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Thinking internationally – my experience of studying planning in China

05 March 2014

Richard Byrne

As has often been said, this will be the ‘Asian century’. For planners, the economic, political and cultural shift towards the fast-developing Asian nations holds enormous opportunities – for learning but also for careers and commerce.

The ever-elusive graduation date in July is nearing, bringing with it an end to four years studying town planning at the University of Liverpool. During this time I have been especially fortunate to have studied a semester at Xi’an-Jiaotong Liverpool University (XJTLU) in Suzhou, China, and it’s left me with a strong view that the next generation of planners need to engage with a rapidly globalising world.

The initial trepidation of studying abroad quickly settled thanks to the strong support network the university provided. From the get-go, however, something I found great comfort in was that even though I would be spending four months of my life away from loved ones, and with people I had never met, I went into the situation knowing I already held a common interest from which I could strike a relationship with the other students – our pursuit of a career in planning.

The welcome I received from the students in China was overwhelming and has gone a long way to influencing how I approach working alongside international students at home in my final year. All the fears that naturally cross your mind when making such an influential life decision were quickly dissolved once I arrived. I said to myself, ‘you’re here now and what you take from the experience is what you make of it.’

Perhaps the most striking observation I can make from my time in China is the contrast in political systems that planners work within compared to the UK. ...the work being done in universities – that people and communities matter and should be considered in all things planning including through sustainable development – is extremely encouraging.

The teaching I was a part of at XJTLU was on a par with its equivalent at Liverpool. An integral part of this was the diverse selection of lecturers from all over the world (Germany, Italy, New Zealand, China, Nepal and Britain to name a few) that enriched my overall experience socially, culturally and educationally.

Perhaps the most striking observation I can make from my time in China is the contrast in political systems that planners work within compared to the UK. Despite what we might read about China, the work being done in universities – that people and communities matter and should be considered in all things planning including through sustainable development – is extremely encouraging. Let’s hope that the next generation of planners integrate this into their work, the profession, and society.

I have no doubt that the exchange has improved my knowledge of planning and contributed enormously to my education. Perhaps more importantly, however, international exchanges serve a greater purpose in the development of the next generation of professionals, irrespective of where they have learnt. It improves you immensely as an individual and better adapts you to integrate into the increasingly globalised world we live in today.

On a personal level, nothing can compare you for moving abroad to live a chapter of your life in a country and culture so different to your own; it is an experience I have returned from incredibly humbled to have had.

Professionally, it is an experience that I will carry throughout the rest of my career. I have learnt a priceless amount from the opportunity to embrace a culture previously unknown to me. Commercially, the emerging market opportunities to attract Chinese and foreign investment into the UK through planning is something I will look to implement into my future work, something the unique experience I have had in China will help me utilise.

It’s also the case that, given the highly international nature of UK universities, notably the many international students who study here every year, in some ways you can gain international experience without having to leave the country. In my eyes however, we should encourage home students to grab the opportunity and study abroad while also maintaining the steady flow of international students into UK universities each year. The benefits to the profession in years to come, not to say society, could be profound.

I was fortunate enough to come across this opportunity through a lecture. Whether the information finds you or the other way around however, opportunities are there for the taking and your experience is what you make of it. The same goes for all UK planners in a fast-changing world.

About Richard Byrne

Richard Byrne is studying Town and Regional Planning at the University of Liverpool. Richard is a member of the RTPI’s North West Young Planners committee and is particularly interested in the role of planning in port cities, a subject he is researching in his dissertation. Graduating in July 2014, Richard is particularly looking forward to pursuing a career in planning and hopes to build upon his international experience in China.