Meet a Geographer — Helping people

Ryan van den Nouwelant

'Planner - Social/Affordable Housing' at the City of Sydney Council

Ryan van den Nouwelant

I work in the strategic planning team, helping to identify opportunities for growth and development in the Sydney CBD and inner-city areas like Newtown, Glebe and Kings Cross. As my title suggests, I look specifically for ways to increase the amount of social housing (typically government-owned housing for pensioners and other very low income households) and affordable housing (typically run by not-for-profit community groups for low- or moderate-income working households).

… I have worked on making our footpath dining areas less discriminatory against people with a disability … Inner-city Sydney is an increasingly desirable place to live. And that gentrification lifts housing costs beyond reach of many people who work in the area, or have other connections to the community. So I plan for a diversity of housing types; to support the diversity of the local community and workforce, and to ensure the ongoing (social, environmental and economic) sustainability of the City. I spend most my time meeting with other government agencies, with land owners and developers, with community groups and academics, and with my colleagues here at the City of Sydney to garner and synthesise ideas on efficient funding, construction and management strategies for these important housing types.

I have also worked on other aspects of urban planning in the City. To give you an idea of the diversity, I have worked to improve the way our 'evening economy' (such as the nightlife in Kings Cross) is run; I have worked on making our footpath dining areas less discriminatory against people with a disability; and I have worked on reducing the ecological footprint of new and existing buildings in the City.

The best aspects of my job

… coming up with new ideas, and putting the pieces together to enable those necessary changes to happen; that's what I enjoy about my job. 90% of Australians (and, in recent years, the majority of all people on earth) live in a city, so we need to get them right. I'm quite passionate about making our cities work more efficiently and sustainably. Reducing our cities' carbon footprints is the most pressing change that needs to be made now, but if done haphazardly these changes could be at the expense of our quality of life. Conversely, if done well, the changes we make to address climate change can also address other issues of dense urban living - social dislocation, economic disparity and the loss of ecological diversity. And that's the challenge I enjoy as an urban planner.

Urban planning is also one of the first stages in laying out these changes — before design or construction - and I enjoy having to see something that isn't there yet; working with the 'blank canvas'. Except, of course, my canvas isn't blank: it already houses people - and their jobs, schools and lives. The unique environmental circumstances of every city means there is rarely a simple way to implement those necessary changes, and even more rarely is there a solution that has worked somewhere else that transfers easily to context I'm working in. Working with colleagues to explore the solutions of different cities, coming up with new ideas, and putting the pieces together to enable those necessary changes to happen; that's what I enjoy about my job.

My career pathway

… travelling in Europe, got me interested in the vibrancy and diversity of big cities …I did all the straight sciences at school (physics, chemistry, maths), but wanted more variety at university. I signed up for a combined science and arts degree at the University of Sydney. I continued studying physics and maths, but complemented it with social sciences, including geography. I enjoyed geography the most, and ended up with a Bachelor of Science, with honours and a geography major. My honours research project involved field work in Southeast Asia, looking at community development in rural areas of the Mekong Delta in Vietnam. After I graduated, I continued to focus on natural resource management in the Mekong region, working with the Australian Mekong Research Centre at the University of Sydney, and with universities in Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and China.

I then did some travelling with my partner through China, Tibet and Nepal, and ended up working in London. Among my odd jobs (including marketing for Porsche) I worked with Transport for London, a government agency that looks after buses, taxis, the Tube and pretty much anything that moves in London! This work, and travelling in Europe, got me interested in the vibrancy and diversity of big cities, and the complexity of managing them. I returned to Australia and undertook a Master of Design Science, with a Sustainable Design major, through the architecture faculty at the University of Sydney. And, sitting at the nexus of social and design sciences in the city was urban, or town, planning. Other than some casual work with another council, I have been with the City of Sydney since.

Future career options

… the potential to travel as part of my career is a real draw card.In the public sector, there are lots of opportunities to continue planning cities (or regions, states or countries!) at a strategic level, and developing policies in not only environmental planning, but also other environmental, development and land use areas. Most urban planners start in the public sector, but many move across to the private sector, where there are more senior opportunities with land owners and developers managing the masterplanning of large sites, and with not-for-profit groups in an advocacy and research capacity.

One of the best opportunities of an urban planning career, is that my skills and experience are universally valued. I know Australian planners who have gone on to work in the UK, Dubai, and China. As the kind of person who is more excited by the exotic than the familiar, the potential to travel as part of my career is a real draw card.

Advice to people considering this type of career

It's hard to go wrong — nearly everyone in my team has worked in other fields before becoming an urban planner. Urban planning, like a lot of geography, puts a higher degree of rigour and system to something that is mostly common sense. Living, working and playing in cities is all useful experience when viewed through the lens of an urban planner.

More pragmatically, try to search out student placements. These positions often don't need qualifications and can be juggled with tertiary study commitments. And, importantly, they provide a lot more opportunity than other casual jobs. My first job in urban planning, with Bankstown Council, was as a casual student development assessment officer (dealing with building applications); and my foot in the door with the City of Sydney was as a student planner. Even if you can't stay on at the same organisation, having relevant work experience when you finish your degree will give you a big advantage. Student placements are often advertised, but it may also be worth cold calling any organisations you like the look of, to find out if and when they recruit students.