How future planners’ views on Covid-19 provide grounds for optimism

Posted on

by Hannah Hickman….

The news can feel unremittingly challenging and I oscillate between trying to engage with the detail and wanting to ignore it all in the vague hope that next time I look, a future more Covid free reality might be closer on the horizon. Anecdotally, colleagues, friends and family feel similarly.

In a ‘seeking to engage phase’ last month, two headlines particularly struck me: the first, signalled that those aged 25-34 are at the highest risk of redundancy; the second, and more encouraging, suggested ‘amongst, all the doom and gloom there’s positives[1].

It drew me to contemplate the new cohort of planning students starting their studies this academic year. For undergraduates, the 25-34 age bracket may still seem a little way off, but for post-graduates, many of them in or near that age bracket, the desire for a swift move into employment – and employment that offers security – is likely to be a pressing concern. Of course, some students may already be in work, either in planning or in another sector to fund their studies and gain experience- recently increasing numbers taking a ‘degree apprenticeship’ route into their planning studies are an important subset of the former. Whatever a student’s personal circumstances, the derivative economic impacts of Covid are likely to seed worries.

There is contemporary commentary on the student experience in Covid-times and much of this is legitimately focussed on their learning experiences. There has been little commentary, however, on how Covid might be impacting student’s perceptions of their future careers: particularly if their course of study has a defined career path. This led me to reflect on the second headline: have students’ perspectives on planning as a career or course of study changed because of COVID, and in any positive ways?


Source: https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/covid-19-what-does-local-lockdown-mean-uk-universities

In 2019, UWE, with the support of the Royal Town Planning Institute, instigated a new longitudinal study to seek to understand the motivations expectations of emergent planners, in response to what was felt to be an ‘empty vessel’[2] of work on young planners and their perspectives[3]. In the second year of the study, in addition to repeating the questions posed in 2019, we asked students new to planning in 2020: Do you feel that Covid has impacted upon your views on planning and your own career plans?”.

I wondered: did their responses provide grounds for optimism in the terms of the second headline, or reveal concerns about their future careers, more aligned with the first headline? With a response from over 220 undergraduate and postgraduate students from planning schools across the UK and Ireland, their views are worth listening to.

Despite some inevitable denigration of individual detail, their responses can be grouped into the following three themes: the first about perceptions of planning; the second about ideas of place; and the third about work.

For several students their experiences of and perspectives on Covid had emboldened their ideas about the value of planning: seeing planning as more not less relevant in a post-covid world:

“it has made me view planning as a resilient tool for making better places”

“it has shown me if the will is there planners/designers could make an immediate difference to streetscapes”

“I have always believed that reasonable planning is the basic aspiration for the development of a city or even a country. This epidemic made me realize the importance of planning and strengthened my views”.

For these young planners, Covid has provided motivation to think about the role of planning, fuelling a desire to build on the experiences of early lock-down to achieve positive change, particularly the environmental benefits of a quietened city. As one student observed: “early lockdown showed us that we can make a difference to pollution and climate change”.

They also alluded to the need to think differently about the ways in which ‘we do planning’, “I think we will need to re-evaluate the places we design and create”, “we should consider the unexpected when we make plans”, and “Planners’ role in the coming decade will be to reimagine these cities once again in the new [Post Covid] context”.

Many students’ ideas of space and place had shifted as a result of Covid. In particular, the value and importance of home has been heightened, along with a desire for more private outdoor space. One student wrote passionately about the disparities in experience between rich and poor: “lockdown has been detrimental to mental health due to a lack of parks, no gardens and extremely small houses”, andanother that “the density of cities in the future will need to be considered, will we all want to live so closely together?”. One student simply stated: it’s made me realise the importance of green space and planning for health”.These students were also quickly attuned to some of the perversities of policy in lockdown and questioned the potential future impacts of, for example, such a major reduction in public transport usage.


Source: https://www.theplanner.co.uk/news/covid-19-green-space-should-be-a-priority-in-local-plans

Perhaps unsurprisingly a significant number responded by focussing on employment opportunities. One student lamented, Covid has complicated an already complicated world while also making career planning more difficult” and the words “concern”, “unsure”, “impossibility”, “uncertainty”, “difficulty”, and “confusing”, were frequently used to express worries about future work. Others, however, suggested that Covid “may open up more job opportunities through more flexible working”, and that the flexible working resulting from Covid “enabled a career move”, and “caused me to re-evaluate my career and choose to go into planning”.

None of these short threads are in and of themselves inherently surprising, and as with all surveys, one is left wanting to more about the individual circumstances to understand perspectives and experiences in greater depth. Nevertheless, briefly delving into this data has led to two brief conclusions that reflect back on the headlines that provided my initial motivation for this piece. Firstly, as a profession we need to be attuned to the concerns that future planners’ have about their career choices in a post-Covid world, and consider what can be done to best support them and alleviate their concerns against the backdrop of the pandemic. Secondly, the many articulate and thoughtful responses to the ‘Covid’ question in our survey signal a motivated cohort of young planners in the pipeline: this provides enormous grounds for optimism.


[1] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/health-55802623

[2] T Taşan-Kok and M Oranje: ‘Young practitioners’ reflections on contemporary ethical challenges’. In T Taşan-Kok and M Oranje: From Student to Urban Planner: Young Practitioners’ Reflections on Contemporary Ethical Challenges. Routledge, 2018, p.17

[3] More information is available via: https://www.uwe.ac.uk/research/centres-and-groups/spe/projects/young-planners-expectations-and-motivations