The Future of Urban Planning

I recently wrote the article below for the Canadian Scholarship Trust Plan’s Inspired Minds Careers 2030 site, which is designed to help guide Canada’s education and professional pathways into the future. The site features a series of articles by leaders in their respective fields describing the state of their industries, how they might change and what students can do to prepare for those changes. The goal is to provide a vision of a “Canada of the Future”, while inspiring enthusiasm and preparation in Canada’s future leaders.

I was asked to write about the biggest challenges facing the planning profession today, and to point out some of the skills that will be required by urban planners in the future:

There are a variety of changes underway today, some of which we don’t control, and that may impact urban planning in the future. The first, and maybe the most difficult for us to comprehend and plan for, is climate change. At the very least, we need to be planning our cities and regions to mitigate climate change, and to reduce its negative impacts, such as flooding. We know that severe weather events are becoming a normal part of our lives, which means that taking an interdisciplinary approach to city building is becoming critical. Being able to work across disciplines, and broaden our partnerships, is already essential.

Another key issue is the rapid urbanization of our world. And in the context of our cities, there’s increasing pressure to assimilate more and more people, whether they’re from other countries or moving here from other provinces. We need to ensure that our cities, as they densify, are places where people have access to the amenities that they need, such as great streets for walking, local retail, access to transit, libraries, schools, or park spaces, in order to have a high quality of life. If we only build buildings, but we forget the fabric that creates community connectedness and civic life, we will quickly see our quality of life diminish as our cities change.

Great cities are also inclusive, and recognize that to be prosperous, we must provide housing for various stages of life, in different built forms. Inevitably, there will be vulnerable people in every city who will need assistance through affordable housing. Urban centres, whether New York, Chicago, Toronto or Vancouver, have all seen an increase in the gap between the rich and the poor.   This may be the biggest planning challenge of our time – figuring out how to address this growing gap in inequity.

Through urban planning, we impact how people move around the city, by the types of environments that we create. We need to provide infrastructure that communicates visual clues for people: that walking, cycling and transit are great ways to get around the city. Beautiful and highly visible public transit entrances or well-connected cycling networks remind people of their importance to the city’s infrastructure.

If you’re interested in city planning, the first thing you should do is step outside your door and fall in love with the city in which you live! Because whether you’re nine, 15 or 25 years old, you can start getting involved right now, today. Doing so is the best way to explore and identify what really interests you about city building. It could be the architecture, or park space planning, transit, environmental planning, or urban agriculture. Planning is connected to many other disciplines.

It is possible to get involved in initiatives in your community, or even start an initiative as a way of beginning to build your own expertise as a city planner.

Urban planning has a significant impact on some of the most important challenges that society is facing today. We have the opportunity to make people’s lives better  – or not – and to improve quality of life – or not. That motivates me to get up every morning and to work hard: I believe this work matters.

Every single day I’m challenged by the work that I do. I’m constantly learning. I’m always also meeting interesting people who broaden my understanding of the world. City planning, in many ways, is at the heart of a democratic society. Think about it – how we plan our cities is about how we negotiate living together. Have you ever lived with someone? It can be pretty tricky.  This is why city planning is a complex discipline that is technical, political, and artistic all at the same time. It is often about brokering deals for our shared future. It is also about figuring out what we’re going to share or not share, what we value, and the kind of legacy we want to leave for future generations.