Plans, Places, and Processes: Do You Need to Travel to Understand Them?

Ann Forsyth's picture

In recent blogs I have written about places and plans in many different locales and through time. Students often ask, "do I need to visit places to know about them"? My answer is typically no, that a brief visit can be worse than no visit, as one is potentially locked in the tourist gaze, and reading multiple works on a place can provide a really good sense of the locale. The field of history relies on people learning remotely; it is possible to do this with geography while also keeping your personal carbon footprint low.

Some people feel travel will help them get into graduate school. Foreign travel, particularly in high school or as an undergraduate, is one of the class of experiences that I call a characteristic, not an achievement. Achievements are key in gaining admission. Foreign travel early in life typically reflects features of your environment. For example, it often shows that your family is educated, affluent, and in good health--so they do not need financial and personal support from you and there may be an expectation of travel. It may also indicate that you are from a family of immigrants and you have relatives to visit. Alternatively, your school teachers, college, or faith community may have been energetic in arranging excursions for foreign language training, service projects, and the like. 

Being situated so that you do travel can certainly lead to self reflection, new knowledge, political insights, and such, which are achievements. If you want to work overseas, some substantial experience can be useful. In the U.S. the Peace Corps is available, for example (though in many other countries such programs target the highly experienced only, so this is not something to be expected outside the U.S). But significant reflection and knowledge about places and plans can also be spurred by reading Salman Rushdie or Jane Jacobs (among others of course!), becoming active in supporting an international aid group, and working in a regular job. There are many terrific groups that do important work abroad and that can use your support (a great use for some of the funds you might use for travel). Reading about them can increase your knowledge about places. There are some wonderful blogs, internet sites, and publications that can help you understand places and plans. I have highlighted many such sources in earlier posts. Current favorites include:

Overall, reading, imagery, internet sources, and talking with people are really viable ways of learning about places, plans, and processes. Learning about planning history, the focus of many of my blog entries this year, requires such sources.

I have been writing about planning history and have provided blogs about plans and places; a process blog is coming up! Thanks to Amanda Wilson, a graduate student at Cornell, for very helpful comments on this blog. 

Ann Forsyth is professor of Urban Planning at Harvard University.



Thanks for the advice!

Great post Ann.

I've often had the same question in my head. As a planning student, I've felt constrained by the restricted accessibility and time required to geographically experience plans and processes. Nevertheless, being in an environment radically different than yours can greatly contribute to the passion one feels for bettering the built environment and understanding it. This especially works when you get to talk to people whose lives and habitations have been directly shaped by the forces of urban planning.

Just recently, I visited the cities of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and Camden, New Jersey. I witnessed many signs of urban decay that I had never been aware of from my London-centric world-view. It was shocking. Remote learning was complimentary, it led to a greater understanding of the social ills that many American cities face.

Online Land Planning

I agree with your points and take it one step further by referencing a true business model.

The planners at Online Land Planning <""> never physically go to see the sites they work on. The business model is predicated on saving property owners (especially with limited access to professional services, or located in remotel areas) time and money, while keeping a low carbon footprint, as you suggest.

OLP has successfully completed projects throughout the world using technology and the internet in places such as the US, UAE, Ukraine, Australia, China and India.

On the other hand, this is only able to be done because the planners are experienced and have seen the world throughout their careers. This helps them link "place and experience together" in order to create relevant urban form that is credible, based on precedent and creates value.

Rick Abelson,
Online Land Planning

Online Land Planning

I agree with your post and suggest taking it one step further with your readers.

Online Land Planning has a business model that is based on not having the planner ever travel to the site. As a result, this allows land owners that have been disenfranchsied because of limited access to professional services or situated in remote locations throughout the world to save time and money, while also minimizing the carbon footprint.

Instead, necessary data is transmitted through secure .ftp sites and the internet and other technology play a vital role in bridging the gap in countless ways. OLP has completed projects in the US, UAE, Australia, India and China using this methodology.

On the other hand, the only reason that this is able to happen is because the planners involved are highly experienced and throughout their careers have travelled extensively in the past. In this way, they are able to link "form and experience" together quickly, supported by worldwide precedent that is relevant and credible in order to create value.

As the profession of architecture and planning continues to evolve unpredictably, expect to see more of this type of innovation.

Rick Abelson,
Online Land Planning

Nice Item

I agree 100% with Prof. Forsyth.

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