper for Town Planning Review: what is planners’ unique competence that no other discipline can legitimately claim as their own? What distinguishes planners from geographers, architects, environmental scientists or professional mediators?

The usual answer to these questions is that planning lacks a disciplinary foundation as such; that its intellectual basis is exceptionally flexible and fluid; and, that it draws on other disciplines whose relative significance changes all the time.  Another typical answer is that planning is interdisciplinary but this answer does not go into the details of how to define a discipline.  There is also some confusion about the difference between inter-disciplinary and multi-disciplinary.

This lack of clarity and acknowledgment of the epistemological challenges of engaging in integrative knowledge construction has meant that the unconditional addition of new subjects to planning education over the years has been justified and even celebrated in the name of interdisciplinarity.  The results are mixed. At its best, it has enabled planners to look at problems from different perspectives and cultivated collaborative values in planning processes. At its worst, it has led to what Mike Batty called a layer cake approach to planning curriculum; an instrumental picking-and-mixing of subjects from other disciplines, and from competing and sometimes conflicting epistemic communities.

In many countries, planning education has been extended to adapt and respond to the growing expectations from it.  This adaptive approach, which has been useful for its survival, has come at the cost of a vaguely defined and diffused intellectual foundation.  The knowledge base of planning now covers physical design traditions, a multitude of social science theories, natural and environmental sciences and engineering.  With all its benefits, this approach also presents a risk of further overlap, diffusion and fragmentation of planning discipline.

The Heads of Schools Conference provided us with stimulating ideas and thoughts but, I believe the real impetus for energising the debate and digging deep into planning’s underlying epistemological, methodological and ethical issues lies in the AESOP Young Academic community. That is where we need to look for novel and imaginative ideas, going forward.


Simin Davoudi

Professor of Environmental Policy and Planning

Director of GURU

School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape, Newcastle University

Past President of AESOP

For a detailed account of Simin Davoudi’s work, follow the link to her staff profile at the Global Urban Research Unit (GURU), Newcastle University.

Photo gallery of the event:


Davoudi_AESOP Heads of Schools Meeting 2018 NCL UNI_20180726_smaller

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Building Ourselves Fat

Guest author: Jo Ellis, Blue Kayak and Northumbria University. 

We all know that it’s bad to be too fat, don’t we? Voices on every side tell us so, particularly those of us who are female. On our right, there is the medical profession, predicting furred arteries, overloaded joints and strokes; on our left, the Beauty Industry, telling us that Small is Beautiful; and all around us, in shop windows and clickbait and telly adverts and magazines, a whole economic sector dedicated to making us shed the pounds. Buy this book! Follow this programme! Join this gym! And if you don’t – you’ll be a fat lump with no mates, no dream job and definitely no sex, and it’ll all be Your Fault.

With all this pressure, it’s amazing that any of us are remotely plump. But, increasingly, we are not just plump, but obese -26% of us. (1) It’s been calculated that by 2050, Britain could be a “mainly obese” society (2).

Why’s this? Are we all so morally wretched? Well, there isn’t a single reason, of course. But we’re all affected by the environment we live in, and increasingly we’re coming to realise that we’re quite literally “shaped” by ours – that is, that we’re building ourselves fat. (3)

To illustrate, let’s imagine our friend Frieda Salad. Fortysomething, fourteen stone [89 kilos], Frieda lives in a sprawly new estate on the outskirts of town.  The doctor tells her that she really ought to try to lose some weight, and hands her one of those cheery Change for Life leaflets with the Plasticine men on them.

“That’s all very well,” says Frieda, “but I just haven’t got time.”

The doctor fixes her with one of those quizzical “tell me more, and you’d better make it good,” looks.

“Well,” says Frieda, “I’m at work all day. Before I go to work I’ve got to drop the kids off at school. Then I drive to the office. It’s out on the industrial estate, so for lunch it’s the canteen or nothing – I’ve basically got to sit down all day, except in the lift –“

“Could you take the stairs?” says the doctor.

“Oh – erm – well, nobody does. There are some stairs, I suppose.”

“Ok,” says the doctor, tapping some notes into the computer. She’s had a few of these conversations.

“Then I drive home – pick the kids up from after-school club – normally I have to take them home to give them something to eat then take them out to gym or Scouts or whatever. Then I’ve just about got time to get home before I’ve got to get in the car to fetch them again. And, yeah, I suppose we do eat quite a bit of take-out, but once the kids are home, I can’t go out again till Mark gets home, and there aren’t any shops near me – it’s miles to anywhere. And the gym’s really expensive, and anyway, by the time we’ve eaten, I’m ready for bed.”

“Could you go for a walk round the block after you’ve eaten? Just for twenty minutes or so?”

“Well – you could – but there’s nowhere to go. Just estate roads, and all they go to is other bits of estate. I’d feel – a bit weird. Like a spy. And there’s no parks or anything.”

“Ok,” says the doctor, “so – the industrial estate’s only three miles from home, isn’t it? Could you bike it?”

“God, no!” says Frieda, shocked. “The roads near me are awful. Juggernauts, taxis – and at rush hour, it’s heaving. A lad was killed on the main road last year. I wouldn’t risk it!”

When Frieda leaves, the doctor rolls her eyes, and taps into the computer, “Discussed lifestyle. Little enthusiasm for change.”

Now let us consider Frieda’s sister Lena Thanher, whose living environment is very different. She lives in a close-packed Victorian suburb fairly close to town, with good cycling and walking routes (she probably doesn’t live in the UK) and with shops and school within walking distance and a nice local park.

Lena’s kids can walk to school by themselves, because the streets are safe, while Lena walks the dog in the park. Then she can cycle to work in the town centre. At lunchtime, she has plenty of opportunities to buy healthy food. She can also stop off on the way home to pick up fresh fruit and vegetables for dinner. Her kids are able to make their own way home and back out again to their various evening pastimes, so Lena is able to go out to an exercise class that runs in the school out of hours.

Lena doesn’t take more exercise than Frieda because Frieda is a lazy person. She doesn’t eat more fruit because she’s Being Good. It’s just that the place she lives in makes it easier for her. Poor Frieda – though she might be quite privileged in some ways – lives in a place which makes it harder to live a healthy lifestyle. It’s not just more effort. It’s time-consuming, perhaps stigmatising, perhaps expensive, and, more than likely, even dangerous. Frieda’s environment, we might say, is quintessentially “obesogenic.”

“Nice idea,” you might say, “but is it true?”

Well, yes, it is. We’ve got reams of evidence to suggest that, when it comes to active travel, the Field of Dreams advice “build it, and they will come,” applies. That is, where there are safe cycle routes, people will cycle. 27% of all trips in the Netherlands are made by bike, which has “at least 33,000 to 35,000 kilometres of dedicated cycling infrastructure.” (3).  But figures can be higher in cities, and they can change. In the 1970s, Copenhagen was as car-oriented as anywhere else, but the authorities since then have gradually transformed the city to make it more cycle-friendly: 56% of Copenhageners use bicycles every day. (4)


Are UK cities fit for cycling? Here, bicycles in Amsterdam. Picture credits: Public domain, on Pixabay

As for public parks, associations have been shown between the quality and availability of urban green spaces and increased physical activity. (As well as this, green spaces have an effect upon mental health and sociability, help to screen out noise and air pollutants, and even boost the immune system.) (5)

People living in “walkable” cities are also less likely to be fat. Put simply, a “walkable” city is one where you can walk to wherever you want to go. They are likely to be quite closely-packed, so that everything is in close proximity. (6)They will have amenities like shops, schools and workplaces mixed in with houses and flats. They will have clear and direct street patterns, so that you can find your way around. (7) In a “sprawling” neighbourhood, however, like Frieda’s, there is nothing much to walk to; if there were any shop units within her estate, they couldn’t possibly survive, because there isn’t a critical mass of people within walking distance of them. Everyone, therefore, has to drive or be driven. (The same goes for rural areas – meaning that it’s quite wrong to suggest that people in the countryside have healthier lifestyles. They don’t.)

We know all this. So what are we doing about it?

The revised national Childhood Obesity Strategy, chapter 2 (9) was published for consultation recently. Now, you’d think it would make an effort, especially since the previous version was found to be inadequate. It might put aside money to fund those safe routes to school and those public open spaces. It might require all new development to look like an urbanist’s dream of a walkable suburb, complete with pavement cafes and little children pedalling blithely and bareheadedly to the park along the cycle routes.

But the Obesity Strategy is all words and no promises. It admits that “where we live… has a huge role to play in tackling childhood obesity. “ However, it lobs responsibility well and truly back into local authorities’ court: “Each local authority already has a range of powers to find local solutions to their own level of childhood obesity but while some are already taking bold action, others are not.” There is hardly a word about the specific design features that encourage active travel. There’s nothing substantive about empowering local authorities to require those features, at a time when developers are able to plead “lack of viability” when asked to build anything but Barratt boxes. And the funding the Strategy allocates to active travel to school – £1.62 million – would barely buy you a two-bed semi in some parts of London.

Of course obesity isn’t just a matter of environment. I’m sure there are people in compact little Dutch towns with miles of cycleway who sit around in their pants eating chips all day. But, given the increasing body (ha, ha) of evidence on obesogenic environments, the doctor’s eye-roll at poor Frieda’s lack of exercise begins to look a bit like victim-blaming.

Ok, so we can’t rebuild the city from scratch – and we wouldn’t want to. But we can change it. We can put in cycling and walking routes, calm the traffic, make sure our parks are attractive and welcoming, keep up our local schools, support community centres that run exercise classes, support local businesses in residential areas. And we can make sure that healthy lifestyles are planned into all new development from the very beginning.

We have planned ourselves fat for too long. It’s time to plan ourselves fit.


Planning ourselves fit could be just round the corner. Picture credits: “Cycling mural on Market St. Charlottesville“, by Bob Mical on Flickr, Non-Commercial Creative Commons Attribution


  1. NHS Digital.Statistics on Obesity, Physical Activity and Diet – England, 2018. [Online] https://digital.nhs.uk/data-and-information/publications/statistical/statistics-on-obesity-physical-activity-and-diet/statistics-on-obesity-physical-activity-and-diet-england-2018.
  2. Butler, Bryony.Foresight: Tackling obesities – future choices. London : Government Office for Science, 2007.
  3. Lake, Amelia A, Townshend, Tim G and Alvanides, Seraphim.Obesogenic environments : complexities, perceptions, and objective measures. Chichester : Blackwell, 2010.
  4. Bicycle Dutch.Dutch Cycling Figures. [Online] 2018. https://bicycledutch.wordpress.com/2018/01/02/dutch-cycling-figures/.
  5. Copenhagenize.Meteoric Rise in Bicycle Traffic in Copenhagen. [Online] 2016. http://www.copenhagenize.com/2016/11/meteoric-rise-in-bicycle-traffic-in.html.
  6. WHO Regional Office for Europe,.Urban green spaces and health: a review of evidence. Copenhagen : s.n., 2016.
  7. Land use, transport, and population health: estimating the health benefits of compact cities.Stevenson, Mark et al. 10062, s.l. : The Lancet, 2016, Vol. 388.
  8. City planning and population health: a global challenge.Giles-Corti B, Vernez-Moudon A, Reis R, Turrell G, Dannenberg AL, Badland H, Foster S, Lowe M, Sallis JF, Stevenson M, Owen N. 10062, s.l. : The Lancet, 2016, Vol. 388.
  9. Department of Health and Social Care: Global Public Health Directorate: Obesity, Food and Nutrition / 10800.Childhood obesity: a plan for action, Chapter 2. London : HM Government, 2018

Jo Ellis is a researcher and freelance planning consultant in Newcastle upon Tyne. She has a particular interest in sustainable cities and transport.


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Concrete-stop: from metaphor to reality

Guest author: Clemens de Olde, University of Antwerp

The new Spatial Policy Plan for Flanders hasn’t been approved by the Flemish Government yet, but it has already stirred up quite a media storm. Since its first announcement it has become known as the “concrete-stop” (betonstop). As more details emerge, the intent to completely stop building in open space by 2040 has become the token measure of the entire plan. The fact that exactly this element has caught on says a lot about planning culture in Flanders. Why has the concrete-stop become so mediagenic?

Link: for more background on the changes afoot in the Flemish planning systems read my first blog

The Power of Metaphor

Metaphors are essential in presenting planning to a wider public. Famous examples include the Dutch Randstad or the European Blue Banana. Flanders too, has its planning metaphors. The Flemish Diamond, which was presented in the 1997 Structure Plan as a “precious gem” to represent the region’s core economic area between the cities of Antwerp, Ghent, Brussels, and Leuven.

The use of metaphors can bring actors together in a development strategy but they are never neutral. Dühr, Colomb & Nadin define preparing spatial concepts as a political act that favours and promotes certain interests:

‘Who is involved in the preparation of the spatial concept, and which spatial information is selected to represent it, will thus significantly affect the message’ (2010, p. 56).

And now there is the metaphor of concrete-stop as popular moniker for the new Spatial Policy Plan. It represent the intent of the plan to reduce and halt the “additional daily intake of open space” from 6 hectares currently, to 3 hectares in 2025, to 0 in 2040 (Vlaamse Overheid, 2016). This implies a large operation of rezoning land currently marked for housing development, and stimulating densification in the urbanized areas. That seems at odds with what De Decker (2011) has described as “the compulsion to possess a non-urban single-family house that is engraved in the minds of the Flemish people.”


The term concrete stop does not appear in the Green of White Papers for the Spatial Policy Plan, yet  the term is omnipresent in Flemish media and its use far outstrips that of the plan’s official title. In order to understand the career of the concept I performed a media analysis where I charted all articles that mention the terms concrete-stop and Spatial Policy Plan. The results are shown in the graph below.

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Prior to February 2014 the term did not exist in public debate. It was then introduced in three subsequent articles by the director of an environmental NGO, but not connected to specific spatial policy. The first wave of articles broke in May 2016 when newspaper De Morgen got an exclusive look at the preliminary documents for the new policy plan and headlined their report “Schauvliege wants BETONSTOP” (Joke Schauvliege is Minister of Environment). This launched the term connected to the Spatial Policy Plan into the public debate. From then on it keeps appearing in news reports on the plan-in-preparation with an explosion in December 2016 when the Flemish Government approves the White Paper. That same month concrete-stop is nominated in the annual election for word of the year and ends as runner-up. Subsequent waves can be traced to developments in the dossier. From February 2014 until July 1st 2018 the term is found in 658 articles.

From the White Paper’s approval the term starts to appear in a majority of cases even without mention of the policy plan. The results show that “concrete-stop” is starting to lead a life of its own, becoming a force in its own right, without proper contextualization as part of a 200-page strategic spatial policy document. What’s more, in some ten percent of cases the term is explicitly equalized to the Spatial Policy Plan through formulations such as:

‘It is just another indication that the Spatial Policy Plan Flanders, popularly called ‘concrete-stop’, requires a cultural change’ (De Standaard 8-2-17).


So what does the metaphor do? Unlike the ones mentioned above, concrete-stop wasn’t conceived by planners. Despite the first mentions by an NGO director, the journalist of the May 2016 article when asked, stated that he came up with the term himself in an attempt to make a terrible policy term such as the Spatial Policy Plan for Flanders more accessible to the reader. This is ironic because even though the media declares the concrete-stop to be very controversial, it has created and disseminated the term itself. There is actually extremely little mention of citizens’ voices in the press coverage on the new Spatial Policy Plan.

But controversial it is. The metaphor of concrete-stop might be understood to strike at the heart of the Flemish planning culture and the importance of the self-built single-family home therein. It is an image that engenders fear of losing value of land acquired long ago and the opportunity to build there for one’s (grand)children or to sell it to supplement one’s pension. Additionally it engenders images where residential choice might not be as free as it once was. Indeed, when posed as a side question in a series of interviews on residential satisfaction (De Olde et al., 2018), respondents stressed the importance of the freedom of choice of where to live and did not think that this choice could be lawfully restricted by a concrete-stop. Not being able to build anymore can be understood as a threatening to the large numbers that subscribe to this housing-economic model, which makes the Spatial Policy Plan framed as concrete-stop a very sensitive issue.

Concrete-stop seems to have been an excellent choice of metaphor then to stir up quite a bit of public unrest. The choice of metaphor affects the contents of the policy plan, much to the chagrin of the politicians responsible. Both the Minister of Environment and the Flemish Prime Minister now push back on the term. The latter states in a newspaper interview:

‘That’s why I’m so annoyed by the term concrete-stop, because that’s not what it is about. I don’t even know where that word came from so suddenly.’ (Het Nieuwsblad, 3-12-2016)

While experts and an increasing amount of politicians agree that it’s high time to reduce the spatial uptake in Flanders, the introduction of the term concrete-stop seems not to have helped to promote public support for the new Spatial Policy Plan. It is still uncertain whether the plan will be approved before the elections of next Spring but if it does, it will almost certainly be in the next few weeks before political summer recess. Should that happen then it won’t be a surprise when the headlines read: CONCRETE-STOP APPROVED!



Friday July 20, the Flemish Government approved the new Spatial Policy Plan as part of a larger package of decisions made before summer recess. Interestingly enough, the main newspapers paid little attention to the concrete stop the following Monday. New regulations regarding energy policy waste management were at the center of the media’s attention. Perhaps the potential for a media outcry has exhausted itself now that the plan has been approved, perhaps other decisions present a more immediate influence on citizens’ daily lives. Nonetheless when it was mentioned, the entire spatial policy plan was subsumed under the heading of concrete block. Whether this bodes well as indicator for the effectiveness of the new policy plan remains to be seen.

This article is part of a feature anticipating the replacement of the planning system in Belgian region of Flanders in 2019.


Clemens de Olde studied sociology and philosophy at the University of Amsterdam where he developed an interest in cities and space. Currently he is PhD researcher in sociology at the University of Antwerp. His PhD research focuses on urbanization and the transformation of Flemish and Dutch planning culture.

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A motto to revisit and revise – EQUAL PAY. EQUITABLE PAY

Article originally published with Linkedin Publishing– in continuance to my previous post – Planning as a profession and course of study : A floundering Planner’s Perspective



Source: Equal Pay for Women: We Shouldn’t Be Asking Anymore


In a recent article published by The Guardian written by Peter Fleming (Do you work more than 39 hours a week? Your job could be killing you), a few realities of job market and employment, with research findings of Columbia University Medical Center, University College London, Australian National University, US researcher Alex Soojung-Kim Pang; were highlighted –

  1. Workers employed beyond regulated work hours of 42 hours per week (working 9 to 5), and the 39 hours limit by scientific communities across the
  2. Interns being subjected to long work hours and work load, with unequal as well as inequitable remuneration.
  3. Multidimensional costs of overwork
  4. Technology, instead of easing human life outside work, has put them in an endless mode of standby
  5. A human is productive for four hours every day, as indicated by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang

The article looks into time and conditions of paid employment in general.

I, as an urban planner (that also a female one), based in India – a country where urban planning or any specialized field of planning is still undervalued and misunderstood with event planning, smart cities and every other city related program initiated by the Central government post 2014; have had a much worse experience of this exploitative market.

While pursuing bachelor and master’s programme, I worked in different capacities, with the following institutions: Town and Country Planning Organization, New Delhi, Government of India; Irrigation and Flood Control Department, New Delhi; Directorate of Environment, New Delhi; Indian Institute of Human Settlements, New Delhi; Norway Institute of Transport Economics, Oslo; Dubai MUF-ISOCARP; University of Chicago and World Bank Organization, India.

Indian academic institutes do not follow the concept of teaching assistant or fellowships, as western countries do, but it does attract several agencies and institutions from abroad to collaborate on projects, particularly research and design related. I started off my first internship with a technical agency of Ministry of Urban Development, Government of India and was not paid for the entire three month period, whilst I developed the GIS database and models for a south east city strategic plan and its flood management plan. But, following my father’s principle of life- Learn as much as you can, earnings would follow; I did not lose heart and willingness.

Following this first stint of professional experience, I was recommended for international projects and for the next 5 years of academic life (bachelor’s and master’s), was working on one or another project, either with or without remuneration. On an average, I was paid 15,000 INR (~200 USD) per month for 10-12 hours of weekly work input. I was putting in over 60 hours per week in a non-hectic period to balance work and education, which exceeded 70 hours when the pressure from either end was high. Coming out of it and entering a 9 to 5 (which extends beyond 5) work environment, I can definitely say I am glad to be a part of my experience, as it has been an enlightening path of several downs and few ups. One thing I can boast from this experience is learning and balancing multitasking with necessary prioritization and strategies. On the down side- part time work in India (definitely in the planning sector) is not counted as experience, no matter the quality and quantum of work you have done. Saddest part – the work you have done gets approved and finalized but your name is not even mentioned in the entire process and document.

On graduating Master of Planning with specialization in Urban Planning- a time to enter the job market on a full-time basis, I was yet again disappointed. Inclined towards research, I applied and eagerly got accepted into a well reputed think tank before submitting my master’s thesis. But, who would have thought that research work demanding 42+ hours per week would be compensated with less than 40,000 INR (~ 580 USD), when the same organisation is getting its projects for at least six figure sum and being handled by a group of less than 10 workers. But, that is probably true for all think tanks in India, as India spends less than 1 per cent of its annual GDP (India’s R&D spend stagnant for 20 years – Economic Times) on research and development.

But, this is not the sole example or experience of morbid job market. In my past one year experience, where I quit my full time job to pursue freelance consult and research, rather than be undervalued for my efforts, I have come across plethora of national and international consultants (let’s not even go into their legality of operations and paper work) and firms associated with projects tendered by high and mighty agencies, bilaterals, multilaterals and any other kind you can think of- there are many amongst this cohort of ‘consultants and advisors’ who aren’t remotely related to urban planning field, but are seeking and working on projects from international and national organisations, which pay minimum 300 USD (~ 21,000 INR) per day while you are paid less than 15 USD per day.

Each of these projects, no matter how short, extends to a period of three months and can last up to 2 years. The concerned manager of the project earns minimum 300 USD (~ 21,000 INR) per day, while employing recent Indian graduates and undergraduates at less than 30,000 INR (~ 430 USD) for 30+ hours per week. Sad reality? Yes! But what’s worse is these graduates are many times not planners, but architects, engineers, economists, sociologists, etc who have never even worked on a planning project and if questioned, might not even know planning beyond the usual Indian mindset of equating planning to smart cities. These naive fresh graduates are simply attracted to one component – INTERNATIONAL OR NATIONAL (like a moth is to flame), ultimately getting burnt when realization hits hard.

I write this piece of article, not as a rant against the field of urban planning in India or its job market, or for that matter perpetuity of undervalue and exploitation of young ones.

I simply request all employers to be fair and considerate to ensure- EQUAL pay (to men and women for the amount of hours put in); EQUITABLE pay (fair share of revenue to employee, not just a planner but everyone).

A few take-home messages that apply to all graduates: be aware of the job market, be aware of projects, revenues, funds and the compensation you are given for your effort. Do not run towards a JOB. Do not take a nosedive and accept all terms and agreements of the first acceptance letter you receive. Be patient. Strive to learn and find a job where you are happy and valued for your work.

Posted in Academia, research quality and assessment, Beyond planning, Dissemination, outreach, communication, Events reports, Methodology and ethics, Planning, city, and society, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Welcome to the cyborg: hybridity in place-making, Part 1

This is the first of two posts about cyborgs: what they are, and how they manifest as the hybrid objects and forms of knowledge that characterise much of place-making today. Is cyborg place-making a reality in-the-making? Or is it all just science-fiction? This post maps the presence of cyborgs in contemporary societies, and begins to discuss how cyborg technologies already shape place-making processes.


Darth Vader picture on steps of Franklin Institute, Philadelphia

Picture credit: Darth Vader steps, by angelo Yap on Flickr. Non-Commercial Creative Commons Attribution.

Welcome to the cyborg

Cyborgs have multiple origins. The Wikipedia entry reviews many of these origins, including nineteenth century literature, science-fiction and prosthetic medical applications. In popular culture, famous examples include Darth Vader, Robocop, and Ghost in the Shell, among many others. Cyborgs have well-known cousins, namely “androids” – robots made to look very human-like, even “fleshy” (i.e. something a bit more advanced than your typical android smartphone). Androids have been popularised as intelligent “droids” in the Star Wars trilogy, and as ruthless killing machines in the Terminator film series starring Arnold Swarzenegger. Iconic droids are also the main characters in Isaac Asimov’s robot short stories, which explore ambiguous notions of robotic self-awareness, emotions, and self-determination. Androids are not quite cyborgs though. There is also some contention as to whether cyborgs are “bionic”. The adjective bionic can be defined as “Having or denoting an artificial, typically electromechanical, body part or parts”. From a scientific persperctive, bionics can also be defined as “The use of a system or design found in nature as a model for designing machines and other artificial systems”. In other words, bionics seems to relate more to biomimicry than to cyborg engineering per se.

Concerning the medical realm, MIT bionics designer Hugh Herr’s TEDtalk about “NeuroEmbodied Design” demonstrates how bionic prosthetic devices could slowly extend human potential, thereby turning humans into cyborgs. Hugh Herr suffered a major climbing accident that lead to the amputation of his two legs, which has made him a prime user of prosthetic devices. There are many other examples of prosthetic devices that illustrate that bionic eyes, arms and spines are no longer science fiction. More broadly, extensive research and technological innovation is opening up a world of opportunities, in the form of “new converging technologies” emerging from the integration of nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology, and cognitive sciences.


Picture credit: Ambulation, by Kat Northern Lights Man on Flickr. Non-Commercial Creative Commons Attribution. 

Yet technological implants and limb extensions and replacements are not necessary to turn ordinary mortals into cyborgs. As Amber Case argued in 2010, we are all cyborgs already, thanks the presence of pervasive, interconnected technologies in our daily lives. Not only does technology extend our physical selves, it also directly extends and mediates our mental selves. Think of toddlers playing with iPhones long before they can even master the power of words, or the multiple digital selves and identities that we entertain online. The Google Home is yet another prime example of a device that directly extends our cognitive functions. In our digitally-addicted societies, could you imagine looking for any piece information without first “googling it”? Recursively, one could imagine one of Isaac Asimov’s robots asking: “Google, what is the meaning of life for a robot?” Not that living cyborg, hyper-digital lives necessarily makes us much happier than in the not-so-distant analogue past, when human contacts were at least more necessary to function in everyday life than they are today. Personal addiction to digital worlds, such as social media and the fetishized digital identities these mediate, impoverishes the lives of many. First person shooter games may also contribute to influence the behaviour of mentally “at-risk” players, although it actually seems highly unlikely that such video games might turn adolescents into trigger-happy killers. Digital hyperconnectivity does not necessarily make Robocops out of all of us. But it does make us more cyborg-like.

Technology may sometimes seem to offer almost infinite opportunities of improving human life. This is an important stance of the post-human perspective, which views that technology bears huge promises to enhance human capacities and even existence, in turn enabling to steer human development and evolution in unprecedented, radical ways. There is a clear risk to overdoing human evolution through technological fixes, however. The notion of eugenics, for example, aims at selecting the most desirable human traits through such means as breeding and genetic engineering. The most ghastly, and yet well-known example of eugenics was that carried out under the Nazi regime, in their quest for the Aryan race. Yet could you imagine what eugenics might offer if super-powered by today’s or tomorrow’s level of technological advancement? In contrast to the 1930s, much of the technology that now governs our societies is deeply networked and interoperable: digital technologies are everywhere and communicate with each other almost seamlessly. Add “thought control” to this technological ubiquity and we can head straight down to the brutal world of George Orwell’s 1984, as warned by Daniel Power, expert on decision-support systems for business. Advanced human engineering, motivated by ruthless power regimes, could also lead to the bio-engineered replicants from the dystopian science-fiction film Blade Runner, and its recent sequel set in a context of ecological collapse. The next frontier in “life-enhancing” technological innovation could include microchip implants that would enhance (or control) cognitive processes. A brave new world of sustained, unbridled technological innovation might not be so life-enhancing after all…

More broadly, technology has always been associated with social control, power, and concentrations of capital. The advent of the industrial factory is a major case in point, which is partly the theme of Pink Floyd’s song “Welcome to the machine”. The large-scale deployment of machinery in society has been simultaneous with the creation and reproduction of particular sets of cultural identities, which have somehow reinforced and reproduced existing distributions of power and classes in society. For example, Paul Willis’ Learning to Labour (1977) is a landmark ethnographic account of the lives of working class lads in Birmingham in the 1970s who somehow embrace working class identities, as a way to express cultural distinction, thereby indirectly contributing to the reproduction of differentiated socio-economic classes in English society. The history of humanity testifies to the fact that technology has always been instrumental to transforming society for better or worse, as Yuval Noah Harari argues repeatedly in the book Sapiens.  In all, the notion of the cyborg, or that which seamlessly fuses human and technological components, can be observed at different scales and approached from multiple angles.


Picture credit: Terminator graffiti, by duncan c, on Flickr. Non-Commercial Creative Commons Attribution.

Cyborgs in the city

Place-making is increasingly a cyborg practice. Through its very mathematical, symmetrical shapes and linearity, it occurs to me that new builds often look like they been downloaded straight from a parallel, digital world. Between CAAD, GIS, BIM, 3D design and visualisation software, and emerging smart sensor infrastructures, the potential for integrated, interoperable technology is often lauded as enabling the smart city of tomorrow. Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality can be deployed alongside the aforementioned technologies to explore new urban environments, in-situ, or fully digitally. Complex design software and decision-support platforms enable to combine, merge and convert a wide range of different data formats, in the fields of architecture, property management, urban planning, urban design and construction. Check out for example digital opportunities for fully interactive Environmental Impact Statements. To be sure, such interactive digital impact assessment reports would be more legible and engaging than the boring EIA reports that have been “trumped” by recent, significant budget cuts to the US Environmental Protection Agency?

Increasingly, complex technology provides very advanced tools for urban place-making. At the same time, the smart technological city can only be enabled by a digitally literate citizenry. In the process, learning to master the advanced digital tool could almost become self-serving; the machine almost becomes an end in itself rather than a means to an end. Humans are increasingly encouraged to adapt to and speak the language of the machine (e.g. learn how to code), as pointed out by Yuval Noah Harrari in Sapiens. This is evidenced by Obama’s 2013 call for young Americans to learn computer science and coding, the spread of Maker-spaces and various urban labs and digital labs, as well as the proliferation of hackathon events across the world, and the emergence of machine learning as a professional career. Regarding spatial analyses, which are a core dimension of effective spatial planning, machines simply cannot be left to their own devices. Interconnected technologies can provide additional support for evidence-based decision-making. However, they sometimes require some serious “ground-truthing”, or checking on the ground if the digital reality actually matches the physical, on-site reality. For example, over-reliance on satellite imagery can give an erroneous picture of actual urbanisation trends, as has been the case in Ho Chi Minh City, with quite severe consequences for poorer communities. Hence the need to combine traditional human observations with remote sensing and other methods for geospatial data collection and visualisation. Even with complex, fancy algorithms, the machine alone can only do so much to improve human lives.

In closing, we may say that, as true cyborgs, we must trust our common sense, even our gut feeling, and abide by the moral values that are dearest to us, so that we can make the smartest use of the technology available.


Picture credit: by author. Street art from Barcelona.

Posted in Beyond planning, Planning, city, and society, technology, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Planning as a profession and course of study : A floundering Planner’s Perspective

The planning as a profession in India is synonymous with either party/event planning or smart cities, nothing more, nothing less. Only a few know what planning as a profession and course of study is in India. And when one does, the picture has varied shapes and colours for those who are either a part of this professional or academia pool and for those outside this pool.


Image from – https://jokohok.info/navi/o/city-quotes/ [accessed on June 13, 2018]

For the usual Indian pupil graduating from 10th grade and entering the last two years of secondary school, the remainder of their education is usually about deciding what they want to do after graduation, which for some, narrowly means the kind of job they want to pay their bills. More often than not, the choice has been between medicine or engineering, with past decades witnessing a change and significant proportion of students now opting for business studies, law, economics, arts and humanities, but only a few opting for the architecture stream. One would hardly find anyone who knows about planning as a field of study and wants to pursue it after finishing school.

For 98 per cent students you come across in the first year of planning studies, you come to realise you are not alone when you say: I am pursuing planning because I could not get into architecture. Yes, it is a sad truth. If one wants to study within India, a student finishing high school and seeking entry into a college has to go through entrance examinations. Architecture and planning have a common test, which includes NATA (http://www.nata.in/) and AIEEE (https://jeemain.nic.in/webinfo/Public/Home.aspx). Each has a different list of colleges it provides entrance to. In some sense, AIEEE has the list of better graded and ranked schools in India, including the National Institute of Technology, the School of Planning and Architecture, etc. But clearing the exam is not enough. Based on your score, you are given an All India Rank which ultimately determines where you will land up for the next 4 to 5 years.

These 4 to 5 years are not what you expect, as is said by every teenager who graduates school with great hopes of becoming an adult and entering college life. Some might fall in love with the college and field they enter, while others might curse every day.  Some will also actually end up working in a different field after under-graduation- like business studies, law, interior design; basically any field that has better future prospects than planning.  But one thing is common for all: your biological cycle and sleeping and eating patterns become dysfunctional. You get accustomed to 3-4 hours of sleep for weeks on end and sometimes wonder why you didn’t opt for medicine (in my case at least, as I left medicine to pursue architecture, but ended up studying planning at undergraduate level and started loving it from the second year onward).

All personal experiences and perceptions apart, planning is not a last resort to think of. True, in India planning is still under-recognised and even mistaken for events planning or simply smart cities, in light of the political impetus on smart cities in past 4 years. It is difficult to find good jobs in planning and if you do, they usually do not pay well. You earn less than an engineer or medical resident or a lawyer or for that matter many other liberal professions. Even after your master’s you might end up earning the same amount that you were getting after your bachelor degree. So, yes it is disheartening at times.

Recently, many graduate planners have been switched fields to business studies or pursuing a master’s abroad. For many years I did not understand the appeal of the latter. Earning an MBA is sure to get you into a higher pay band, but why spend lots of money and relocate abroad to apply to a master’s programme, earn a student visa, work a few years and then return home, or re-apply for visa to work further. The answer that I am able to articulate so far is: better recognition and a whole lot more opportunities, especially for young planners.

A student with average grades and work experience that graduates from a planning school in Europe, Australia or the United States of America, has much better chances to not just earn better but learn more from practical job experiences than a top-notch student graduating from one of the best colleges in India. The former have access to tremendous variety of conferences, lectures, entrepreneurs who are working in the field and would be happy to support and guide you. While in India, more often than not, you will find your friends competing against you. It is not ranting, but a fact. The limited availability of decent jobs, especially for a women planner, plays a critical role.

But yes, if you do love planning and everything that has to do with it, you have to think beyond that and explore opportunities for yourself. The road may be tougher than the rest, but if you are willing to take a step, the end result can be fulfilling or not, that’s debatable based on personal experiences (which I would like to learn of from my colleagues around the world).

Posted in Dissemination, outreach, communication, Planning, city, and society, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

How culture played a role in an environmental campaign

Guest author: Kedar Uttam

This post presents an initiative that was undertaken by a civil society movement in Mangalore (South India) to fill the gap of cultural impact assessment which most environmental campaigns in that region miss out.  

It is a decade since my hometown, Mangalore (in South India) celebrated a photo exhibition named “Nilae” (meaning: habitat) that was probably the first of its kind in the region. This photo exhibition was arranged in July of 2008 as part of an environmental campaign organised by a civil society called the (Coastal Karnataka) People’s Development Forum. The photo exhibition documented the identified cultural impacts of the (then proposed) Mangalore special economic zone (MSEZ) project phase II. People’s Development Forum described this event as “an exhibition of photographs from the area earmarked for the MSEZ, including the places of Tuluva[i] cultural and religious significance that will perhaps soon be history”. The establishment of special economic zones (SEZ) in India have led to forced acquisition of land and the displacement of previous owners and farming communities. Resistance to SEZs has been primarily from directly affected communities and civil society organisations [1].

My hometown, Mangalore, located on the South West Coast of India is a lush green belt of land between the Western Ghats and the Arabian Sea. A study conducted by Ramachandra, T.V. and colleagues [2] in one of the villages, where land was planned to be acquired for the MSEZ project, recorded 187 species of plants, 59 butterflies, 11 odonates, six amphibians, three reptiles, 55 birds, seven species of mammals in a short duration of two days in certain selected localities.

Phase I of the MSEZ project had displaced more than 1500 families spread around four villages. Ian Cook from the Central European University and his colleagues based in Mangalore called it the “multiple displacements of MSEZ” [3]. They analysed the different types of displacement, such as social, economic and cultural, caused by the land acquisition process of MSEZ.

The environmental impact assessment study conducted by the “consultant-proponent nexus” [4] lacked detailed investigations covering the cultural impacts of the project [2]. An assessment of cultural impacts must include the impacts on “linkages which the local populace has with ecological components” [4] whereby such linkages form a part of their culture and contribute to the livelihood.

My discussion with the photographer of the exhibition, who is also the member of People’s Development Forum, provided some insights on the rationale of this innovative concept of documenting the identified cultural impacts. He revealed that most of the internationally funded non-governmental organisations in the region focused only on ecological issues in their environmental movements, thereby disregarding the cultural loss embedded within the predicted environmental impacts. So People’s Development Forum decided to view the entire problem not merely from ecological and economic angles but also from a cultural perspective. This viewpoint resonated with what Kagan and co-authors [5] have recently observed in their study. They highlight that culture still plays a minimal role in both sustainability science and mainstream political discourses and that “culture” is not specified as a significant arena of action on the policy level. The identified set of issues and challenges are often based on “green” themes.

Collage Nilae Exhibition resized

Selection of photos exhibited at “Nilae”, the photo exhibition that raised awareness about the cultural impacts of the Mangalore special economic zone (MSEZ) phase II. Photo credits: Udaya Ullal.

Another member of the People’s Development Forum mentioned that as most city dwellers were indifferent to the issue of displacement induced human sufferings in MSEZ, the photo exhibition was conceived to tell the larger community outside the SEZ area about their cultural loss and the collective loss of Tuluvas as a distinct cultural community. Furthermore, one of the goals was to make communities in the affected villages feel proud about what they already have.

None of the members of People’s Development Forum were impact assessment experts per se, but they possessed that cultural value-based thinking, which is often missing in the Indian environmental assessment practice. Cultural values encompass attributes traditionally considered to be cultural (stories and sense of history in the landscape), and as well as natural attributes that are valued culturally [6].

Two years after this exhibition, at an annual conference of the International Association for Impact Assessment, I stumbled on a poster developed by Szilvacsku Zsolt which called for assessments focusing on “the core value of vitality of living being” to be incorporated in impact assessment practices [7]. The photo exhibition in Mangalore took one small step towards respecting the value and vitality of living systems in the MSEZ affected areas. Paddy fields, cattle herd, traditional houses, a temple and grazing lands were all treated to be components of cultural significance and as forms of vitality.

Moreover, the exhibition was a creation of the concerned citizens of Mangalore and the communities of MSEZ affected villages. It captured the attention of the public and of certain key influential actors and triggered the cultural consciousness that subsequently fuelled the environmental campaign against the land acquisition of MSEZ project. In a certain sense, the cultural focus in this environmental campaign had represented the “conservative” nature of the communities’ movement against the MSEZ land acquisition and their displacement, or in Guha’s words, “refusing to exchange a world they know, and are in partial control over, for an uncertain and insecure future” [8].

The cultural photo exhibition complemented the strong environmental advocacy that was under way in the campaign. The photo exhibition was a part of the campaign’s strategy. Although Phase I of the MSEZ project had acquired around 1757 acres (approximately 711ha) of land comprising of four villages between the years 2004 and 2007 [9], the government notification order to acquire land for Phase II (2000 acres or approximately 809 ha) was eventually withdrawn in July 2011 following the vigorous environmental campaign.

[i] Associated with Tulu speaking communities, based in places such as Mangalore and Udupi and around in the South West Coast of India.


[1] Rawat VB, MB Bhushan and S Surepally. 2011. The Impact of Special Economic Zones in India:  A Caste Study of Polepally SEZ. Paper presented at the International Conference on Global Land Grabbing 6-8 April 2011.

[2] Ramachandra, T V, K V Gururaja, H Bhat, S Ali, et al. 2007. Biodiversity Inventory in and around Tenka Yekkaru Grama Panchayat, Mangalore Taluk, Dakshina Kannada District, Karnataka, Bangalore: Indian Institute of Science.

[3] Cook I, R Bhatta, V Dinker. 2013. The Multiple Displacements of Mangalore Special Economic Zone. Economic and Political Weekly, vol XLVIII no 33.

[4] Rajaram T, A Das. 2011. Screening for EIA in India: Enhancing effectiveness through ecological carrying capacity approach, Journal of Environmental Management,Volume 92, Issue 1,

[5] Kagan S, A Hauerwaas, V Holz, P Wedler. 2017 . Culture in sustainable urban development: Practices and policies for spaces of possibility and institutional innovations, City, Culture and Society. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.ccs.2017.09.005

[6] Stephenson, J . 2008. The Cultural Values Model: An integrated approach to values in landscapes. Landscape and Urban Planning 84, 127–139

[7]  Zsolt S. 2010. Challenge of value based impact assessments in transitioning to sustainability. Poster presented at the Annual Conference of the International Association for Impact Assessment in 2010, Geneva. Corvinus University of Budapest, Department of Landscape Planning and Regional Development.

[8] Guha, R .2010. How much should a person consume? Thinking through the environment. Hachette India and Black Kite, Delhi.

[9] Dhakal. S. A Report of People’s Audit of SEZ Karnataka. Tata Institute of Social Sciences


Kedar profile pic 150pix width

Kedar loves to loiter in the university. He is a sustainability researcher and teacher. His research interests include environmental impact assessment, strategic environmental assessment, cultural impact assessment, and green and sustainable public procurement. He has also monitored and evaluated development projects funded under the Global Environment Facility (GEF)-United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)- Small Grants Programme (SGP). He has a PhD from KTH Sweden in the field of environmental assessment and management.

Posted in Beyond planning, Conflict, development, Heritage and Planning, Sustainability and resilience, Territory, landscape, land, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment