Charlie Cullen, Planning and Environment, University of Liverpool, 2018 Cohort.
At the beginning of this year I attended the 7th Annual Winter School in Florence. This event offers PhD students from across the world the valuable opportunity to develop their research skills within the field of urban and spatial planning. Experienced academics based at institutions across Europe deliver a variety of lectures and workshops.
It is based in the Murate Art District, which forms part of the mixed-use conversion of a 15th century former convent (latterly the male city prison) into a cultural hub, where open public space, galleries, research studios, eateries and social housing form a positive amalgamation of urban activity. This was a wholly appropriate environment to learn about the power of planning research and practice to positively influence the way our cities develop. Despite the relentless January drizzle, I relished walking from my hotel through the beautiful ancient city streets every morning to this location, where I strolled alongside impeccably dressed locals and their impeccably groomed dogs. When I arrived, a delicious cup of coffee and a pastry was always waiting.
The programme included a range of different learning experiences. Whilst the first day was solely lecture based, on day two it was time to discuss our research ideas in open, informal workshops. As a first year PhD student, having to explain my research scope to a room full of effective strangers really helped me to clarify its fundamental focus and purpose, as did the subsequent critical questions posed by the workshop leader and some of the other students. Inspired by the ‘Pint of Science’ which originates from the UK, the evening sessions offered the chance to sit down with an experienced scholar over a drink and talk about research ideas – ‘a pint of urban research.’ I was paired with a scholar from the Politecnico di Torino who actually turned out to know my Liverpool University supervisors. The relaxed style of this meeting made it both enjoyable and productive after what had already been a long day of discussion.
A particular strength of the programme was the way in which it offered practical advice without compromising on its theoretical scope. Editors of two international planning journals gave very useful advice on how to get papers published, their perspective as editors and their personal experiences of rejection and success allowing them to give invaluable insights into the nuances of the academic publishing process.
The final session of the programme was both reflective and forward-looking, with a panel of scholars discussing new research challenges and opportunities within the field. The significance of the day’s date – the 31st of January and the day the UK officially exited the European Union – was not left out of the conversation. Neither were other pivotal issues such as climate change or rising global inequality. The age-old issue of defining ‘what is planning?’ predictably came up. I was compelled to jot down in my notebook one scholar’s offering to this question: ‘The intentional act of diagnosing the present and proposing a tangible, aspirational future.’ It is hoped that further internationally collaborative events such as the Florence Winter School can help us to play a role in doing just this.