John Mason is a member of Carter Jonas’ Planning & Development team in Cambridge, who first moved to the city as an undergraduate studying for a geography degree. But his planning and development experience is far from limited to Cambridge.  

After completing his first degree and keen to travel while also considering his future career path, John undertook the 4CITIES+ Erasmus Mundus Joint Master Degree in Urban Studies awarded by the University of Vienna. 

The two year course involved academic study and real-life insight into the practice of urban development in Brussels, Vienna, Copenhagen and Madrid – providing exposure to European cities with varying historical, demographic, political and economic systems. The course enabled theory and practice to be reflected in each other, while also providing an opportunity to compare and contrast the merits of the planning systems of each city. 



Starting in Brussels provided a direct comparison to the UK, as John explains:Belgium has one of the most complicated governance systems in Europe, and this is reflected in their urban planning. In Brussels, planning is mostly devolved to the 19 municipalities, each of which have their own planning controls. The term “Brusselisation” was coined to reflect this absence of a co-ordinated approach to planning, and the sometimes disastrous consequences this can have for heritage and streetscapes. This has also led to problems ranging from inequality to traffic congestion and pollution, which can only be addressed at a regional level. On the other hand, it has created much more space for ground-up, citizen-led advocacy on specific issues, and the flourishing of an interesting underground culture.”  



Planning in Copenhagen is relatively controlled and well established: “In 1947, Copenhagen established the Five Finger Plan. The city’s growth plan designated corridors of urban development along five railway lines (the ‘fingers’), to provide convenient transportation to the city centre (the ‘hand’) – the fingers stretching out to provide increasing amounts green space as they extended from the city centre. The plan has successfully allowed for controlled urban growth while leaving space open for recreation and agriculture.  

“The Five Finger Plan is not dissimilar to our Green Belt and has widespread public recognition, but rather than a restraint, it comes across as a more pro-development approach. There’s a lot to be said for the structure of channels of protected land as compared to the Green Belt which provides extensive green spaces on the perimeter but consequently denser development in the centre.  

“Partly due Copenhagen being a design capital (architecture isn’t a protected practice in Denmark and consequently there tend to be more designers in Copenhagen than elsewhere) there is a high standard for urban design. The topography of this island city, supported by continued municipal investment in safe pro-cycling infrastructure, has meant that cycling has always been popular and vehicle emissions are reduced.



Madrid’s planning system is highly legalistic and based on codes and statutes. There is no city plan. New development areas are zoned by the city and then developed privately – often as part of a public-private partnership. Any strategic vision or specific initiatives are set by the city’s Mayor. In recent years this has included pedestrianisation of the city centre, new social housing programmes, and a new urban forest – generally popular, but limited by political cycles. The system is fairly impenetrable for ordinary citizens, and there have been corruption cases associated with land re-zoning in the past.” 



Vienna is John’s favourite European city – ‘a paradise’ – but for reasons which are specific to Vienna. “Dating back to the 1930s, Vienna embarked on an enormous building programme of social housing. These houses have never been sold off, and today 60% of Vienna’s residents live in subsidised housing. Social housing remains an attractive option for many middle-classes, creating genuinely mixed communities. Meanwhile, a Land Procurement and Urban Renewal Fund has been running for the past 40 years, allowing the city to acquire vast tracts of land. 

“This gives the state an enviable bargaining position, and the competition between developers results in higher standards at achievable prices.

This also allows the city to experiment. Gender mainstreaming has been part of the planning discourse for decades, with one district – Frauen-Werk-Stadt – designed by and for women. In Aspern Seestadt, one of the largest urban development projects in Europe, women’s requirements were accounted for in the design of buildings and urban spaces, and the streets and parks are all named after women.  

Are there are any downsides to the planning system in Vienna? “Because Vienna is one of the fastest growing cities in Europe in terms of the amount of people who move there each year, there are problems with housing shortages and high prices especially in the market-controlled areas.”  


Back to the UK 

With his urbanism expertise having whetted his enthusiasm for planning and development, John returned to Cambridge University to a second postgraduate degree, an MPhil in Planning Growth and Regeneration, before joining Carter Jonas as a graduate planner. 

John has worked in Cambridge for eight years during a time of significant expansion for the city and has even chosen to live on one of Cambridge’s most celebrated new neighbourhoods.  

So as Cambridge – a city facing significant housing pressures, resource constraints, an increasingly complicated system of local government, and sceptical public opinion - enters into a period of significant expansion, can it benefit from positive examples elsewhere in Europe?  

In my two years of observing different planning regimes across Europe I’ve come across examples of ‘how not to do it’ as well as ‘how to do it’,” says John. “But there are certainly positives in each city which, to varying degrees, could be incorporated into the UK planning system.  

“Cambridge will have to build thousands of new homes over the next twenty years. Vienna is able to use its power as a landowner and regulator to allocate land whilst still enforcing exceptionally high standards. In Madrid, the power and prominence of the Mayor means that the public is presented with a clear vision for their city and if they believe in it, they can vote for it. In Brussels there is a strong culture of grassroots activism and high levels of engagement, for example on cycling. 

“The most applicable lesson for the UK comes from Copenhagen’s Five Finger Plan. This is a very effective way of communicating development objectives in a positive and understandable way. It has created a pro-growth mindset: the public can see where the city is expanding and understand the logic behind it. This balances growth with preservation of green spaces in a much more effective way than our Green Belt.  

“I think perhaps the most important lesson is the art of the possible – the fact that within the 365,000 square miles that separate these four cities, such different approaches are possible, each with their own benefits. For Cambridge, as ‘Europe’s next silicon valley’, and for post-election planning reform regardless of which party forms the next government, there are a breadth of approaches which should be considered.
Get in touch
John Mason
Associate, Planning & Development
01223 326552 Email me About John
I am a chartered Associate with Carter Jonas based in their Cambridge office. I work with clients across East Anglia on preparing and managing planning applications; providing planning advice in respect of a range of sites, types of development and uses; and negotiating with external consultants and local authorities on behalf of clients. I have an academic background in Geography, Urban Studies and Planning, with masters degrees from the University of Cambridge and the University of Vienna. I am a member of the Young RTPI Committee and the RTPI Regional Management Board for the East of England.

Keep informed

Sign up to our newsletter to receive further information and news tailored to you.

Sign up now