Well this is a topical post and it’s not a coincidence! Some of you who know me, know that I’ve been working on a number of city related projects in southern Iraq. Those that don’t, now do…
I’ve already written a couple of times about our Iraq projects more as a mention rather than a full article (apart from this one here “An interesting day at the office GIS & masterplanning in Iraq”), but those who haven’t I’ll give you some background.
For me it is very rewarding work but sometimes it is ‘just another day at the office’ work. I’ve realised that many people have found what we do and where we do it from to be an interesting story.
…sometimes it is ‘just another day at the office’ work
- A family firm
- City Master Plans
- Iraq Projects
- What’s it like working on a project based in Iraq?
- Location, location, location
- Why am I in the Guardian
- Sedbergh – Yorkshire Dales or Cumbria
A family firm
Garsdale Design is a small family firm. By that I mean I work with my parents (who have architecture, planning and urban design backgrounds with well over 30 years of work experience here and the Middle East), and my wife (who is a heritage specialist) as well as my brother in-law who has been working as a CAD (Computer Aided Design) operator.
Garsdale Design has two strands of work, Middle East large-scale urban projects and the small domestic extensions/alterations and developments within the local area (South Lakeland/Cumbria/Yorkshire Dales). I came on board originally to help with the mapping and technical side of the business but mainly to support the master planning projects.
City Master Plans
Simply put a city master plan is a top level planning document that analyses the existing city situation, does some population projections, creates planning standards (if none exist). It then looks into the future at a how a city will develop and tries to allocate and plan the best possible development based on the unique conditions of the area. Some of it is a process, some of it is design.
Think of a master plan not as static thing as if it were a project but more of an evolving process to cope with changes.
Just so we are clear, here’s how we get the work in Iraq. The central ministry responsible for planning in Iraq (based in Baghdad) calls for tenders. The tender document lists certain requirements for a project that must be fulfilled. This typically states the technical specifications (satellite imagery requirements, data formats etc..), as well as pre-requisites, like only Iraqi companies with an international partner can submit a bid. Project specifications for our work has always included a training element too. You see these ‘plans’ are also a way of building in expertise in Iraq: both within our young Iraqi partners and the client (in most cases the city’s administrative team).
We can’t work on our own in Iraq and the Iraqi-based private planners have to get international expertise. One partner cannot be subservient to the other: we work as one company for the project. To say that our team has not been to Iraq misses four important points:
- One of the UK team has been to Erbil in northern Iraq for intensive client presentations.
- Our Iraqi partners (i.e. our team) who are also planning professionals live and work in Baghdad.
- What we in the UK also get from Iraq based surveys (completed by local Iraqi partners) is the huge amounts of data from photos, and video to demographics and mapping.
- As part of these contracts representatives and professionals of the cities have come to England to train with us. Not only that but most have sat in our home and office and eaten with us.
I can’t imagine, you the reader, has not worked as a team before? Therefore you will know that each member has their own expertise and a successful project uses everyone to their best ability. I know there have been critical comments on this story, but no story can give all the details.
The last point I’d like to highlight is that we are not a large multi-national company with huge political influence. As someone on the comments section said we’re not exactly Halliburton! The money we receive is for doing the job, if you think we make excessive money off these projects you have really no idea how much we get paid or how hard we work.
What’s it like working on a project based in Iraq?
Firstly we’ve not had to go out there (apart from once when one of us went to Erbil for a meeting), normally we would but this is Iraq and we are British (our country seems to have a history here yes?). We’re not going to put ourselves at undue risk, not least think of the insurance! Besides which our Iraqi partner’s job is to do all the existing conditions surveys and they are our primary liaisons for the project. These guys are a fantastically professional team working in sometimes very challenging environments. Think how you feel about your local planners (both local and private), now convert that to Iraq!
So what’s it like? Well much like working on any other project in the world, except this is Iraq. We have to wait for client comments at various stages. We have to jump through administrative issues, similar to working anywhere in the Middle East really. We go to work, we make maps we do Excel spreadsheets, and we do the best we can. We work over weekends when there are project deadlines to be met as a family firm we’re working for ourselves. Do we all get on? Yes we do.
Then there are those days, especially recently that the news from Iraq just seems to be seeping with blood and destruction. Those days, until we get in contact with our friends and colleagues we have a sick feeling in our stomachs. When we talk to them their response is pragmatic and reassuring, well they have to live there don’t they?
We are bound by the job’s contract and Iraqi law which governs it. All our plans go through extensive review and consultation with our Iraq clients some who are elected as well as professional civil servants. There are also stages where our work is displayed in public and consulted on (i.e. comments are invited). Consultation takes many forms depending on where you are located. Here in the UK we have a consultation process as part of planning, how many people take part in that process? Our plans are consulted on and comments are taken on board as part of the process. You may not like the local process or disagree with what ‘consultation’ means in a planning context, but this would take another blog post to discuss!
We have had for most of our Iraq projects a select number of Iraqis from council members to city managers and city planners come train with us. We’ve hosted them in the University of Liverpool, the University of Manchester and the University of Nottingham. We and our Iraq partners along with university staff have given them training on various planning related themes. Some of this training is giving them an idea of what we have done in the master plan and how they will manage it after we hand over the project. Some of those trainees have come and visited our home and offices too. We have got on with every one of them and made lasting friendships with many.
Location, location, location
We work in a remote (ish) rural area in Cumbria (and the Yorkshire Dales), and so we are 100% reliant on the internet. What happens when we need to go abroad? Well we’re 2 hours away by car/train from Manchester Airport and about 3 hours or so (in total) by train from London. We use Skype and social media to keep in contact with clients based around the world. We communicate with our partners in Iraq via email and various cloud hosting providers. Photos, video and surveys come to us and we send completed reports and mapping to them. The data flows both ways.
The data flows both ways.
This is why I am a big supporter of fibre optic broadband for all of the UK not just our local community scheme here called FibreGarden. I look forward to the day I can attend meetings in perfect real time via conference video calls from my home or office. Trust me travel is only so much fun, and as I have a young family I’d rather be based at home while they are here.
Why am I in the Guardian?
Well I know someone who knows someone in the Guardian cities team, that someone thought what we were doing was interesting and I guess ‘worthy’ of writing about. We did not pay for this article. Last week I met a nice journalist called Stuart Jeffries at the Oxenholme train station and brought him to our offices. He didn’t just interview me, we had a good conversation about lots of things from politics to the recent Tour de France that came near us (Hawes). The next day I guess they realised they should have got a photographer in with Stuart and so I found myself doing a photo shoot with a guy who had driven up from Manchester to take photos of me… This was last, suffice to say this has been a weird few days.
Our current Iraq projects are winding down, while the work I have started to bring in is due to my expertise in the 3D city modelling world. I am a leading professional of the procedural 3D modelling software Esri CityEngine. I’m working on training events for this software here and abroad. I’ve also got involved in the emerging ‘geodesign’ academic field.
Do I want to still work on Iraq projects? Yes.
A final word : Sedbergh – Yorkshire Dales or Cumbria?
Okay these comments were a bit odd on the Guardian website and twitter… Just so we are very clear Sedbergh is the largest settlement in the Yorkshire Dales National Park, which happens to be in the Cumbrian part of the park. We’re also in South Lakeland Distict council and the former West Riding of Yorkshire to summarise, look it up on wiki people….