One of the main topics of conversation in our PhD programme is the ever-expanding definition of planning. For us, planning can include social and community development, ecological planning and natural resource management, transportation planning, land use planning, urban design and urban development. A student will never get past their initial committee meeting, let alone their comprehensive exam, prospectus, or dissertation defense, without answering the dreaded, “How is your research planning research?” Since our school has a Masters and a PhD programme, students at the Masters thesis defense are likely to answer this question as well.

The purpose of this question has eluded me for some time now. At our school we are taught that planning is so broad and all-encompassing that it can include…well, virtually anything. We know, from talking with other students at various schools across North America, that many schools concentrate on land use planning, policy development, research methods and tools used by planners in the field. This narrower planning focus produces planning professionals who are quite adept at their jobs in municipal government and consultancy. But does it produce researchers? Academics? Writers? This is less certain.

And how does the student answer the question of planning relevancy? Is it enough to answer that planners are concerned with non-motorized transportation, the location of affordable housing, participatory planning? In my case, I will be conducting research on the housing and transportation choices of immigrants in Toronto. I have found numerous examples in Toronto’s municipal and regional plans that show a new concern for housing and transit infrastructure provision. Toronto’s Official Plan documents show housing affordability and housing tenure are major concerns, as rental housing is not growing at a rate high enough to meet demand. Municipalities in the Toronto region, like Mississauga and Brampton, acknowledge their high rates of immigration and set out areas for future housing development and better links to adjacent transportation systems. Is my research going to “sit on a shelf somewhere” while practicing planners are concerned with more practical matters? Since local planners are writing policy about accommodating population growth through residential infill along transportation corridors, mine is indeed a planning question and my research could prove useful to those in this policy area. But it could also be useful in the wider debates around affordable housing provision, the shrinking middle class, income disparities, and immigrant integration. That’s my answer and I’m sticking to it!

We will be having a symposium next week at our school (SustainaWHAT? SustainaHOW?), and a few of us will be discussing the issue of moving from theory into practice. Our PhD panel will discuss the various ways that research in our areas has moved from academia to planning practice: through the intermediary of teaching, through action research, through the provision of hard data to be used in policy creation, by challenging existing models and bringing new ideas into the public discourse, by publishing our work in different venues and presenting to various professional organizations. We argue that it is our contribution to planning practice that distinguishes our work from related fields such as geography or sociology; we consider this more essential than any contribution to knowledge.

I would argue that a breadth of planning knowledge is, and will continue to be, essential in our complex and ever-changing world. We need planners who can work with communities to develop solutions to local problems, those who can work on land use and regulatory change, those who can plan new transportation corridors and bike paths, and those who can develop guidelines for better neighbourhoods. We need people working on both practical tools and on theory development. Planning history tells us that there is no one-size-fits-all approach.

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