City growth plan tester

Consultant planner Suzanne Asher's positive view of the contribution made by the profession to improving major urban areas been reinforced by a trip to New York, she tells Katie Daubney.

Last year's UN State of the World Population report notes: "In 2008, the world reaches an invisible but momentous milestone. For the first time in history, more than half its human population, 3.3 billion people, will be living in urban areas."

For Roger Tym & Partners (RTP) associate Suzanne Asher, this prospect inspired a trip to New York to find out whether there were any lessons that could be applied to other world cities. "Planners are cited as key to managing this burgeoning urban population by providing sustainable areas. The report highlights New York's city plan, known as PlaNYC, as a good example of planning for growth," she notes.

With this in mind, Asher applied for a Planning Summer School annual travel scholarship. Every year, the school awards two travelling scholarships, one to a practitioner and one to a student. "By April you need to submit an outline of where you want to go and what you want to do there, accompanied by an itinerary." She heard that she had won the scholarship in June and went to New York for a week in July.

Asher had visited the Big Apple about ten years earlier, but this trip was a far cry from the usual tourist trail. She went to areas that had suffered from underinvestment for years but were surprisingly close to more affluent areas. One was the Hudson Yards, stretching west from Times Square to the Hudson River. "Uncovered railway tracks below ground level prevent development, so the area is rundown and feels unsafe. The Hudson Yards Development Corporation will lead the city's plans to deck over the railyards and build on top," she found.

Asher comes over as someone with a genuine interest in learning how to make real improvements to the places in which people live and work. She remembers a geography A level field trip to Birmingham that she found stimulating, even though classmates were bored by it. "I thought it was interesting how the city authorities were changing the environment for the better," she says.

"I grew up in the South West, which was a very different landscape because we did not have tower blocks or big housing estates." Castle Vale on the edge of Birmingham was an eye-opener. "It was rundown, with lots of joy riding and crime. Since then it has been successfully regenerated under a housing action trust and residents' lives have improved."

Asher began her planning career at the London Borough of Lewisham, spending much of her time on community consultation. She moved to RTP in 2001 because she wanted to work in central London on a range of major projects. "Working for a local authority, you have to be dedicated to one area and get to know it well. I wanted to experience a wider range of work."

Apart from learning new things and taking on different tasks, Asher claims not to have a big career plan. Yet she seems to be making more than steady progress. In New York, she was struck by the can-do attitude of the Americans she met. "They were so positive about the city and its traditions and wanted to plan for its future," she reports.

She tells me that although New York City has one of the largest urban park systems in the USA, provision has not kept pace with population growth. One aim of the city plan is that every New Yorker should live within ten minutes' walk of a park. The aim is to improve quality of life and public health, in particular to combat the high asthma rates among children.

She also found a real enthusiasm among communities to improve their environments: "Different departments are working together to find solutions. The schools department, for example, is allowing playgrounds to be used in the evening to improve accessibility to green areas."

The plan has not been without its critics, she discovered. Some feel that the negative aspects of population growth, such as overcrowding and strain on services, have not been taken fully into account. Another criticism is that it relies on a growth scenario that will be severely tested by the current economic downturn, particularly if it results in fewer people moving to the city.

Asher was invited to give a presentation on her New York trip at this September's summer school. If a range of population scenarios had been explored, she suggests, progress in areas such as housing delivery could be measured against them. Summing up the key messages, she concludes: "If I were to apply any lessons from the study to my job, being positive and believing that planners' work can make a difference would be top of the list."


Age: 33

Family: Partner

Education: BA (Hons) in planning studies, Sheffield Hallam University; diploma in town planning, University College London

Interests: Reading, travelling, comedy

2001: Consultant rising to associate, Roger Tym & Partners

2001: Regeneration officer, London Borough of Lewisham

2000: Planning assistant, Silwood Estate single regeneration budget team.

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