The Bartlett Development Planning Unit


Leigh Holford

Leigh recounts experiences of studying MSc Environment and Sustainable Development at the Development Planning Unit

Leigh Holford

I was born in South Africa and moved to Australia at a young age. My exposure to the challenges of everyday life in South Africa from living and visiting there has always stuck with me. I suppose growing up in a country like Australia where good quality of life and access to opportunities are so readily available for most also magnified the inequality of those circumstances for me.

I also knew from my parent’s experiences that international agencies and consultants can do a lot of damage if they don’t understand the local environment - in the widest sense of culture, economy, society and natural environment.

After completing a BEcon/BA in Australia and a couple of years' work experience I decided to find a way to work in development and moved to the UK. I was lucky enough to get a job at Happold Consulting in London in 2007.

After a few years in international consulting working in the Middle East & North Africa I knew I felt a lot of things were perhaps ‘wrong’ or ‘right’ but I sought the extra the knowledge and experience to articulate why and how.

I had two colleagues already studying at the DPU and I was exposed to the interesting perspectives and knowledge they were able to bring to our projects as a result of their studies. Both the course content and the practical modules were what ultimately made me apply for the course.

From day one my focus was a countdown to the field trip, and it didn’t disappoint. However, both the core coursework and the optional courses were great. Like anything you get out of it what you put in, and my Masters experience was really different to my undergraduate years. I actually really wanted to be there!

The global focus of the course, but also my peers and teachers who came from over 20 different countries, expanded my world view immeasurably and I think I’m a better consultant for it. You also have access to professionals with international reputations in environment and sustainability work like David Satterthwaite and David Dodman from IIED. I think I will always count it as one of the best professional development choices I have made.

I went back to full-time work at Happold Consulting afterwards and worked on some amazing projects including a public transport strategy for Maputo in Mozambique, the Dar es Salaam 20 year Masterplan and for clients like The Kresge and Ford Foundations on The Detroit Works Project.

I know that the MSc ESD at DPU gave me the knowledge and skills to take on projects like these with sensitivity to the local environment but more importantly the confidence and conviction to be able to communicate to policy and decision makers why certain decisions should be made.

I’m now in Australia working on climate adaptation and infrastructure sustainability projects and working with groups like Green Cross and The Climate Institute.

The job market has become more competitive since the economic crisis and is persisting with on-going global economic volatility. I elected to do the course full-time and continue to work as much as I could while studying. While I was able to go back to my normal day job after the course, many of my peers did pro-bono work for a number of months before (mostly) being offered permanent positions.

My advice is to engage early with potential employers or do work experience and be prepared to work for free for a little while. I worked quite a bit while studying and still found time to go to the pub!