This interview features in the August 2015 edition of The Planner as a part of a series of interviews with RTPI members working around the world.
Name: Asad Shaheed, RTPI Honorary Member
Job title: Director, Urban Planning, Europe
What do you currently do?
I am the Director of Master Planning at CH2M. Whilst based in London, I am engaged in a number of master planning projects across the world. Recent work includes industrial projects for the government and private clients in Saudi Arabia, regional plans for the Governments of Mauritius and Trinidad and integrated development projects for government corporations in China.
My role is to lead projects which deal exclusively with urban planning or to lead the master planning sub-team where projects extend to providing multi-disciplinary outputs.
What are your working hours?
I have no fixed working hours. We have offices across the world and I work with local teams based in different countries. As such I have no fixed hours of work nor really a regular working week. The Middle East week starts on a Sunday, offices in the US and Middle East start and end their work either side of our working day in London. Added to this is extensive travel, so I grab free time and often a mid-week "weekend" whenever the work load allows!
What attracted you to the profession?
I was trained as an architect in the US and in the mid 1970s worked on some great building projects in the US and in Iran. In the late 1970s I got involved with multi-disciplinary teams in preparing urban design guidelines for the city of Tehran (pictured, right) and on master plans for two secondary cities for the for the Government of Iran. This work revealed a unique insight into how buildings and spaces interact within their urban context, and served as the impetus that would shift my professional emphasis from architecture to urban design. Thereafter I worked on two World Bank sponsored projects in Cameroon and Jordan that addressed the upgrading of squatter settlements and provided essential shelter to low income urban dwellers. These projects which examined housing less from a physical design perspective and more from an affordability and socio-economic viewpoint, further focussed my attention on urban planning.
What are the three biggest issues in the built environment where you live?
London is enjoying economic prosperity and experiencing a building boom but development appears skewed towards high end housing. While that may well be in direct response to market demand and to structural evolution of the urban economy, these changes in land use which are driven at a local level raise a couple of questions for the city as a whole. First, is that without overall plan guidance for the greater London area, the replacement of former city centre employment (industry, offices, workshops etc.) with housing and service retail may lead to a dilution of the city centre's function as an employment core. The second is that the development being offered may be out of reach for residents on modest incomes and equally for small businesses. The challenge is to ensure that investment in new development which in itself is highly welcome, also manages to maintain an equilibrium of land usage in the wider city.
What aspect of the planning system would you change?
I feel there is a case to increase the emphasis on forward planning at a city scale in parallel with planning at local levels. This is the only way in which one can ensure balanced growth. Plans at the city scale can provide both a vision and guidelines for spatial growth without being prescriptive.
What is the best part of where you live?
The best part of cities is often their "unbuilt" environments. Social networks, community diversity, the natural environment, all help to underpin a rich quality of life. For me the river in London is a seminal feature of the city.
If I could change one thing about where I live…
London (pictured, below) is a world-class city and an exemplar of a well-planned urban environment. It needs no change, just a periodic health check on the directions that its land use patterns may be taking over time, and whether these new patterns are continuing to maintain a genuinely integrated city.
If you could change one thing about the planning profession what would it be?
To promote a closer link between planning and urban design. As built form is the ultimate manifestation of planning policy, I feel that greater emphasis should be placed on formulating appropriate urban design guidelines in the plan preparation process. There may still be a gap in guidance provided by land use and transportation policy on one hand and the design and delivery of projects on the other.
Is there anything else you think UK planners should know about planning?
A knowledge of UK planning is readily exportable. Planning systems in cities across the world either have roots in British town planning principles or have made adaptations to suit local conditions. A background in UK planning will place professionals on a sound footing abroad.
Is there anything useful the RTPI assists you with in your role?
The RTPI is a highly respected institution overseas and seen as both the promoter and guardian of the art and science of British town planning. Membership of the RTPI therefore lends substantial credibility to consultants working overseas.
How did you end up working outside of the UK?
Perhaps a question more apt is how I ended up working in the UK! My background is a little unusual. My father was a United Nations official and we travelled extensively when I was growing up. We were based in New York when I completed my Master's degree and I worked in the US before moving to Iran in the mid 1970's. From there to the UK in 1979. I have since been with my present company, doing more or less what I do now which is to deliver planning projects across the world from a base in London. I have since worked in some 40 countries on a wide range of projects for the public and private sectors and for international and bi-lateral agencies.
Any favourite foods?
I like a wide variety of international cuisines and am very fortunate to be able to enjoy local food in its original environment when I travel for work.