When I grow up, I can be a city builder?

How schooling can contribute to the city building profession.

We live in our cities and experience the complexities of them each and every day. We know what it takes to make a strong and resilient city. We are a dynamic group of professional, wear many different hats and work in many different jobs, but we are all city builders. Being a city builder, however, is not a likely choice for students when they start to think about what they want to be when they grow up.

When it comes to city building, our school system should teach the next generation of professionals what opportunities they have available to become a part of that process. Our school systems should show our next generation of leaders that they can become city builders

The “6 From The 6ix” at Loretto Abbey CSS in Toronto work on their plan. They are (clockwise l. to r.): Sophie (Financial Director); Sabrina (Site Planner); Mena (Marketing Director); Samantha (City Liaison); Paula (Neighbourhood Liaison); Sophia (Marketing Director).

If the next generation desires to be city builders, we can be confident that we will have a strong and dynamic workforce that is excited to solve the complex problems of city building in the 21st century. They can plan for better transit, improve community relations, build our cities to be more resilient both socially and physically, and create opportunities for creative design solutions to urban planning problems. Yet currently in most curriculums there is no clear path to learning that city building is an achievable profession and as a result, we are missing out on a very talented pool of future city builders.

The High School Experience

Howard Cappadocia, Department Head of Social Science at Loretto Abbey CSS in Toronto says that Ontario’s high school curriculum is not as explicit as it could be, with respect to city building. “This is because most schools in the public system do not have programs that specifically target the urban environment and if these programs are available, they are available only to those bound for a four-year undergraduate degree.  Therefore, the majority of students do not have the opportunity to take a human/urban geography course as part of their curriculum.”

It seems as though, in the high school system, everything is there, it is just disjointed. It isn’t that school boards do not emphasize the skills and topics that promote city building. There are references to urban places all throughout the curriculum, but there aren’t courses that focus specifically on it. This issue is not something that can be easily changed. Cappadocia believes that a more immediate opportunity at the high school level may be through a new program he was introduced to this year.

An example of a city block diagram used in the UrbanPlan learning curriculum.

UrbanPlan is a project-based learning curriculum development for high schools focused
on disciplines such as city planning, real estate and architecture, the objective of which is to provide the tools for high school educators to develop an interdisciplinary approach to looking at the urban form.  As part of the program a student will take up on of five roles: Financial Analyst, Marketing Director, City Liaison, Site Planner or Neighbourhood Liaison. Through 15 class hours of program participation, students will form development teams and respond to an RFP to redevelop a 5½ block urban infill, mixed-use redevelopment project site, and present their proposal to a mock City Council that awards the development contract to the “winning” team. Through the process, students discover the fundamental challenges of development: how market forces (supply and demand, availability of capital, risk/reward expectations, etc.) clash and collaborate with non-market forces (regulation, politics, advocacy groups, etc.) to create the built environment. Through these roles, students develop a deeper understanding of the various stakeholders in the development process and the challenge of reconciling their often-competing agendas to create a well-designed, market responsive, financeable, and buildable project.

Created by Urban Land Institute and embraced by many of its District Councils, including the Toronto one, UrbanPlan is supported by volunteers who are professionals in all disciplines of land use and development, selected for their depth of experience
and knowledge. Attendees have included a wide range of stakeholders in both private and public sectors, such as planners, developers, members of the Toronto District School Board, architects, and members of the Toronto Transit Commission and Toronto Community Housing Corporation. Cappadocia is one of a handful of high school teachers that has incorporated this program into Geography, which is a required course at the Grade 9 level. In his program, he provides opportunities for professionals to come to the school and talk about their work to the students. “Students respond to guest speakers,” he says. “There is a huge impact when another individual comes to speak to the student. This is where the magic happens. This is where the kid says that ‘Hey, I can be just like that person.’”

While the program is time-heavy and non-traditional and may make educators shy away from the unknowns, Cappadocia believes that this program will be very successful across the school board. “I would never have investigated this type of program for my students had a former graduate of the school not approached me with the syllabus, he says, referring to Alexandra Rybak, who is now a director at ULI Toronto’s District Council.

Entering University
What about when the student enters college or university? How can educational institutions create more opportunities for students to learn about the field of city building? Dr. Aditi Mehta, an assistant professor, teaching stream, in the urban studies program at the University of Toronto, believes that high schools are failing to encourage city building-related jobs as a legitimate career path and this problem is heightened once they enter university. “When I was in high school, I thought I wanted to be a journalist and I interned for a magazine where I did an essay on the Big Dig in Boston. I really enjoyed learning about those issues, but I had no understanding of the world of urban planning and there was no clear course in my high school to show me how I can make this interest my career. It wasn’t until my second year in undergrad that I learned that urban studies were an option and, even then, I had to figure out this field on my own.”

Now, Dr. Mehta teaches in the Urban Studies undergraduate program at Innis College.  She describes the department in a similar manner to that of many other undergraduate urban studies schools. The department is interdisciplinary with courses spanning from sociology to media studies. This gives students the opportunity to learn to be critical in their urban environments.

Students enter into the program in their second year at the University. Administration looks for students who have taken and received above average marks in a range of foundational urban courses from their first year, some combination of urban geography, economics, political science and sociology. Many of the students go on to get Masters in Planning, while many others also enter into related fields such as Architecture, Landscape Architecture and Real Estate.

Dr. Mehta believes that the most important component of her program is the internship experience that the school offers to the students, a central element of their urban studies experience. In the program, the internships are intimately related to their focus in their academic study. The department will build coursework and in-class discussions, and a more formal academic inquiry around the placement experience to really emphasise the connection between the academic study of cities and the various jobs that exist within the broad field of city building. “I believe that the internships, and the courses connected to them, are one of the best formats we have to expose to students the large variety of options for a planning career, both within and outside of professional planning,” says Dr. Mehta. “It gives students a real taste of what practical city building and planning looks like and allows them to gain a sense of whether that is the right direction for them.”

Careers in the medicine, engineering and legal professions are valued in society and lucrative opportunities for our next generation. This is the same for careers in city building. The difference is that there is no singular path to become a city builder and one does need to be a bit of a jack-of-all-trades. But there is an incredible opportunity for the next generation of jacks-of-all-trades to become professional and make a lasting impact in society. What needs to happen is to provide this dynamic group with the tools, early on in their learning, to know that this opportunity exists. We need to speak to our students with our many hats and then afford them the opportunity to try out the various jobs within our field. The greatest opportunity lies in high school curriculums becoming the catalyst students can use to better understand the field of city building, so that the next generation will know the workforce and more will enter it with as much a desire as they have to seek out other fields such as law, engineering and medicine.

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