The Bartlett Development Planning Unit


Katja Schäfer

Katja recounts experiences of studying MSc Building & Urban Design in Developmentat the Development Planning Unit

During and after completion of my studies in Architecture, Urban and Regional Planning at the Bauhaus University in Weimar, I had numerous exposures to diverse cultural settings. My first internship supporting the urban rehabilitation of the old city in Aleppo/ Syria was followed by a severe “cultural shock” that took me several years to overcome. Since then I had always been drawn to the idea of working abroad.

Once I returned from an urban research in Gujarat/ India followed by intensive travels on the sub-continent, I lacked a clear vision on how to commence a meaningful professional path and when the opportunity arose to join an architectural firm in London, I did not hesitate a minute to take up the assignment. However, soon after I realized that working for a commercial firm with conventional design projects was not going to be my future. Building schemes for rather wealthy clients did not represent the wider ideas I had been envisioning to contribute to more sustainable building issues.

A scholarship allowed me to take a break from my architectural practice, and I joined the MSc Development and Planning: Building and Urban Design in Development (BUDD). I felt very comfortable in the international setting at DPU and as part of a small group of DPU scholars and friends we enjoyed long discussions on emerging concerns and participated actively in the anti-Iraq-war movement. Here also we applied participatory methods and the “peace tree” at Hyde Park became a rather successful event that was replicated more than a few times.

I decided to take the theme of the field trip further and focused during my dissertation on strategic planning for the historic city of Galle/ Sri Lanka, elaborating on community participation in heritage preservation while building an economic base for the city as well as the region. Soon after graduating I had been appointed to remain at the DPU, taking over responsibilities as a course assistant and lecturer. I enjoyed this task but lacking the relevant experience in the field, I decided based on the request by UN-HABITAT after the Tsunami in 2005 to advice on community based rehabilitation efforts in various affected areas along the coastline of Sri Lanka. 

Having been a tough but forming experience, I decided to continue the work “in the field” and joined UN-HABITAT as an Urban Planner in the Somalia Programme where I was responsible for the development of Strategic Urban Plans and the implementation of Priority Projects in four cities in Somaliland, focusing on vulnerable and marginalized groups of society.

Working within the weak administrative system of a failed state, a key task has been to strengthen local government as a vital player in development. I continued a similar approach during an assignment with GTZ by supporting national authorities in developing a strategy for the preservation of historic cities in Yemen, working closely with local communities and their respective representative authorities.

Just recently and after more than five years of exposure to extremely challenging concerns on the ground, I decided to re-join UN-HABITAT as a Human Settlements Officer for the Arab Region, advising various projects on strategic development issues. My interest has shifted from sheer physical orientation of human settlements to the wider development issues, particularly urban and regional development matters at a strategic level. Hereby, decentralization and governance have been in the forefront. Based on my experience, I am currently considering returning to the academia and commencing a research on the role of urban areas and governance in state formation, especially in failed states.

With the experience of the past years in mind, I believe that the BUDD course has enabled me to take up the professional path that I am most comfortable with, combining theory and practice in sustainable urban development and local governance issues. Even though I have had to recognize many inconveniences in my private life, I am professionally satisfied and pleased that I have had the chance to follow my dreams. Being a member of the wider DPU family, colleagues and friends are spread all over the world.