Town Planning with a Human Touch

By Sibangani Dube
June 2012
Prime Business
It is hard to believe Johann Opperman, the Managing Director of Urban Dynamics is a Town Planner by profession. His passion for human development can leave social workers or psychologists green with envy. Human development, and by implication social developmental planning, strategic planning and urban and regional development lies at the core of Urban Dynamics and undoubtedly underpins the success of this town planning consultancy. Hence a household name in Namibia.

‘I guess wanting to please our clients and our service providers is what takes up much of my time, because we do have a big client base. If you build a clientele base over such a long time, it is normal that they will take up much of your time’, explained Johann when asked what keeps him busy on the phone.

Managing a business has redefined Johann’s life to three in one, thus professional, business manager and entrepreneur.

‘With our profession being so close to the development sector and properties, surely there is some overlaps and it is evident that by applying our minds you are expanding both, ending up being a business person at the same time.

Town planning as profession provides meaning and purpose as it allows him the ability to unleash his creativity, a reflection of his character and personality.

‘If you look at the properties of a concrete slab, I don’t think it has changed much over the past 150 years, but our needs as human beings change every day and we as Planners have to be creative and responsive to cater for these ever changing needs .

Johann joined Urban Dynamics at the beginning of 1999 after being approached by the former MD.

‘I was approached by the then Urban Dynamics MD and asked if I will consider joining Urban Dynamics. I guess he saw me as a potential asset to the company. I suppose time will tell if this had been the case ”. Working as a consultant is fulfilling for Johann as he always felt he could perform best in the private sector.

‘However, there is definitely a benefit to be employed in the public sector. It is also a very good learning school to be employed by local authorities and our parent Ministry of Regional, Local Government, Housing and Rural Development.. Personally, I have always felt that my character and my personality is more suitable for working in the private sectors’, he says.

Johann rose through the ranks having started off as a town planner in the production department. It did not take him long to become a shareholder and after a few years director and then Managing Director.

The dictum that human capital is the most important asset runs deep at Urban Dynamics. Ultimately this has enhanced their success as a practicing town planning firm. His management style has enabled him to forge very close relationships with his colleagues thus creating a camaraderie and synergistic atmosphere. The spinoffs include company loyalty leading to zero employee turnover.

The nature and design of the office creates a warm and interactive environment nurturing high quality interactions ranging from discussions about the latest developments, sharing interesting You Tube videos, and discussions about the purpose and principles of life in general. We are fortunate to have a lovely office which provides a conducive environment within which we work and play . We try to make time for one another, even when performing under pressure.

The linkage of Urban Dynamics to a holdings company in South Africa is a big plus professionally as they stay in the forefront of the latest developments and trends which is a huge incentive for their clients, locally and internationally.

Urban Dynamics serves a wide variety of clients and the beauty of the profession is that it is so wide that one can choose specific fields to specialise in. Our clients include an individual person who wants to subdivide or rezone a property, local authorities, international clients, local developers, oil companies wanting to plan their strategic development, governments and NGO’s. Our clients’ needs vary between strategic planning, policy frameworks, strategies to achieve developmental objectives over short, medium and long term, new township developments and development control of existing towns and neighbourhoods.

‘Serving all those clients and doing a wide variety of work is something that keeps us going. It varies every day.

He however adds that:

‘Planning is not something you get on top of, it’s an ever evolving profession and we need to adapt all the time so that we stay on top of our game.’

‘Fortunately we are a bunch of creative people and history has shown that we have been leading our profession. We don’t get derailed and work with our client’s needs until we find a solution’.

On their mantra to stay ahead of their competitors in striving for excellence in service delivery; he quotes Aristotle that,

‘Excellence is not an act it is a habit’. He adds that by applying our minds and focusing on the short term goals of our clients we manage to provide an excellent service’.

To be successful in the town planning profession one should have the following qualities.
First and foremost you must choose to be part of the solution rather than problem;
In essence planning is all about change and one should therefore be dynamic and creative;
Be able to communicate well. Everything we do gets done by means of documentation, negotiation and meetings. Communication skills is definitely an important asset. He adds that active listening forms part of these communication skills
Be sensitive to social and cultural differences and historical imbalances;
Have a good understanding of the economical and financial market place;
Strong moral and ethical values towards the profession. There is no room for personal agendas and we should always consider the long term ramifications of our actions.

Urban Dynamics’ ship is steered by three senior partners and one junior partner who has recently been promoted to this position to allow succession the same way Johann came about. Johann’s two co directors are Ted Rudd and Ernst Simon and it is evident that he has a lot of admiration for the work that they do and for the people they are .

Respect for one another has enabled the firm to pull in one direction paving way for grander opportunities.

‘We are individuals with unique skills and qualities. And, it is when all these are pooled together that you can achieve success and we are very fortunate in that area. Even though we differ in age, skills and character we learn from one another and pull in one direction. It starts with respect for one another and it is something you can apply as a rule of thumb in your life,’ he says.

On handling challenges in both his personal and professional life he considers himself as very optimistic.

‘In my personal life and professionally I choose to see the glass half full, I prefer to choose a positive attitude.’

However there are challenges in the profession as a result of our legislative framework and associated bureaucracy. ‘We sometimes struggle to finish the planning stage because of unnecessary delays. We work in a framework of public approvals. Johann lamented that often the media makes them the sacrificial lambs when projects are delayed, when in reality the problems lies at implementing plans prepared by planners.

While acknowledging that Namibia has made a lot of progress since independence, he feels there is a need to up the pace of achieving the national objectives we have set for ourselves.

Johann says these delays are negatively affecting the full development potential of the economy and employment opportunities, among others, are lost in the process.

One of the best examples is the delay in the implementation of a much needed public water transport system between Katima Mulilo and Impalila Island to alleviate the burden of flood prone areas. The feasibility study was completed in 2001 while the implementation only came through in 2010.

‘Even when we successfully completed and motivated the plan it was only implemented 9 years later. I am proud that a study that we carried out has improved the lives of people, but the impact could have been felt much earlier.’

Johann says he owes his success to God, who gave him the abilities, the skills and the passion to do what he does. He also attributes his success to his predecessors in the profession and his predecessors in Urban Dynamics; He is humbled by people making contributions in the Namibian context and in the global market.

While Johann has worked on numerous successful projects, the UNDP funded Regional Participatory Poverty Assessment which was conducted by Urban Dynamics (in association with other sub-contractors) is regarded as a showcase project professionally but also on a personal level.

”Very few people reading this article truly understand the hardships poor people have to go through. This project gave us an opportunity to spent six weeks in the remotest areas of Namibia with the poorest of the poor. In some cases cut off from road networks and radio waves. The concepts of “Vulnerability”, “well-being” and “coping mechanisms” were certainly re-defined while doing this social research project. . Ultimately we devised strategies and action plans to design interventions.

Urban Dynamics has a unique corporate social responsibility which takes on different dimensions. They believe in the ” charity begins at home” principle.

The firm has a programme aimed at recruiting, training,coaching and mentoring locally trained planners To this end, about eight students from the Polytechnic of Namibia have been absorbed making it the biggest recruiter of locally trained planners.

‘There is no other planning firm which has recruited this number of locally trained planners on a full time basis,’ quips Johann.

In addition to that, Urban Dynamics offers scholarships and bursaries to deserving students. ‘In fact, one of our champions who came through 3 years ago, were recently granted an opportunity to obtain a degree. She has excelled and we want to give her the opportunity to become a professional town planner’.

On the leisure front, Johann is an outdoors person. ‘I am an outdoors person that loves nature.’ A trip to Etosha or Madumu National Park in the Caprivi helps him get in touch with himself. PF