Urban planning is expanding despite a dry spell of business due to the global downturn. Opportunities are strong on the mainland and in developing economies across Asia.
Paul Blazek, managing director of Aedas Urban Design and Landscape, said there was a close correlation between the work of urban planners and the economy. 'We are the canary in the coal mine. We are the first people affected - as soon as things are not looking good, the purse strings for developments close shut,' he said.
But urban planners are in the forefront when the economy starts to pick up. The green shoots of recovery have helped the industry make positive steps over the past two to three months. 'Now is a great time to start something if you feel in any way optimistic about the economy,' Blazek said. 'Almost all of the developers we worked with are calling to get started again.'
While projects in the United States and Britain are often based around urban intervention work, urban planners in Asia tend to focus on greenfield projects. These include new developments, such as residential neighbourhoods. This is due to mass migration from villages to cities across Asia, which translates into a huge need for high-quality housing stock.
Hong Kong, as a relatively small urban area, offers limited opportunities for urban planners. However, Robbert van Nouhuys, director for international projects at ACLA, an international urban design and landscape consultancy, said there were enormous opportunities on the mainland for professionals from Hong Kong.
He cited the findings of research by management consultant McKinsey last year that over the next 20 years at least 350 million people would be moving into cities across the mainland. 'The same trend is shown in Vietnam and other Asian countries, such as Indonesia and India, with a huge demand for urban development,' van Nouhuys said.
While London grew from a population of one million to 10 million in a century, cities on the mainland are expected to mushroom from one million to 10 million inhabitants in 10 years. The unprecedented surge in development across Asia means there is an urgent need to revisit conventional thinking on urban development.
'This will take place across Asia. Laos, Burma, Vietnam, India and Indonesia will do the same. Hanoi, for example, is looking to grow from three million to 10 million over the next 15 years,' van Nouhuys said.
Internationally ,the green movement is having a huge impact on urban design. A green element is viewed as a good selling point which can help create something of higher value. Blazek said: 'All projects we are involved in have something of green value, [which] has the side effect of improving the environment.'
Entering the planning profession requires a degree in urban planning, planning or urban design. The University of Hong Kong offers courses at its department of urban design. Blazek said other local industry professionals might have obtained their training at universities in New Zealand or Australia. There are also cross-over opportunities for architects and landscape architects to work in urban design.
A typical career path sees fresh graduates enter the profession as trainees or assistant urban designers.
The next steps include the roles of urban designer and senior urban designer, before taking one of two routes onwards. Some professionals choose to become technical urban designers and may move into property development. Van Nouhuys said: 'There's a need for developers to understand the physical attributes of large-scale property development. Commercially astute urban designers may become property developers.'
Alternatively, professionals join design consultancy firms, such as architects, master planners or landscape architects. There are also openings with government authorities to oversee the implementation of long term strategic plans.
Blazek said professionals, regardless of their specialisation, needed a wide range of skills and these took a long time to develop.
'You need to know about every type of building, how it works and how big its footprint is,' he said.