Urban growth—not to mention truckloads of infrastructure spending coming down the road—spell opportunity for urban planners
In August 2014, construction crews in Waterloo, Ont., began building the so-called Ion light rail transit line, an $818-million megaproject that will connect a disparate region known for its tech sector, insurance companies and Mennonite farms. When finished, the piece of infrastructure will reshape the city in a way that hasn’t happened since a little local firm called Research in Motion unveiled the BlackBerry.
As its engineers supervised the physical work of laying the line, the region also hired a five-person planning team from Toronto consultancy Urban Strategies to begin the process of reimagining the main street along which the LRT will operate.
The goal, says Habon Ali, a 29-year-old associate with the firm and part of the five-person team, was to create a community-building strategy for Waterloo to capitalize on the transit corridor by leveraging the giant investment to attract new retail, high-density development and other amenities. Ali, who graduated from the University of Toronto’s planning school in 2012, was involved in the public engagement aspect of the project—organizing open houses, finding straightforward ways to communicate complex planning jargon and soliciting input. “It was a cool transit project to be involved with because it was about getting the public involved,” she says.
Ali belongs to a new generation of urban planners taping into the rising demand for the services of a profession whose fortunes are tied to surging property development markets as well as the growth in city-building activity across Canada. In many big cities, municipal land-use planning departments and other local agencies are hiring planners to help manage growth linked to population increases, burgeoning private investment and new infrastructure.
But planners are also finding positions in outside consultancies, architecture and engineering firms, development companies and non-profits such as community housing agencies. According to Urban Strategies partner Joe Berridge, some Canadian planning firms are also finding lots of work abroad. “Canadians are tremendously good at planning and urban design because it is such a consultative, consensus-based activity,” he says. “There’s a slow recognition in the developed world that maybe Canadian cities are on to something, which is heartening.”
According to Canadian Business’ 2016 Best Jobs ranking, urban planners now occupy the number two position, with an $85,010 median salary and 15% wage growth over the past five years. The number of jobs in the field also grew 30% in that time period and is set to grow further, Berridge notes, because of the looming retirement of the baby boomers who now occupy the top jobs.
Andrew Pask, a 44-year-old City of Vancouver neighbourhood planner, says he and his colleagues are called in to work on files that range in scale from single-parcel development applications to regional strategies. The issues include things like managing the impact of gentrification, and housing affordability. “There’s a lot of timely and important stuff the planning profession tackles,” says Pask, who studied planning and environmental studies at York University and went to work for the City of Vancouver a decade ago. “That’s part of the appeal for me.”
There’s plenty of cross-pollination between public planning departments and the private sector. Jennifer Fix, an associate at private consultancy Dialog, was working on a large infill project for the City of Regina when she met the principals of a boutique firm known as H.B. Lanarc. The company, which specialized in sustainability issues, hired her away, and she later jumped to Dialog after a large engineering company absorbed Lanarc. Having worked on both the public and private sides of the industry, Fix says the professional opportunities in consultancies tend to be more varied. “My experience in the private sector is much more dynamic,” she says. “It’s incredibly stimulating because you’re always learning.”
With burgeoning demand for urban planning expertise has come a greater degree of specialization within the profession. Berridge points out that private planning consultancies and even law firms now routinely employ planners who focus exclusively on appeals to the Ontario Municipal Board, a quasi-judicial body that polices the land use decisions made by municipal council. Other firms have carved out niches in urban design, project management and public consultation, a sideline of planning that focuses on attracting, synthesizing and then interpreting community feedback. “[Planning] presents itself as a single profession, but it manifests itself in a whole variety of ways,” says Pask.
Ali, moreover, points out that planners, because they work so often with members of the public, need to be versed not just in the technical elements of the job; they must also possess exemplary communications skills, and have to be able to respond to criticism or skepticism from residents. Away from public meetings, she adds, more planners also find themselves working with new forms of real-time urban data and analytics techniques to assist with their work. Some firms now employ younger planners who have learned or taught themselves the emerging techniques of data science. A few, Ali points out, have even jumped from planning to firms that specialize in providing data analytics services.
What seems clear is that Canada’s planning profession is poised to continue along its brisk growth trajectory, even if there’s a contraction or correction in the red-hot property development markets in cities like Toronto and Vancouver.
The reason? While engineering and architecture firms tend to be exposed to development downturns, most private planning companies do a lot of business with municipalities and their agencies. Given the billions in stimulus dollars that will be spent in coming years on infrastructure projects, demand for planners is likely to grow in lockstep with the flow of federal and provincial dollars to social housing, transit, public spaces and recreational amenities. “Most of my clients are public sector,” says Fix. “There’s always a need for planning work.”