On taking up urban studies and planning at the University of Westminster, London, through the Chevening scholarship

Recently, I’ve been coaching aspiring Chevening applicants and a number of young professionals who are seeking higher studies on urbanism, the built environment, planning, and other themes in urban studies. After a number of conversations, I decided to write about my own experience, and create a simple guide for anyone who needs it.

What’s the difference between studying planning in a developing country and in a London planning school?

I took up an urban and regional planning master’s programme in the Philippines (though I didn’t finish it) and several years later, took up International Planning and Sustainable Development MA at the University of Westminster through the Chevening scholarship. Some of the differences include the educational style, the course structure, and the facilities.

For example: With regard to educational style, in the PH, I got so used to simply submitting a finished paper to get graded, and we receive comments at the end of the course most of the time. In Westminster, there were three or more professors handling one class, and they would coach you and ask for output progress on a scheduled basis. Discussions during progress checks really helped shape the development of papers and design work. I adjusted to that style, and really appreciated a different way of learning.

I also felt relieved at being able to use library systems that allowed access to so many resources, beyond the titles available in the PH. I loved how I could recommend books to our librarian, and he would just purchase the books and have them ready for loans almost immediately. I also loved how easy it was to “study” because everything was systemised: you simply swiped your uni ID to borrow and return books, use the copying and printing equipment (with top-ups and all), and log into the classrooms. (Many take this for granted, but coming from a developing country, oh, the joy.)

I’ll talk more about the courses (subjects) below. But being in an international class definitely helps widen your perspective, and enables you to criticise and even unlearn some knowledge you always thought to be part of ‘planning foundation.’

How did you choose your university? What criteria did you consider?

With Chevening, we were asked to select three universities with respective degree programs. As an urbanist, I was very particular about which city I would reside in, and I had decided from the start to immerse in London. My first choice was UCL, but I only received a Conditional Offer (Chevening requires Unconditional) and since I couldn’t have it changed in time for the scholarship deadline, I went with my second choice, which is University of Westminster.

Researching the program courses (subjects) will give an idea of what your year will be like. Going through the descriptions will help you decide which course to take. In my case, I researched that my course had pathways which I could take, and I was drawn to the spatial pathway because of the courses Public Realm and Sustainable Neighbourhoods.

Also, it also helps to choose a university that is accredited by the RTPI, in case you’re considering a planning career in the UK. Here’s the list of accredited universities and degrees.

What was it like at the University of Westminster – School of Architecture and Cities?

My department is part of the Marylebone campus, which also houses the UoW Business School. The campus is a modern one, and is right in front of Baker Street Station, which connects it to the rest of the city. It’s also a couple of minutes away from Regent’s Park. (Marylebone Village is also pleasant to walk around in, it’s quite posh, being in West London.) The campus was very busy, and I often joked how we needed more homey spaces, like the bean bags in the Harrow Campus. (I only visited Harrow to use the piano rooms of the Music Department.) But I was quite fond of Marylebone campus, the library became a comfort zone, and as uni life goes, I identified its classrooms with excitement.

The MA IPSD is one course under the School of Architecture and Cities. Some of our bigger classes were joined with students from the MA Urban Design, MA Urban and Regional Planning, and MSc Transport Planning and Management. I always looked forward to the plenary courses because I got to catch up with my friends from Urban Design, and we’d have longer discussions due to the many lenses used.

Here’s a short video showing some photos and clips of rooms in Marylebone, Harrow, and Regent’s campuses, as well as my time with friends:

Could you describe some of your subjects, and the type of coursework?

It’s a mix — there are courses where you stay in the classroom and listen to lectures or work on group outputs over a series of sessions, then there are courses that are practical, where you get to go on walking lectures, and literally make London your classroom. Courseworks included analytical, strategic, and policy papers, presentations, and design work.

Many ask me what “international planning” means, and many also assume that since I studied in the UK, I focused on the English planning system. While we did study the latter in the course Planning Skills, we also studied the planning systems of many different countries: Netherlands, Indonesia, Germany, China, India, USA, Spain, France, Belgium, and some cities in Africa. We also worked on projects in Southeast Asia, namely Jakarta and Yangon. We created a regional plan for Cambridge, and worked on borough, neighbourhood and street-level elements in Deptford and Bethnal Green. What’s great about studying all of these planning systems and places is that it gives you an understanding and awareness of what you are already familiar with. It also gives an appreciation of what works and what doesn’t in different contexts. For example, the planning system in the Philippines is ‘comprehensive land use’ (zoning and permanency) which contrasts with the English planning system, which is discretionary in nature (changes are always debated). There’s so much that goes into the history of these systems, and how they work today.

Then of course, there are the Research Methods and the Dissertation modules. We were given the option to work on a full thesis or a design thesis, and I opted for the first. Read my thesis here. You could also check out our graduate exhibition, MORE 2020, to see the scope of research projects in the Department.

There’s so much more to the courses, but just to give a visual of our work, here are a couple of outputs and photos from sessions and field work:

My professor, David, he gave me a tutorial on the urban design process. It’s about removing all barriers and elements from what we see and feel, reflecting, finding what feels right, exploring, creating and keeping the elements we find meaningful in the end. But you’d have to work on the process: one sketch, then another, and another, and a hundred more, layered, on top of all the old sketches, until you find how you’ve come up with an entire form, a “new” creation, but brought the process of learning with you. I thought I was just learning about urban fabrics, but what he really taught me was a life lesson.

I fondly remember the times we used to stay inside the library study rooms to work on group outputs after class. In this photo, we were reviewing street elements and strategising about connectivity in Deptford.

What were the challenges you encountered?

What I struggled with the most is my design work. I am not a designer by education or training, I’ve always leaned more on the social side of planning, and my strength is in writing. So when I decided to take the spatial pathway of my course, I was so nervous. But then — learn as much as you can, and improve yourself, right? My professors and friends helped me get through. At the end of my course, I already enjoyed designing so much.

Working in a group is given in planning. While I was blessed to have friends in my group work most of the time, there were also some challenging moments with other classmates, especially with contrasting viewpoints (it was usually about finding balance between right and left). Some difficulties were also due to the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic struck in our second semester, so some students had to fly home immediately, and we had to work across timezones, adjust, and take care of our mental health. Even some of our professors struggled transitioning to online classes at first, but I’m just grateful that they still found the time to provide one-on-one tutorials with everybody. We were also supposed to fly to Izmir, Turkey to immerse with a community, but that got canceled. That was too bad, because our class was looking forward to it after the entire year.

What would be your advice for aspiring planners who would like to take up studies about the city under the Chevening Scholarship? What lessons could you impart?

  1. Be open-minded. I went to London with a view set on studying the public realm because of my interest in placemaking, but after studying for a year, I realised how drawn I was to topics in urban sociology and theory, so I shifted my thesis closer to that instead.
  2. Build a good relationship with your dissertation adviser, your professors, and friends. After uni, my course leader invited me to be part of a research group within our department, which is amazing, because I used to just read papers and cases of the research group during class. And now I’m part of it! I’m also still in touch with my thesis adviser (who is simply the epitome of kindness and professionalism), and I continue to learn about urbanism through another professor’s Instagram.
  3. Learning in London is not confined to your university, so attend public lectures in other unis (in my case, I attended several lectures hosted by LSE SEAC and the Bartlett), and my best friend was kind enough to tour me in her undergraduate uni, so I was able to visit the incredible design studio of the University of Greenwich.
  4. Walk the city! Planners should immerse more, really. Sketch and take photos while going around. Observe people’s behaviour. Observe the contrast of buildings and spaces. Take note of your feelings when in a particular place.
  5. Utilise the libraries and the conducive study spaces. In London, those were present almost everywhere, which allowed me to ‘study-hop’ whenever I felt like it.

Other resources

There are also awesome blog posts and videos by other Filipino scholars, which you should definitely check out:

  1. Rogerine Miguel was in my cohort and was one of the social media ambassadors during our year. Check out her YouTube channel.
  2. Tanya Quijano is also an alumna of the University of Westminster, and her blog, In #BriTanya, is a great guide on student life: read her tips on budgeting, traveling, exploring, and a lot more.
  3. Renee Karunungan shares preparation tips for Chevening applications in this blog post.

If you have more questions, feel free to post them as comments, and I’ll answer them when I can.

Bonne chance!

COVID-19 and Planning in the Philippines: Spatial Inequality and Critical Public Spaces

We started a video series at UP Plano to talk about COVID-19 and Planning in the Philippines. As a starter, I talked about spatial inequality and critical public spaces, which are crucial points of discourse in understanding how we spatially respond to the pandemic. I briefly go over what has happened so far in the quarantine, look into what the crisis yields, and provide suggestions on how we can frame our response in moving towards more equitable cities, as against what used to be ‘normal’.

Watch the video here:

This was originally posted at the UP Plano Facebook page.

Keep safe, everyone!

The COVID-19 pandemic is also an urban planning issue — especially in Manila

It’s been a while since I’ve written for the media, because university life has been keeping me with academic essays and design work, but when CNN Philippines got in touch for an urban perspective on COVID-19, I found myself writing non-stop.

Click here to read the piece. And stay safe, everyone! Let’s be responsible enough to stay at home and follow medical advice.

All the best from London,


Advocating for environmental planning in the PH

The first half of the year has been a whirlwind of work on strengthening environmental planning in the country. Just thought I’d make a diary entry on all the events, which have been very educational and meaningful to me.

The academe

One of my advocacies is getting more and more students to take up urban studies. Through the PIEP’s collaboration with NCCA on ArkiCamp: Architecture and the Allied Arts, which brought the PIEP, UAP, and PIID to different universities, we were able to teach the basics of environmental planning to architecture students.

PIEP National and PIEP – Davao at the University of Mindanao, where EnP Mia Quimpo and I gave the talk on Planning 101. After the talk, we taught students community planning through an afternoon workshop.
We had very competitive students in Davao! Their outputs on public spaces were really good. ❤ See the slideshow below:

After Davao City, I went to Bacolod to join EnP Jocelyn Gongob of the Negros Oriental Chapter and teach at La Consolacion College leg of ArkiCamp.

I noticed how many students perceive planning as something that’s done on a blank slate, making existing cities a problem in how they view urbanization. Some also thought that capital-intensive, masterplanned cities are only for rich localities. A few Q&A points we had are:

  • No, we don’t need blank slates or tabula rasa to do planning. We plan where the people are, in existing cities. 
  • Conversion (from agriculture to other uses) reflects the values of our communities, our government, and our planners. 
  • Planning is not only for cities that are rich. There are simple ways to create innovative solutions. We can undertake placemaking and tap local knowledge for solutions that are more accessible to our citizens.
  • Planning is not just the built-up environment. Again, it’s about how people live, and how we shape our environments, both built-up and natural. The ideal is we integrate.
NCCA, the academic community of La Consolacion, PIEP, and other professional groups.

Outside of ArkiCamp, I also joined ArkiNet of the University of Santo Tomas, as a Pecha Kucha speaker during their Manila Architecture Festival. The archi students were really kind to tour me around their many exhibits. I also got to connect with my friend Brandon Ang, who came to the Pecha Kucha.

Onstage at the grounds, emphasizing how our perception of public spaces leads to how we shape our cities. Watch my presentation here. Start at 00:59:58.
Let me just insert this here. That’s Bran, in white. This was the ReColor Workshop for Yuchengco, Binondo, Manila. Bran organized the placemaking learning session for these high school students.

Closer to home was being a panelist for Mr. Benjamin de la Pena’s talk, the intriguingly titled Ultraelectromagnetic Urbanism: Talking Cities and Transportation. I learned so much about how values are translated into our environment, and how we should tackle transportation and mobility in our cities.

I had to travel fourteen hours by bus from Tuguegarao City to get to SURP for the talk, and it took me two paracetamol tablets to get going, but it was definitely worth the learning experience. It was also fun to reconnect with Julia Nebrija and Jedd Ugay, my co-panelists during the event.

Continuing Professional Education

CPE is required for licensed professionals here in the Philippines, and this year, I was able to deliver my second CPE learning session, thanks to PIEP Negros Oriental. EnP Joy Gongob invited me to their chapter, where I gave a talk on Public Spaces and How We Can Shape Them.

It was my first time to visit Dumaguete City, and their public spaces really amazed me. The Burgos Promenade is a closed street, which helps with pedestrianization, the Quezon Park was a thoroughly used open, green space, and the Rizal Boulevard was just one long stretch to walk or bike on. Walking around the small city prompted me to give a rapid analysis of their public spaces for my CPE session.

Board exam reviews

The reviews, the reviews.

These really took up most of my time these past months because of so much travel requirements, and speaking for a whole day is really tiring. 2019 also marks my fourth year teaching for the boards. But nevertheless, sharing one’s learnings and gathering perspective from aspiring planners give an incomparable feeling–there’s no better way to strengthen the advocacy of capacitation on environmental planning for our many localities.

I’m thankful to the PIEP for inviting me to do the lecture on development history, urban growth theories, urban history, planning concepts, and principles for different chapters. Aside from the fact that it’s my favorite subject, I also pushed for a collaboration between the Northern Luzon Chapter and UP Plano. Here are a few photos of the review series:

UP Plano, Ortigas
Northern Luzon – Baguio City
Despite the exhaustion from travel, this is what keeps me going. Messages like these are for keeps. ❤
Northern Luzon – La Union
With Ar-EnP Jun Rillera, the one-man team and president of the NL Chapter, EnP Cid Jacobo, EnP Rory Caguimbal, and Ar-EnP Ralph Sotoridona, my co-speakers and buddies from UP PLANO
Northern Luzon – Regional Review. I wasn’t able to track everyone who came, but the attendance count was between 100-120, from all these areas (which schooled me on geography): Abra, Apayao, Talugtug, Bangued, Santa Fe, Itogon, Tabuk, Alaminos, Aguinaldo, San Guillermo, Quezon, Tanudan, Baguio, Divilacan, Bontoc, Calintaan, Magalang, Urdaneta, Santa Rosa, Santiago, Bolinao, San Miguel, Burgos, San Fernando, Tagudin, Bayambang, Santiago, Porac, Talugtug, Pantabangan, Magsingal, Hermosa Bataan, San Isidro, Vigan, Nueva Ecija, Kamias, and Diffun Quirino. + Makati + Bulacan + Romblon who came all the way north
PIEP National review, at UAP HQ, Quezon City
PIEP Cebu, for the coaching session. Below are the hardworking, dedicated ladies of the Cebu Chapter, and then there’s the whole review group

Aside from PIEP and PLANO, I also got to teach for URBAN, the review group of EnP Justin Victor dela Cruz. Below was our session at the Asian Institute of Management Conference Center.

URBAN review – AIM, Makati City
This heartwarming message was from last year. I met the sender during our National Conference in Iloilo (unfortunately, I had a severe headache and couldn’t chat more with him), but sir, your e-mail is something I revisit when I need inspiration. 🙂

Planning with women, planning with babies

The lighter part of advocating for better public spaces in cities and planning is when you get to do fun things, like these two events below.

The US Embassy Manila asked select US-PH exchange alumni to contribute to a youth leadership and mentoring video. I teamed up with my pro-fellow batchmate and BFF Yowee Gonzales to talk about women empowerment in urban planning and disaster resilience.

Behind the scenes of the shoot. I talked Jane Jacobs, Yowee talked Michelle Obama. 😉 We love our icons.

And who would imagine I’d relate placemaking with babies? Pampers invited me to talk about public spaces and placemaking for one of their promo events, where I discussed the benefits of galaw-friendly spaces. Yup, that’s mobility right there, women’s roles in cities (as moms), and how you connect urban planning with moms and babies. Some elements women planners should put on the table: Lighting for safety, clean public toilets, lactation stations, wide open spaces for toddlers’ motor skills development, and friendly environments. So much fun doing the research for this event.

Yup, the baby from the Pampers promo materials is real! And he’s too cute. =)


I actually prayed about being the Lord’s instrument and a better steward for the places we live in, so maybe this is how He answers–maybe that’s why I got through all of the work these past months. I’m thankful.

That’s it for now, and let’s see where the next half of the year brings me.