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David Sweeting

David recounts experiences of studying MSc Urban Development Planning at the Development Planning Unit

David Sweeting
Urban Technical Specialist – World Vision International (Melbourne, Australia)


I never imagined taking an academic or professional interest in planning when I first started as an engineer; however, the transition has come with both surprises and challenges. Planning is a tradition that is changing, although it is often associated with top-down practices such as master planning – and despite conjuring negative connotation at times - these practices cannot be dismissed entirely, and instead new planning must emerge that considers mainstream practices but also applies critical engagement with diversity of the environment.

Master planning approaches, whether valid or not in its current form, are found in all forms of professions. It’s in that vein, engineering draws on notions of control in design and execution, whether it be building motorcars or cities, the same principles are applied.

Therefore, I wanted to take a different approach to development planning to allow my curiosity in the subject of ‘building’ cities to grow, by beginning at a very basic and elemental level, and making places better for the people who live there. But also finding ways of capturing people in the process of planning, design and decision-making from start-to-finish.

I have always had an interest in design and the role it plays in making people’s lives better. Being an engineer has instilled those qualities in me, especially as I have moved into international development industry, which calls for greater understanding of participation both in the conception and pursuit of social justice.

My first professional experience in applying design to social needs, and tying in elements of social justice, came through the renewable energy industry where I was involved in research, development and production of fuel cells for home application in Australia. This piqued my interest in people-centred approaches that could be applied towards developing socially and environmentally sustainable products and solutions.

As my career turned towards international development, I quickly found myself looking at applying my skills in developing countries and cities, though technical skills were needed, it was equally important to reflect on process, participation, engagement and empowerment. Soon I would be involved in projects covering tangible outcomes, such as improving access and quality of water supply, shelter and services, but also other social issues such as HIV, TB, early childhood education, maternal child health and gender-based violence in variety of different contexts spanning Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Fiji, India, and Thailand.

In 2012, I decided to refocus my career, still staying in the field of international development, only this time leaning towards challenges in the urban context. Having worked across the rural-urban continuum in the Asia-Pacific, I found a greater interest in the complexity of urban challenges, particularly finding ways in which non-government organisations, private companies, academics institutions and government agencies can collaborate together on these issues.

Therefore, choosing MSc Urban Development Planning at the DPU/UCL was a natural choice, as it offered an international and multi-disciplinary perspective on the urban challenges faced by many different cities, and fostered a learning environment to share ideas and tackle philosophical and practical debates on both formal and informal urban development, through which students were able to discover ways that community-led strategies could emerge.

To bridge theory and practice, the course offered fieldwork to look at Olympic transport investments in East London, and housing policy and programmes in Bangkok. As the course progressed, I found a deeper interest in the city and it’s relations, participatory planning and policy, and housing policy and programme alternatives. This later fed into my dissertation research on requalifying urban slum upgrading at scale, through the cases of Kampung Improvement Programme, Indonesia and Baan Mankong, Thailand, touching on issues of informality, spaces of negotiation and citizenship in Southeast Asian cities.

Upon finishing the course, I worked as a consultant with World Vision International, firstly to evaluate an AusAID-funded urban project addressing gender-based violence in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea.

This was followed by another consultancy at The Centre of Expertise for Urban Programming, to lead a review into the World Health Organization’s healthy cities initiative in order to understand good practice and help World Vision shape an approach to programming health-related projects in the urban environment. It was through this research I was able to briefly work in Indonesia and visit slum areas (kampungs) in Surabaya where World Vision is currently working to improve urban agriculture, farming, and waste management.

I have recently taken on a full-time role at The Centre of Expertise for Urban Programming as Urban Technical Specialist to provide technical leadership on urban programming for World Vision globally. With a secretariat in Melbourne, Australia, the Urban Centre of Expertise partners with urban practitioners, agencies and institutes throughout Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East. Their commitment to high-quality urban research is contributing to innovative programmes that are impacting disadvantaged communities - especially the most vulnerable.

My role involves supporting these projects; directing primary/secondary research into related themes that can improve project design and implementation; strengthening partnerships for urban programming; supporting strategic framework development; and providing field level support and organizational capacity building to understand and respond to the growing number of urban challenges.