International job swaps amongst planners
The idea of planners exchanging jobs with colleagues in another country to broaden their experience and outlook is an attractive one. I understand that the International Division of the American Planning Association (APA) is looking at ways to facilitate such swaps. I know that there is also strong interest in similar ventures between countries in the Global South, with particular interest here in South Africa, where I am writing this current blog.
My own direct experience of exchanging places with another planner is a long time ago now, but hopefully still has some lessons that might be useful to those seeking to set up such exchanges today.
Once, long ago…
In late 1979 the then head of planning in Eugene, Oregon, John Porter, had some arrangement with his employer that he could have a sabbatical out of the office. He wanted to come to Scotland and contacted planning bodies there, including the Department I was working in, to see if anybody was interested. I was teaching in what was in those days the Department of Town and Country Planning at Edinburgh College of Art / Heriot-Watt University (arguably the longest and most confusing institutional name in the history of planning education!). John was looking to come to Edinburgh and I was excited by the prospect of going to Oregon. He was available from early June to early September. Our summer vacation was late June to late September.
John Porter was a head of planning: I was an academic. I could scarcely go and do his job. Nor could he just step in and do mine: there would be no students around to teach when he came over to Edinburgh. Thus there was some juggling to be done to make the exchange work. I checked with my Head of Department that I could explore the chance of the exchange and that John could have a base in my room in the College.
John and I corresponded by air mail letters – no fax, email, texts, tweets, Skype or Facebook in those days! Basically we fixed for him and his family to come over to Edinburgh before we left for the West. He would have my room in the College and access to the university facilities, e.g. libraries. I don’t recall making arrangements for him to visit practitioners, but he would have been able to get some help from colleagues for that. In turn I would be based in the City Planning Department in Eugene, and be able to sit in on meetings, meet planners in and out of Eugene and generally get an insider’s view of US planning in action.
We also swapped houses and cars. This facilitated the exchange, as we both took families with us. I think John had 3 children, roughly 10-15 at the time; we had an 8 year old boy, a 6 year old girl and 2 year old twin girls. Reflecting back on what we were taking on, in moving such a large and young family so far for so long, I am amazed that we even thought about doing it! Happily, we did not fret, but naively took it on. I found the experience very valuable professionally, and the two older children who can remember their “trip of a lifetime” now live in the USA.
Plannng for cyclists
I used to cycle into Eugene’s Planning office on John’s bike. That enabled me to experience the novelty of Eugene’s system of bikeways at first hand. I was able to write a short article about Eugene’s planning for cyclists, which was published (“How the bike is winning in the west”, The Surveyor, 18 September, 1980, 22-24). At that time there were very few, if any, UK cities thinking about using planning to make cycling safer and more attractive.
I also wrote a couple of short pieces on my impressions for the Oregon Chapter of the APA. I collected a lot of material on a controversial development site in Eugene, with plans to write it up as an article for a refereed journal. However, I got side-tracked on other things when I got back and to my shame and regret I never completed it.
I went to the Planning Department in Eugene more or less every day. I attended the weekly breakfast meetings that the staff. I visited the Oregon state planners in Salem. I went on some site visits, met local environmental activists and greatly appreciated the kindness and hospitality of everyone I met. It was in Eugene that I first saw word processing, and realised how this new invention could transform the way we worked in the university back home. My 10 weeks in Oregon was a very valuable professional experience in every way.
I was beguiled by the wonderful natural environment of Oregon, and the State and National Parks, but less enamoured with the strip development, which was so different from what I was familiar with from Europe. It looks less strange now.
I visited planning academics in University of Oregon, University of Washington and at Berkeley and University of British Columbia: in both the latter two I already knew people that I had done work with. Meanwhile my son and elder daughter took part in a daily play programme in the local park: he taught the US kids to play “soccer” and she learned how to blow bubbles with bubble gum: cross-cultural, interactive learning.
Regrets? I have two. First, that our boisterous four children damaged some of the ornaments and furnishings in John’s house. I guess the message is to match up your households as closely as possible: avoid putting your home at the mercy of young kids with negligent parents – or lock away anything you can’t bear to see damaged. Also our 1970s British car proved less reliable than John’s newer, Japanese equivalent – a harbinger for the future of the British auto industry in the 1980s.
The second was that I failed to capitalise on the opportunity that I had. I did not convert my visit into a stream of research, or forge working links with those academics I had met.
Making it work
In summary, exchanges can be a very positive experience, but requireresourcing, careful planning and focused follow-up. They have to work on many levels and for a wide range of other people, notably the families, colleagues and employers of those who are “changing places”. Certainly today’s information technology makes it much easier to prepare than it was back in 1980. Might it even be possible for the Planning Resource website to set up a page where planners interested in swaps could post their profiles and do some “internet dating”?