Paul Jones is the program director of the Urban and Regional Planning Program, and Associate Dean in the Faculty of Architecture, Design and Planning, University of Sydney.

Jones joined the Urban and Regional Planning and Policy Program at the University of Sydney at the beginning of 2011, following diverse experience as a planning practitioner.

He has 30 years experience in developing sustainable urban management, urban development and planning solutions in Australia and overseas, including 20 years specialising in urban management and urban development projects in the Pacific Region.

Architecture and Design spoke to Jones about private practice versus academic experience, working in the Pacific region, and why he threw out the books on codes and guidelines in his new workplace at Kiribati.

You made the change from private practice to the academic field? What have you learnt working in education that you don't think you would have learnt working in private practice?

Education gives you a platform for appreciating the broader multi-disciplinary knowledge needed to underpin one’s own subject area, such as ‘urban informality’. With a practice background in developing countries, the experience has given me the confidence to run cross collaboration, ‘in the field’ studios, for example, the recent trip in March this year to Bandung, Indonesia.

Education has taught me that while you can teach in the lecture room, nothing can replicate ‘on the ground’ field experiences. From a planning and design perspective, it’s about deconstructing the lived experience embedded in different contexts. Education teaches you to leave behind your values and norms, and look at other urban contexts through local eyes. What may be illegal and unplanned here in Sydney, may be the norm in many towns and cities of the developing world.

You've previously worked in the Pacific region. What valuable insights did you gain about urban planning while working in the region?

I was fortunate to work in many Pacific Island countries – from low-lying atolls to the big islands in Melanesia. This included two years as the AusAID urbanization adviser to Papua New Guinea, based in Port Moresby in 2009-2010 – a city which, unfortunately, continues to be rated amongst the world’s ‘worst cities’.

The hands-on experience taught me a lot about the complexity of planning and management, including the long-lasting colonial impact on town planning and design in the Pacific. Unlike Europe, towns and cities in the Pacific are effectively colonial creations. Despite countries in the Pacific gaining independence from the 1960s onwards, many countries continue to grapple with what ‘urban’ means in terms of future planning. Burgeoning informal settlements, for example, can be seen as an expression of traditional norms and values suppressed during colonial times, but are now allowed to exist in urban areas today.

I have realised that whilst I have been educated to conceptualise cities through ‘middle class’ planning norms and values (including curricula embedded in university training), Pacific towns and cities are made and shaped by multiple planning, development processes and stakeholders. Changing and influencing the debate to get these processes respected and acknowledged remains an overdue challenge to achieve spatial justice and bridging notions of ‘divided cities.’

You also lived for over eight years in the small low-lying atoll nation of Kiribati as its 'first urban development planner'. Can you tell A&D about what that experience was like? What were some of the challenges?

If you get claustrophobic about living a metre above sea level where all the land (and sea) around you is flat, then living in South Tarawa, the capital of Kiribati, is not for you! Many people leave after the first week, as they struggle to adjust to living on a 30 kilometre by 150 metre wide strip of land with a population of more than 55,000 people.

I had read a lot before I went, including the classic ‘A Pattern of Islands’ by Arthur Grimble, so my family and I had some limited insight to the journey ahead. But after two weeks in my new workplace I realised that my technical books, codes and guidelines on urban planning and subdivision development had no relevance on a small atoll. I quickly concluded that issues of socio-cultural concerns i.e. attitudes, aspirations and so on, were more influential in shaping the planning world of the I-Kiribati, rather than western, European and American-centered ideas of design and planning.

Living in an atoll culture, in a resource-poor country where life was about day-to-day survival, quickly changed my expectations about what I would achieve. I started to learn the language and did a PhD on ‘socio-cultural orders and urban management’ so I could better understand the world of the I-Kiribati. Central to this was what the local people thought was most important in ‘urban planning and development’.

How did your role in Kiribati come about?

I was working for the Albury-Wodonga Development Cooperation, a legacy of the Whitlam era, which focused on building two new towns and a larger growth centre on the NSW-Victorian border. Like all models of new town development, the life of the Albury-Wodonga Development Cooperation was limited, as politicians waxed and waned about the importance of government intervention in making cities more livable.

At the beginning of 1992 many of us in the planning and engineering division were advised that our jobs would conclude at the end of 1992 and that we should look elsewhere to pursue careers.  I then considered the possibility of overseas employment and saw an opportunity in mid-1992 for the first ‘urban development planner’ in the Republic of Kiribati in the Central Pacific.

What can Australia learn from Pacific nations in their approach to urban planning?

Practice on the ground in the Pacific reveals that like Australia, we need to be very careful when we apply a ‘one size fits all’ approach to planning and design. The adherence to a ‘one set of rules’ solution, which continues to be applied to ‘top down’ planning systems we see in Australia, is increasingly problematic. It stymies innovation and, importantly, small-scale, fine grain solutions. We do not regularly question our ‘modernist’ approaches and the values and norms contained within them – whether implicit or explicit.

In Australia or the Pacific, towns and cities are increasingly heterogeneous and complex – whether it be cultural mix, socio economic disparities, or the way in which resources are allocated or not and by whom! What we can learn from the Pacific is that urbanisation and urban growth brings consequences, and that basic public needs such as water, sanitation, drainage, roads and recreational space must be provided.

In some cases, we need to acknowledge that ‘business as usual’ development models such as ‘user pays’ will just not apply to certain groups in society. Respecting and acknowledging the diversity of our cities, and recognising that access to affordable housing and land is a basic right for all, should remain central to the urban debate.

What is one country that you think is leading the world in urban planning?

This depends on what you define as urban planning. What constitutes urban planning, such as the role of urban design and place making, and what sort of city do we want, are increasingly important questions for planning systems. They are key questions for the people who make and use them and as a general observation, we tend to gloss over these fundamental questions.

I have great respect for planning and design systems in European countries such as Denmark, where there is a lot more emphasis on integrated city design, structure and form that we could adopt in Australia. There is far greater inquiry into the social, economic and environmental aspects of development at different city scales, and the connections implied that we would like to see in the Australian planning and design environment.