IF you are lucky enough to live in a nice, well-planned neighbourhood, the person you most likely have to thank is the town planner.
“Most people are surprised to know that town or urban planners impact directly on the quality of life of a citizen. We design areas in order to create a living environment that is comfortable, safe and healthy for urban dwellers,'' says Khairiah Talha, a town planner with more than 20 years' experience.
How does one become interested in town planning? In Khairiah's case, following her father on his rounds as a district officer exposed her to several development projects.
“I used to see the construction of roads, bridges and community halls. That coupled with my interest in Geography, human settlement, and where we live, drew me to this field.”
Although she was offered a scholarship to do accounting in Australia, Khairiah realised that her passion was for urban planning and switched majors one year after starting at the University of Melbourne.
Drawing up plans for a proposed township or housing development is no easy feat – in order to do so, a town planner needs to take into consideration several factors and see how the development will affect the people and the environment in that area.
For example, the town planner must consider the topography of the land before deciding where to put schools, parks, town centre, access roads, oxidation pool, electrical substations, etc.
Town planning is essential, says Khairiah, as there is a need to plan and guide development to make sure a balance can be struck between economic development and the preservation of our agricultural and water resources.
The look and feel of townships, she says, has changed over the years in tandem with the differing requirements of house buyers.
“Last time, developers sold homes; now they are promoting a lifestyle. Buyers have become more discerning,'' she adds.
For example, the concept of having an open space in a housing project was akin to giving money away but now “buyers are more choosy.”
Khairiah is known in the industry for her strong views on preserving the original topography of the land area to be developed as well as promoting parks and gardens in the community.
Recently, Khairiah won an award from the Malaysian Institute of Planners, of whom she is past president, for her company's work in Putrajaya.
She won the Excellence in Planning Award 2003 for new township development (above 500 acres) for Precinct 11, believed to be the largest residential precinct in Putrajaya, spanning an area of over 1,100 acres.
What qualifications do you need to enter this profession?
The basic degree that is needed is a Bachelor in Town and Regional Planning. Some universities call the course Urban and Regional Planning. The public universities that offer the course in Malaysia are Universiti Sains Malaysia, Universiti Teknologi Mara, Universiti Teknologi Malaysia and the International Islamic University Malaysia.
Besides a basic degree, one can also become a town planner by qualifying at the Masters level, from a basic degree in areas like architecture, engineering, surveying, and economics.
Those who qualify at the diploma level can work as assistant town planners. To do town planning, having a Science background is important as you deal with statistics and are required to make projections.
What does a town planner do?
Town planners work in both public and private sectors. Basically town planners regulate development projects.
In the public sector, town planners help advise the Government on the physical development of the country by formulating physical development plans for the nation, state and local authority, and the preparation of development policies, guidelines and standards.
At local authority level, all development plans must be processed by a town planner who then advises the local council on whether to approve the plans.
In the private sector, town planners are hired by banks, developers or work independently as consultants. They prepare plans from the conversion of the land (to be developed) to the final approval.
Plans prepared must indicate the “layout” or arrangement of land use such as residential areas, commercial areas, roads, utilities, industrial areas, transport network, community facilities and recreational and open spaces. Town planners are regulated under the Town Planners Act 1995.
Describe a typical day at work.
A typical day would start at the office with a short meeting with my staff so that I can be briefed on the day’s work and the current progress of projects.
Then I would start drawing up concept plans on any new projects, as well as undertake research on the area to be developed.
This would include finding information about the development guidelines and policies of the area from the local authority concerned.
Site visits to the development area is a must.
This can be followed up with meetings with clients. For projects which are already on the drawing board, there may be presentations to the clients for endorsement before submission to the authorities for approval.
When there are urgent projects that need to be presented or submitted very quickly, work can be around the clock or until the early hours of the morning.
What kind of personality suits this career?
To succeed in this job, you would need several traits. You need to be diplomatic when dealing with clients as well as government bodies.
To source for clients, you need to be aggressive and have good marketing skills.
To be a good town planner you must be interested in the surrounding environment and the development phenomena as a whole.
What's the best part about your job?
Visiting new sites for development is adventurous and exciting as you would be the one to create the development proposal and see that the land's potential is fully realised.
One particular incident which I shall always remember is the opportunity to fly in a private jet with the client to have an aerial view of the land proposed for development.
What's the worst part about your job?
Town planning can be politicised. Sometimes plans that have been prepared are not implemented or approved not for legitimate reasons. But these are few and far between.
Another drawback is not receiving full payment for work already performed. This is the main lament of most consultants.
What is the salary range?
In government service, a graduate can start with RM 2,100. In the private sector, the starting pay is slightly higher – about RM2,500. Consultants can earn up to RM15,000 per month.
What are the career prospects in this line?
Very good, as the country needs more town planners. For an equivalent population with Malaysia, Australia has about 25,000 qualified town planners, compared with Malaysia’s estimated 2,500. With the phenomenal rate of urban growth, we certainly lack the number of town planners needed to cope. Malaysia’s urban population stood at 56% in 2000, and is expected to reach 70% by 2030. So there is an urgent need to generate more town planners in the country.
With globalisation where professional services can be exported, there will be an expansion of services to other countries with good prospects in the Middle East as well as South Asia. So the prospects to work overseas are already there.
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