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Simeon Shtebunaev: Learning from international cooperation

Simeon Shtebunaev is the RTPI's Young Planner of the Year

The American Planning Association, National Planning Conference 2023 took place in Philadelphia at the beginning of April and the online sessions at the end of the month. As the Young Planner of the Year, I had the opportunity to attend the eight days of packed learning in person and online. In the last two blogs, I reflected on two specific issues which left an impression - community engagement and arts and cultural planning. In this final blog I would like to focus on the key reason for attending such events - internationalism, and how this can benefit planners’ work in their very local context.

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.“ (Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad, or The New Pilgrims’ Progress, 1869) These words of Samuel Clemens resonated with me throughout our stay in Philadelphia. Having a distorted image of American politics and social life largely due to the news cycle, I was surprised at the welcoming nature, walkable city and public funding which clearly has gone in maintaining the urban realm. Obviously, large scale societal issues were present, however the nuances were much more pronounced. What did strike me was the sense of civic pride and the lack of feeling of otherness; everyone I met was themselves or had a family member or ancestor who was an immigrant. It made me think of the attitudes in England when I arrived here in 2010, when being foreign was interesting to most people, not something to be politely avoided in a conversation.

As a member of the International Committee, I was involved in the early stages of developing the The RTPI International Strategy 2021 - 2030. It was fantastic to see the four pillars of the strategy in action. One early morning, we hosted the first international breakfast welcoming members who have made the USA their home and sharing experiences about the transition. I was fascinated listening to the stories of planners, who have had to go through the immigration system in America and how the RTPI community has helped them to navigate some of the challenges.

As a Young Planner, I was fascinated to meet up with the APA Student Representative Council at their booth at the expo hall, and learn about the ways that chartership works within the American context. The AICP (American Institute of Certified Planners) system was something which I wasn’t very familiar with - a certification programme which tests your knowledge on the spot. If we think our APC process is cumbersome, imagine having to sit an exam as well! Whereas maybe the Young Planners equivalent is not as well developed in the USA, what works fantastically well are the interest groups the association has. Called divisions, each one focuses on a specific issue, 54 in total. I had the opportunity to attend two receptions - one at the International Division at Penn University and the LGBTQ+ Division held at Philly’s Gayborhood.

The International Division reception

The structure of having interest groups formalised outside of regional governance was something which I think we need to learn from and embrace. The International Division reception showcased the work that the APA is engaged in such as partnerships with MIT and engaging in UN-Habitat structures. The LGBTQ division was attended by hundreds of queer planners and created a safe space on the sidelines of the conference which I was appreciative of. Another interesting approach was the dedicated ombudsperson for the conference, there to challenge any inappropriate behaviour that might happen when thousands of people congregate.

On the final day of the NPC23 in Philly we sat down at an in-person meeting of the Global Planners Network - an international association of planning institutes. Around the table were the CEOs of the founding members - The Canadian Institute of Planners, The Planning Institute of Australia, the American Planning Association, the New Zealand Planning Institute and of course the RTPI. What struck me about the discussion, which focused around the recently published APA 2023 Trend Report for Planners where the similarities in the challenges that the profession is facing worldwide - issues of cost of living, professional value, intergenerational shifts and political uncertainties were all present in each of the contexts. It was worth noting that the trend report, even though having an American context, captured a lot of the issues we all need to face collectively. A valuable perspective complimenting the GPN’s meeting was the presence of Bruce Stiftel, representing the Global Planning Education Association Network. In a globalised world, both planning practice and education need to constantly collaborate across borders in order to learn from each other.

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Simeon enjoyed an international dinner with Anglosphere planners  

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Simeon attended a breakfast meeting of the GPN

The Anglosphere is not the only international realm the RTPI is active in. The Commonwealth Association of Planners and its Young Planner’s sub-group are well-developed networks which, while having English as the common language, encompass many diverse countries. I have been involved in the creation of the 13th Commonwealth youth network - the Commonwealth Youth for Sustainable Urbanisation - an interdisciplinary body encompassing architects, planners, engineers, universities and local government early-career professionals dedicated to knowledge exchange and capacity building. As a European citizen myself, I have also been engaging with the European Council of Spatial Planners, which also runs a very successful Young Planners initiative.

All of the organisations above I have found are incredibly welcoming, open and eager to support members and engage in collaborations. The moment you are a member of the RTPI you are automatically a member of all of the above-mentioned global networks, opening your opportunities to learn, practice and connect internationally. The RTPI International Lead and team are also at your disposal to help you with any enquiries and there are International Groups in some of the regions. My perspective on planning practice and possibilities of what we can achieve has expanded just by attending the American Planning Association conference - I challenge each one of you, and especially Young Planners, to connect, find the opportunities and if possible attend an international event in the UK or abroad, you will not regret it!

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