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Finding my way into a future in planning and urban design

Ashleigh Gill is a mature student studying her first year at Westminster University studying Designing Cities: Planning and Architecture.

Embarking on a degree at a later age is not an obvious choice. But at seventeen, when a lot of people do go to university, I really didn’t know what I wanted to do. What I did know was that I liked drawing and I liked people and I liked places, so I travelled, tried a design course briefly, fell into what turned out to be an enjoyable client services career and started a family.

Through my children’s primary school years, I was drawn to volunteer on various local, community-based projects whilst I worked freelance in my main career. I found my voluntary work rewarding, it taught me the power of good community engagement and, in getting closer to my community, I was able to better appreciate what was important locally.

In 2020 we were in the midst of the pandemic. An advert from my local council for an apprenticeship in planning caught my eye and I looked into planning further. I couldn’t miss the local changes in response to the Covid-19 pandemic; the pavement widening, the parklets that sprang up around the LTN’s and the park bursting to closing with people getting their daily exercise.  I was beginning to appreciate that planning is people and planning is places and although I didn’t get the apprenticeship, the research for it set me on a new path.

I found my way to the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) who were hosting talks online and there were almost daily sessions that I could join. I tried a lot, expecting to reach a point where I would say planning is important but not for me. Instead, I found that planning is a broad field and that it is all interesting. I tried talks on sustainable drainage in Hammersmith and Southbank, Dutch-style roundabouts in Cambridge, placemaking in Aberdeen, planning for neurodiversity in Plymouth, modern methods of construction and many more topics. I was beginning to understand that this is how our rural areas, our towns, cities and the whole country works.

I applied for jobs but without an academic degree it was going to be difficult to be considered, I looked at courses accredited by the RTPI and this led me to Westminster University who offer a degree course that spans two disciplines: planning and architecture.

University life is rewarding, challenging and stimulating and at this stage I believe it is the community element of planning that I am most drawn to, but I am looking forward to seeing where this degree will take me and what it will introduce me to along the way.

About the Michael Welbank Scholarship

The RTPI-Michael Welbank Scholarship, launched in September 2021, commemorates the life and work in London of Michael Welbank MBE, who died in September 2020, and who served as the RTPI’s President in 1992-93.

This new initiative targets those who have entered a London Planning School via a widening participation programme including students from under-represented demographics, lower- income and disadvantaged backgrounds to help encourage diverse talent into the profession.

We are committed to promoting and representing a diverse and inclusive profession and ensuring that planning education is accessible to all, as evidenced in our ten year corporate Strategy CHANGE action plan and are grateful of the opportunity to offer this scholarship over the next three years. In its first year, the £2000 scholarship was shared between James Smart from London South Bank University and Ashleigh Gill from University of Westminster.

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