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Pinpointing the perfect planner: The best in the industry

Published on: 18 Oct 2016

Visionary, communicator, negotiator – all roles played by great planners. The Planner’s consultant editor Huw Morris looks at what it takes to be the best

What does it take to be a great planner? The profession has many giants past and present – but what characteristics set the greats apart? Put simply, planning is all about creating great places for people – and that takes vision.

“A great planner is a visionary,” says Chris Shepley, principal of Chris Shepley Planning. “Someone who can see into the future and make connections between things, who can anticipate and deal with problems that arise, and who can do something new.” The ability to communicate and compromise is crucial. RTPI president Phil Williams describes it as being “compassionate” with the communities that planners are seeking to improve. But this must be accompanied by “an understanding of the political dimension to decision-making, having negotiation skills, and through these skills trying to affect the right decisions in the right place at the right time”.

Planners must listen to fellow professionals and the community, says the RTPI’s Wales and Northern Ireland director Roisin Willmott. “They need to be politically astute and able to work across disciplines, understanding others’ needs and able to see opportunities within the short and longer term context. An appreciation of the longer term is important – their customer is society, which comprises innumerable interests.” RTPI Scotland and Ireland director Craig McLaren cites confidence and persuasiveness as key skills to provide predictability for communities, developers and investors. “They need to be outward looking within the organisation they work and outside so that they can demonstrate the added value that they, and planning, bring to a place or project,” he says. Then there’s perseverance. Shepley argues: “A great planner also needs to be determined, because planners work on complex projects in both the public and private sectors and things can take a long time to come to fruition, so you have to persevere. “A sense of humour always helps,” he adds.


Patrick Geddes

An all-time planning great, this polymath of the Victorian era was highly influential in the 20th century. He pioneered the concept of “region” in planning, as well as architecture, and even introduced the term “conurbation” into the English language. Geddes put the human first in planning and was groundbreaking in his work on the interactions between people, place and work.


Ebenezer Howard

The founder of the garden city movement, Letchworth Garden City and Welwyn Garden City are enduring examples of his legacy. Many of the principles first elaborated by Howard in the 19th century inform town planning today. More recently, all political parties are looking to a new generation of garden cities as part of the answer to the UK’s housing crisis.


Alison Nimmo

The chief executive of The Crown Estate is the country’s top female regeneration professional and her career highlights include the rebuilding of Manchester and Sheffield, as well as the transformation of derelict land into the Olympic Park. Nimmo is widely admired for her unusual mix of leadership with technical skills, strategic intelligence and political savvy.


Sir Terry Farrell

With more than 40 years as a planner and architect, Farrell’s projects range from London’s Charing Cross Station and Edinburgh’s International Conference Centre to Birmingham’s Brindley place, the Greenwich Peninsula and Paddington Basin. He is a considerable force in Asia, where his projects have included Beijing South Railway Station, Guangzhou Station and Incheon International Airport.


Sylvia Law

Elected in 1974 as the RTPI’s first ever woman to become president, Law’s work at Kent County Council highlighted the destructive expansion of suburbia into the countryside and led to major controls on speculative development in the Garden of England. She also pioneered initiatives on open spaces and outdoor recreation.


Sir Peter Hall

The grand master of planning academia and an inspiration to generations of professionals, Hall was the probably the most influential planner in the post-war years. He wrote and edited around 50 books and influenced politicians of all political colours. Hall was also the father of the enterprise zone, which has been adopted across the world.


Michèle Dix

As managing director of Crossrail 2, Dix is implementing London’s massive new rail scheme. Widely recognised as one of the best transport planners in the country, she was previously head of planning at Transport for London, where she set the strategic direction for the capital’s future transport needs.