Urban planners are crucial to the healthy development of our cities and communities. With more concentrated efforts on sustainability and the environmental effects of land use and population growth, their roles are becoming increasingly diversified and important. In Winnipeg, over the last 40 years, we’ve consumed land at almost two-and-a-half times our rate of population growth – meaning that as a city, we are consuming valuable resources at our own expense.
One way planners are working to combat this problem is by collaborating with teams of other professionals and developers to breathe new life into our downtown. Investment in our core has skyrocketed over the last several years, and new developments are helping to increase our population density. Planners contribute to this process in numerous ways. They may be part of the planning process: writing or studying proposals, researching cause and effect, mediating, working with the community, and creating new bylaws or policies for future development. Planners also address issues of sustainability, economics, housing, transportation, infrastructure, and social and heritage concerns.
Training and certification
The oldest planning program in Canada remains active and is located right here in Winnipeg at the University of Manitoba. For over fifty years, the university has been educating students to work in urban planning by offering both planning theory and practice in the only accredited master’s program in the province.
Entry to the planning profession typically starts with the completion of a bachelor’s or master’s degree from an accredited planning program. Many planners who obtain their master’s degree in planning often hold undergraduate degrees in other related fields such as architecture, landscape architecture, economics, or engineering to name a few. The accredited undergraduate-level planning programs in Canada offer a more direct entry route to the profession. After obtaining a degree in planning, there is a process of certification as a professional planner, which is administered by the Professional Standards Board for the Planning Profession in Canada (PSB).
Students need to determine if they are more interested in physical planning or policy making, and if they would prefer to work in the private sector or for the government. Hazel Borys, managing principal at PlaceMakers, LLC, finds that most of Manitoba’s recent grads end up working for the province or city. In the short term, at least, she sees this trend continuing as there are not many private firms who offer strictly planning services.
A solid understanding of government policy, regulations, and statistics are required, but the most important thing for young planners to master, according to Borys, is the ability to bring people together. “They need to be able to facilitate, moderate, and communicate.”
“Technical skills and website and design knowledge are also highly sought after,” states Andrew Sacret, director of policy and public affairs at the Canadian Institute of Planners.
“Young grads are not short on great ideas. The biggest thing they are lacking is experience,” explains Borys. “Often city planning efforts stretch their budgets, and therefore, do not end up hiring students because they need someone with more experience.”
Her company, PlaceMakers, does most of its work through charrettes with an online companion, iCharrette. Charrettes are collaborative sessions held in-person or online for the entire team – which may include planners, architects, engineers, artists, economists, as well as finance and communications experts. “Often students will volunteer to join a charrette in order to gain experience. Some universities will organize their own charrettes for students to rewrite policies and bylaws or to draft master plans for the urban redesign of neighbourhoods to build the students’ portfolio of invaluable real world experiences.”
Students are also encouraged to travel. “You need to walk the streets. See what makes cities competitive, what gives them advantages, and what makes them compelling for people to live and work in,” says Borys.
Another obstacle facing inexperienced grads is caused by the way in which planning is structured in Manitoba. “It is more of a negotiated process which makes it harder for a new grad. The transparent development bylaws, policies and pillars of community that exist in cities like Vancouver are not as old and well-established here,” she explains.
In addition to increasing their level of experience, Sacret recommends that students keep up-to-date on current affairs and get involved with community organizations. By building contacts, being open to travel and working abroad, and participating in the Canadian Association of Planning Students, they can gain further experience.
Ultimately, new grads should pursue membership and certification with the Manitoba Professional Planners Institute and the Canadian Institute of Planners to obtain professional credentials, access to networking opportunities, job boards and resume posting, and other opportunities to increase their knowledge.
Urban planners today need to work with the entire community. “It’s not just drawing lines and buildings and working behind the walls of city hall,” says Alan Freeman, a former city planner in London, UK. “We can’t think about cities the way we used to. People are starting to use their cities in very new ways. This is the difference between space and place. A space can be anything – a town square, the river walk at the Forks, a hallway – but when you have a conception of what is going to happen there, that is when you get place.”
“Creating this difference between space and place is essentially the job of a city planner. They must conceptualize not only the space but how that space will be utilized by the people in the community, creating a place that people will love. This is how our modern cities have become attractive places to live in.”