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Young Planner of the Year Q&A

An interview with Simeon Shtebunaev

Simeon Shtebunaev won RTPI Young Planner of the Year at the national ceremony in November 2022. He was nominated for his work promoting the value of planning at a national and international level, fostering cross-discipline discussion between architects and planners, and engaging young people in shaping the future of their cities.

Simeon was interviewed by Bart Shirm MRTPI. Bart is a Senior Planning Policy Officer at Sandwell Metropolitan Borough Council and committee member for the RTPI West Midlands Young Planners.


Bart: What has been your highlight of being Young Planner of the Year so far?

Simeon: I’m really interested in early career professionals and the climate emergency. Attending meetings with the heads of different institutes means I’ve been in the room and I’ve been able to challenge them about climate issues so that its meaningfully embedded in practice and not just talked about.

Travelling to America was amazing – the planning system there is very very different to the UK but the issues are the same. To me it was shocking how easily we can relate to issues of shortage of planners, issues with equality, and politics influencing planning.

Bart: How have you championed planning at an international level?

Simeon: I’m involved in the Commonwealth Association of Planners. We launched a manifesto in 2018 to talk about sustainable urbanisation in the Commonwealth. On the back of that we set up a youth organisation which has become a network of different disciplines helping to address the skills shortage. Like in Nigeria, in the next 20 years the population could grow by 25%. The urbanisation growth is massive yet there are very few skilled professionals. It’s about knowledge exchange and even decolonisation, and how professionals in the UK can help up-skill young people in Commonwealth countries.

Bart: Would planners benefit from more exposure to other built environment disciplines?

Simeon: Yes, especially if you are a development management planner you need to speak to RICS and RIBA because there is a different logic to projects. Architects use techniques and ideas that busy planners don’t have time to understand in the same way. It’s not about being an expert but understanding the potential pitfalls. You need an awareness of their process to know what questions to ask.

Bart: What do you like about living in Birmingham?

Simeon: What I like about Birmingham is that it has really diverse neighbourhoods, and not just ethnically, which leads to different neighbourhoods feeling very different. It could potentially sustain very different economies which is interesting. A a lot of my friends are artists or work the creative arts scene, and Birmingham is one of those places where you can really test things and break them and see if they work. Even in placemaking, you’d be surprised how many things started in Birmingham as council initiatives and have grown to become international ideas – but the link has been severed with Birmingham somewhere.

After the Commonwealth Games perceptions are changing. Even Joe Lycett and the TV production hub at The Bond is changing perception a lot. I think everybody outside Birmingham isn’t bothered about its reputation. The problem is internal and people in Birmingham don’t believe in themselves that much. People in Manchester and Sheffield are so proud in comparison.

Bart: What could improve the liveability of the city?

Simeon: In Birmingham the problem has always been the urban realm. People always say Birmingham has development challenges, which is true, but the city is getting a lot of investment. At the moment you have a city where you can’t walk, you can’t cycle, everything is constantly dug-up and there is no joined up thinking between what planning obligations are used for. Colmore Row is starting to change that, but if you don’t have a good public realm, regardless of what buildings you put in, it’s never going to feel joined-up as a city.

Bart: Tell me about the game you developed, Climania

Simeon: We got funding from UK Research and Innovation: Arts and Humanities Research Council to develop the board game Climania. The idea was to develop an engagement tool with young people between 14 and 18 years old around climate. Board games are good collaborative tools because they force you to talk to other people.

The methodology is about interaction. It was about the process of creating the game and recruiting and commissioning young people to think about their neighbourhood in Balsall Heath [Birmingham], and understanding from their perspective what the main issues are in the built environment. They developed everything, the mechanics and topics, and we used deliberative democracy rounds to get unanimous decisions.

It shows that a planning authority could easily do this. You need someone with a bit of skill, available time and that is willing to take the risk and talk to people in the community as well as just young people.

Bart: How can we encourage more young people to become involved with planning?

Simeon: I think planning and the built environment are very nebulous concepts not just to young people but anybody really. How decisions are made and what does it actually mean to plan a city just doesn’t figure in any education or civic engagement. Once you demystify it people start realising it’s not that complicated actually and there is a lot of opportunities to engage.

I’m interested in getting young people to understand planning. Like many professions, the issue is that engagement is usually about getting young people to consider it as a career. But what we actually need is a generation of people that understand the value of planning as clients and users, and think about the built environment in a strategic and a systematic way, recognising that my neighbourhood is good or bad because of a wider system and thinking how can I enact change. Young people are ostracised from all systems, but planning is one that you can easily enter because it’s all around you and planners would be interested to have young people engage. Planning isn’t something that happens to you. You can understand it and influence it, but you first need to recognise it as a thing. 


This year’s Young Planners Conference will be in Birmingham 13 - 14 October. Tickets will be on sale week commencing 19 June. Keep an eye here for more:

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