Lara Mottee, PhD candidate in the Department of Geography and Planning at Macquarie (Australia) and University of Groningen (The Netherlands), writes a compelling account of her path from environmental consultant to activist researcher:
In 2016 I embarked on a journey from consultancy into higher degree research. At this point in my life I had a successful 12-year career as an Environmental Scientist at an engineering firm in Sydney. I had the kind of career that many young students dream of – the kind that I dreamed of as an undergraduate geography student. Working in infrastructure engineering meant I was offered a variety of work opportunities on different projects across Australia. But my favourite was always working on transport infrastructure. I always felt a great sense of pride when working with the government on public sector projects. I liked the idea that the work I did would help people in their day-to-day lives.
But something was bothering me about the types of projects I worked on. We’d write in our impact assessments and planning applications about the ‘need’ for the project and make a lot of promises to the public…. But I wondered did those ‘promises’ ever come to fruition? Once my part of the process was done… I never seemed to find out what happened on the other side – to me the part after I finished my work was a giant black box. And more and more I’d see complaints from an empowered public, dissatisfied with the transport ‘product’ they were provided… and I’d wonder again what happened to those promises we wrote about. I decided I wanted to know more about the decision-making and planning processes I was a part of and figure out how I could improve my social impact assessment (SIA) practice, to lead to a better outcome for the public.
My Master of Research (MRes) research problem
In my MRes I investigated how effective the management strategies that we prepared in impact assessments were against in meeting the intended project aims established during planning. I chose the Parramatta Rail Link (PRL) project as a case study, as it was a larger rail project that included the old Epping to Chatswood heavy rail line to Macquarie University (MQ), and another section between Epping and Parramatta. Despite the project having full planning approval, with engineering and assessment complete, the second section was never constructed. In my research I adopted a multi-methods qualitative approach to look at the question:
How can the effectiveness of management and mitigation strategies proposed in SIAs for urban transport projects be judged against key policy objectives?
I started the research thinking that the answer to this question could be solved with improvements to impact assessment practice (such as designing good practice management strategies) to be implemented by practitioners like myself. By the end of the research, I realised that it was the wider planning and decision-making process that had the greater influence on the outcomes of a project. Implementing good practice was one important aspect, but the practitioner had very little influence on whether policy objectives would be met. I realised I needed to look more closely at the planning and decision-making process, before I could suggest improvements to practice that might achieve better social outcomes for the public. The MRes research therefore became an important pilot study for my PhD research.
Between the end of my MRes Journey and the start of my PhD, I also wrote a publication about my research:
Something I couldn’t have achieved without the opportunity to do higher degree research, and the support of my MRes supervisor, Emeritus Prof. Richie Howitt.
Turning the MRes into a PhD
At the end of my MRes, Richie and I agreed there was a bigger issue that needed to be explored further. It didn’t take much to expand the question we were asking to include more case studies and think about how the conclusions could be expanded into a 3-year research program.
The other opportunity that presented itself at the end of the MRes was the connection made to the University of Groningen through my examiner. I’d always wanted the opportunity to do research overseas and to explore whether we as planning professionals could learn from the experiences of governments abroad. I applied for a ‘sandwich track’ scholarship and was accepted into a coutelle PhD program with the University of Groningen (RUG), in the Netherlands. This means that once I finish, I will graduate from MQ and the University of Groningen with two degrees. I have been able to spend the past amazing two years doing research in Amsterdam, while living in Groningen with my husband (and recently my newborn daughter!) and enjoying the benefits of the European lifestyle.
My PhD Research
My co-supervisors at MQ and RUG and I developed a new research question, that built on the MRes findings, to investigate the planning issues in Australia and the Netherlands:
How is the assessment and management of social impacts of major urban transport projects influenced by their urban geographical context and planning practice?
We added two more cases to compare the Parramatta Rail Link case: the South-West Rail Link (Sydney, Australia) and the North-South Metro Line (Amsterdam, The Netherlands). The first case was considered ‘successful’ by traditional measures (under budget and on time) and the second considered unsuccessful on those grounds by their respective governments. Both projects delivered on the ‘need’ for the project, but how social issues were assessed and managed over time differed greatly.
Early in the journey I discovered that the planning process in the Netherlands was very different to Sydney. It’s much more consultative overall but there’s less opportunity for legal appeal in the approvals process. The statutory planning approvals are also led by the metropolitan policies and plans, technical business case development and project planning, rather than the stages of an Environmental Impact Assessment. This discovery again changed the way I thought about urban planning and the possibilities that improved impact assessment practice might bring. It helped me challenge my ingrained thinking about impact assessment practice and consider other ways of doing infrastructure planning, management and approvals. It also taught me that maybe in Australia we are implementing good practice, and that we shouldn’t be too hard ourselves, but that we should be careful not to become complacent in the rush to tackle our problems of rapid population growth. Even countries with far older systems of planning can learn from us, particularly when undertaking ex-ante assessments and ex-post management and monitoring of social issues.
You can read more about the findings of my research in the papers I’ve published here:
Why enrol for the MRes program as a planning professional?
Now I assume if you’re reading this you might be a planning professional and you’re probably crazy busy skim-reading through. So this part of the blog is for you. Here are my top 7 reasons for doing the MRes at the Department of Geography and Planning at MQ:
- Investigate the topic of your choice – founded in a real-world problem that is of interest to you.
- An opportunity to advocate change– to ask the hard questions as the outsider looking in, rather than as the planner within practice.
- Work with an excellent group of academic researchers and supervisors that have strong professional networks.
- To take a career break, to reflect on the past and consider the future.
- Become a published author of a significant piece of writing.
- Attain a postgraduate qualification and training in research methods.
- Undertake a ‘pilot study’ as a pathway entry to a PhD with a fast-track, should you decide more research is needed!
Also keep in mind there are part-time and full-time options and a potential stipend, giving flexibility to remain in the workforce alongside the research.
Although the MRes was the beginning of an academic journey for me, it really doesn’t have to be for everyone. The flexibility it offers in shaping your own project and investigating your own problem is unique and rewarding. The intensive program provides you the support you need to dive deep into a real-world problem and transfer that learning back into professional practice in a short timeframe. So ask yourself, are you questioning the way we do things in urban planning practice? Do you think we can do better, but aren’t sure where we’re going wrong? Then maybe it’s time to take a step back from the face-paced practice environment and spend some time as an activist researcher, an outsider looking in, to advocate for something better.
If you’ve got any questions, Lara would be happy to hear from you: https://researchers.mq.edu.au/en/persons/lara-mottee