Log in | Register

Career development: Working overseas

Working overseas

For planners seeking to work abroad there is no substitute for researching your target country either on holiday or for a study visit. But bear in mind that working there will be very different. Mark Smulian reports

Working aboard can be an important career development opportunity for planners, but it needs some care. You should have some knowledge of the planning system of any country you are considering. In almost all cases planners work abroad because they have
volunteered through an organisation, or their employer has sent them.

For British nationals there are few legal impediments to working elsewhere in the European Union, but language barriers and differences in planning systems may make this problematic in practice.

Immigration restrictions make working in the US difficult, which means planners more often look to Commonwealth countries, where a history of similar planning systems and qualifications and sometime culture can make things easier.

RTPI international committee chair Peter Geraghty says: “I believe working overseas is a great opportunity to develop skills and experience as well as improving employability. Many countries employ innovative and interesting practices which can inform professional practice in the UK. This exchange of knowledge and experience can only be good for the profession.

“Our relationships with other institutes can often be useful when planners are intending to work abroad.”

The Commonwealth Association of Planners runs a Young Planners Network, and this may offer some informal opportunities for planners to contact each other. Its chair, Viral Desai, says: “We provide interchange of ideas and good practice between young planners, though we do not organise exchanges or placements ourselves.”

The RTPI offers guidance on working abroad on its website, and Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) can find posts for planners, although opportunities are uncommon. The surest way may be getting a job at a consultancy with international reach.

Case study 1: Working with VSO

Michael FoxMichael Fox MRTPI, associate planning director at Nash Partnership, spent two years volunteering in Kapiri Mposhi, Zambia.

“As an experience it’s second to none for personal development. I’d recommend it to anyone,” he says.

Fox worked as regional planning officer for the Central Province of Zambia on a VSO good governance project, “part of which is establishing a planning system that is fair, transparent and accountable”.

He explains: “The Zambian system has not changed much from British colonial times, when it was established to servethe interests of colonisers and a few people they worked with.

“It only applies to 10 per cent of land with the other 90 per cent being controlled by traditional chiefs and even the 10 per cent is still geared to low-density development of bungalows, which is very wasteful and does not produce enough homes.”

His role was to try to bring the remaining land within the formal planning system, which was “difficult as the chiefs mostly perceived this as being against their interests”.

But the new system needed the chiefs’ co-operation to be effective and Fox recalls: “I took part in negotiations with chiefs; I took them through theopportunities, which was quite a learning experience.

“Some are progressive and can see the benefits for their people, but others, frankly, need inducements before they will co-operate by putting their land into the planning system.”

Fox says he went to Zambia being “motivated by the opportunity to have a bigger impact on the world and deal with bigger issues”.

“I also wanted to give something back as I’d been a backpacking traveller when

I was young and had seen conditions in developing countries and I wanted to learn.

“It’s concerning when you are going, wondering if you are going to be living in a hut with snakes roaming or lions outside, but I lived in a three-bedroom bungalow."

Fox says his experience in Zambia helped his career through a better understanding of other cultures, something he is putting into practice though Nash’s programme to seek work in sub-Saharan Africa.

VSO’s volunteer relationship manager Skev Leonida says once the need for a volunteer post has been established

VSO will advertise them, and interview applicants. Each successful person must donate £985 to VSO. They will be provided with flights, a living allowance for food and general expenses, accommodation, medical insurance and £4 a day paid into their UK bank account.

Leonida says: “Town planning is not a skill very often sought, but when we do advertise it attracts plenty of interest.”

Case study 2: Working abroad for yourself

Steve Kemp of Open PlanSteve Kemp MRTPI, director of Think OpenPlan, worked in the Caribbean in a previous job and used this experience when he set up his own business.

“The main place we work is the Caribbean, where we did the spatial development strategy and environmental assessment guidance for Trinidad & Tobago, work on a community plan in Barbados and a scoping study for a national plan in St Vincent & the Grenadines,” he says.

Kemp says the country’s new planning law has modernised a system that was based on the British 1947 Planning Act.

“While the UK has changed and developed, in the Caribbean the planning system had fossilised, so they were dealing with legislation that was never well adapted to their needs and was frozen in time too,” he says.

“Trinidad & Tobago has taken what it needs from UK legislation and blended it with some things from North America and with what they have experienced since independence. It is still grounded in the UK and would be familiar to British planners.”

Kemp would advise those wanting to work aboard “tounderstand what different requirements there will be in the planning system in each region and to be very aware of different cultural attitudes and sensitive to them – for example, how land tenure can be seen very differently”.

His colleague Laura Bartle has also worked in Trinidad & Tobago, having previously worked elsewhere with Kemp.

“Its a huge career experience,” she says. “The big thing I took from it is to be much more appreciative of context.

“Keep your eyes open for opportunities and try to find people who already have contacts abroad, as you are not going to be able to just do this for yourself, you need that introduction.”

Case study 3: Working overseas for an employer

Zoe GreenYoung Planner of the Year Zoë Green MRTPI is a senior planning consultant for Atkins, a firm that works internationally and so can offer its staff experience abroad. She has worked in Bahrain, Colombia, Oman, Qatar and Sweden.

In Suhar, Oman, she worked on following up a master plan that Atkins had created in the 1980s to update it and check what had been done – a task involving some unusual planning measures, such as protecting mangrove swamps.

Green says: “It was my first experience in the Middle East. There are cultural differences, and differences in religious observance to be sensitive to, such as Ramadan, but people are generally open-minded. I thought there might be restrictions as a woman, but did not encounter any and a lot of the government departments we worked with were very mixed. Bahrain and Qatar are similar, although some places are much more strict.”

Her work in Sweden was in the Vetlanda municipality in the rural highlands, where the local planning director had worked in the UK and wanted “to import some of our methods”.

“They were interested in employment land reviews and open space assessments and looked to us for best practice. English is widely spoken in Sweden and I was even able to take part in some public consultations.”

Green has also worked in the Colombian city of Pereira on an urban open space study, where “we found that what they had was quite high quality and they could concentrate on improvements and upgrade them, rather than new spaces".

She says Atkins’ overseas assignments are “pretty full-on and there is little time to be a tourist, although as a planner you are going around seeing things anyway, but it’s quite a different experience to what you would have as a tourist.

“Those wanting to work abroad should look to engineering- based consultancies, as they do larger-scale projects so there is more opportunity to work abroad.”


The RTPI’s advice to planners seeking an exchange with an opposite number abroad warns, “it is as well to be realistic about what can be achieved”.

In most EU countries, differences in language, planning education and systems make exchanges problematic. The RTPI and the American Planning Association run a programme where UK-based planners spend two weeks working together in each other’s offices and living in each other’s homes.

While Australia and New Zealand have systems that will feel familiar, both have far fewer planners per head of population than the UK and salaries are lower, so exchange opportunities are limited.


- RTPI International

- Commonwealth Association of Planners

- Voluntary Service Overseas

- European Council of Spatial Planners

- Global Planners Network



  • A growing body of evidence suggests that green space has tangible health and economic benefits. Economist Caroline Vexler explains why now is the time for planners to focus on the case for green space

  • Wei Yang takes on the RTPI presidency with a rallying cry: our founding principles should inform our future ambitions. Martin Read reports.

  • Is there truly a case for blockchain technology within the planning process or could it be more hype than help? Unboxed’s Kassie Paschke and Rhian Lewis consider the pros and cons