Phil Heywood, associate professor at Queensland University of Technology, has been admitted into the Planning Institute of Australia’s Hall of Fame.

He has been a strong community advocate and served on at least 20 committees and reference groups for councils and state governments. Heywood has also spent time in East Timor and Malaysia completing volunteer work.

Architecture & Design spoke to him about the challenges for planning students, why volunteer work leads to jobs you want and his secret passion.

You’ve been admitted into the Planning Institute of Australia’s hall of fame. What does that achievement mean to you?

I can’t say I recall frequent visits to the hall of fame, but what’s in a name? The award is a good-natured endorsement of five decades of professional companionship and shared effort.

You have a long history of teaching planning at university. What do you think is the best way to teach planning to students at the university level?

To treat people as companions on a journey where age doesn’t matter much – questions are the common currency and insights the rewards. We are all members of one scholarly community.

Just recently the introduction of advanced IT has produced many more opportunities for really enjoyable and vivid learning in new collaborative teaching spaces. Tutorials no longer consist of people sitting in regular rows responding to each others' prepared papers and taking notes from the tutor.

I regard my own role in such tutorials as providing the “What?” and “Wow!” factors – “What shall we explore today?” and “Wow – look at that!”

What is the greatest challenge for planning students these days?

To maintain hope and a belief in better futures in such acrid and anxious political climates. We have to use such times to work out ambitious plans to achieve in our heads what we can’t yet put on the ground. 

Then, when the tide turns – as it always will – as long as democracy survives, there will be some really good proposals ready to launch during the all-too-brief window of opportunity.

A particularly shining example in today’s world is the Grameen Bank’s mass micro credit movement which was born in Mohamed Yunus’ plans to release a small Bangladeshi village from penury and indebtedness in the aftermath of the country’s destructive war of independence 40 years ago. It has now spread to have 40,000 groups in Bangladesh and branches in over 100 countries on all continents.

The greatest challenge can also be the best opportunity – to use dark times to develop truly transformational plans for better futures.

How easy or hard is it for planning students to make the transition from university to the ‘real world’ of actually being a planner?

The biggest challenge is landing one’s first job. I see a planning qualification as a 21st century version on the old generalist ‘Bachelor of Arts’, providing a path for apprentices and students who can practice their skills, travel between jobs and places and then emerge as masters of one of a number of crafts.

One of the best gateways is to volunteer. It opens doors in three directions – one to the field of action and contacts; another to the kind of personal morale that is irresistible to potential employers; and a third to social activities that one is passionate about. This strengthens the bond between the individual and society. Volunteers generally end up in the paid jobs they want and deserve.

You have done volunteer work in East Timor and Malaysia. How has your work there influenced your work in Australia?

My history of volunteering really dates back to working and teaching in the newly independent Nigeria in the 1960s. That’s where my planning career started when I was discussing with students ideas for the re-shaping of Onitsha, one of the great river ports of the world and the lowest bridging point of the huge Niger, second only to the Nile as Africa’s greatest river.

That year the syllabus introduced fieldwork as a major option. We prepared proposals to manage the rapid growth of the irrepressible but wildly disorganised river port whilst conserving the wonderful old Inland Town and opening up riverside parks and by passes and green belts.

You have an incredible amount of experience and awards to your name. What has been your most memorable achievement?

My participation in a number of community-based student projects, which have influenced the course of actual development, has been one of the great satisfactions of my teaching career.

Brisbane’s Southbank Gardens in particular always give me a buzz of pleasure when I cycle home through them at nighttime or meet friends for lunch at the Ship Inn. In the mid-80s I ran a yearlong project on future uses for the area when it was clear the then state government was acquiring land there for a sweetheart deal with developers after the Bicentennial Expo. We ascertained that Brisbane’s people really wanted the space for riverside parkland, cultural activities and a meeting place for local people and visitors.

When the state government predictably selected a post-Expo scheme, I was president of the Queensland division of the Planning Institute and joined with the presidents of the Architects and Landscape Architects Institutes to campaign for a scheme that incorporated our proposals. After great public furore with protest marches and public polling, a revised scheme was adopted which reflected our original insights and proposals. Now, this space celebrates place, time and climate and is always full of cheerful people.

What’s something about you that people might be surprised to learn?

As a young teacher, I used to run around a lot and train national service and school teams for athletic competitions. My favourite match winner was the sprint relay. I loved the elation of the exchange at full speed, not dropping the baton, not looking back, but carrying on to new successes, with a different performer, a different space, but the same shared intentions and teamwork.