A study tour to Myanmar transformed Zachary Grimes' thinking about his studies in urban planning and environment – and his perspective on the world.
Why did you choose to study at RMIT and complete a Global Intensive?
I chose to study RMIT’s Master of Urban Planning and Environment because the courses were well-designed and transferrable to scenarios domestically and internationally.
My interest in planning and resource management had been focused locally on Victoria, so when the International Community Development elective in Myanmar (also known as Burma) came up, I jumped at it.
RMIT was extremely supportive financially and academically, which made the experience so much easier and enjoyable.
The elective had a variety of people from around Australia who studied in many different disciplines. Working with this group, I saw how innovative and efficient multidisciplinary teams are, and the importance of this in professional settings.
What was the hardest part about the study tour?
My friend and I arrived in Myanmar 10 days prior to the Global Intensive to familiarise ourselves and enjoy a longer holiday.
We decided to grab a bite eat at one of the vendors on the side of the road to experience the local cuisine, but unfortunately we both got so sick we were bedridden for five days. It kind of put a damper on our trip and we started the tour feeling really bad.
Despite our shaky introduction to Myanmar, the tour changed our perspective immensely.
We met lots of incredible people that were so socially engaged and doing amazing things to help their country.
After the many years of military rule and political turbulence Myanmar has experienced, it was great to meet so many patient and hopeful young people who are invested in their country’s future.
What did you do on the global intensive?
The tour began with a few days in the old capital, Yangon, where we were introduced to non-governmental organisation (NGO) Action Aid and their offices, and learnt about the company.
My interest in Yangon’s city environment, led me to write a paper about it.
We then visited an Action Aid Community University site in Myaing, a remote area where the community relies on agriculture to survive.
It was quite confronting to see that the community in Myaing is not doing well due to the harsh weather conditions affecting their crops.
Myaing is near Bagan, an ancient city and popular tourism destination.
We learnt about programs where Action Aid is working to activate tourism traffic into other areas around Bagan and helping to facilitate a community-based tourism plan that would encourage tourists to stay with locals in the Myaing community. This helps the community find another source of income through providing accommodation and services and helps tourist to experience the riches of the local community.
What was the highlight of this experience?
I was interested in the future planning of Yangon’s transportation network, especially as the former capital is forecast to double its population to 10 million in the coming decades.
RMIT lecturers on the tour and Action Aid arranged meetings with the city, local NGOs and civil society groups.
This gave me great insight into the strategic planning of Yangon and inspired me to investigate how we can better integrate socio-environmental equity into planning to include the growing population and reduce environmental impact.
The course had a strong emphasis on participatory planning in development, to make projects more effective and sustainable.
On the tour, we were familiarised with Action Aid’s Village Book project, which builds community capacity to organise their needs for future planning of their towns.
For me, coming from a planning background that is very process based, this trip was an opportunity to explore the impact of community participation to drive projects and set goals.
It was also an opportunity to explore sustainable tourism. It was great to have all stakeholders involved and see the community leading project.
My project, which I completed during the course, focused on creating a strategy to develop a bicycle network in Yangon to better prepare for the expected increase in population from 5 million to 10 million in the next 20 years.
There is a real need for more adequate infrastructure to create a more liveable environment and bike-friendly city.
Do you think this experienced has changed you?
Definitely! I used to look at things in an outcome-based view, which doesn’t always get to the crux of the issue at hand.
I have now shifted my focus to be more process based and really value the necessity of participatory planning – not just consultation.
Socio-environmental equity is a worldwide issue and I believe the skills I learnt in Myanmar are easily transferrable.
This experience really enhanced my social and academic perspective on urban planning, and I am excited about using what I learned to create change in the world around me.
What advice do you have to other students who may be considering studying abroad?
Definitely do it. It’s one of the best opportunities that the University offers. Global Intensive tours really engage you in the academic and practical worlds of what you will do after uni.
Study RMIT's Master of Urban Planning and Environment in 2017.
Story: Jaclyn Lombardo