I’ll be live blogging from the Over the Line symposium today, a one-day symposium on race, place, and the environment that brings together experts from the US, Canada, and Nova Scotia. This exciting event is meant to generate a conversation about the spiritual, environmental, and physical damage caused to black, Indigenous, and other racialized communities. I’m a co-investigator on the SSHRC Partnership Grant supporting the symposium along with several others, organized by our principal investigator Dr. Ingrid Waldron, who has become a local expert on environmental justice. Waldron heads the ENRICH (Environmental Noxiousness, Racial Inequities & Community Health) Project. If you want to check out Twitter, participants are using the handle #overthelinehfx.

Keynote Speakers

We started out last night with an energizing public lecture by Dr. Robert Bullard, distinguished professor of urban planning and environmental policy at Texas Southern University. Bullard is the founder of the environmental justice movement in the United States, starting with his involvement in the Whispering Pines Sanitary Landfill case in Houston in the late 1960s. He got involved in the case, which involved siting the landfill in a middle-class African American community, through his wife, the lawyer who represented the community, and has now published 18 books on environmental justice. A packed audience at Ondaatje Hall on the Dalhousie campus listened to his history of the fight for environmental justice and the effects on African American, low-income, and Hispanic communities. He finished with photos showing the devastation of Hurricane Harvey on the city, with wealthy as well as low-income neighbourhoods affected. The low-income areas on the east flood every year, with the majority of the flood mitigation support going to the high-income area on the west. Bullard showed many slides of the health trends, poverty and income trends in the US, with the south showing up as the most environmentally degraded, low-income, and least healthy. He stated that it was no coincidence that the civil rights movement and the environmental justice movement both started in the south.

Today’s keynote speaker at our free event at the Halifax Public Library is Dr. George Lipsitz, professor of Black Studies at UC Santa Barbara. He opened by stating that this is no ordinary time: the protest at Standing Rock, Ferguson, Black Lives Matter, Idle No More, challenges to Canada 150 and so many others are in his words “the manifestation of a greater upheaval that is on the way.” He compared the protests to waves, which have long fetches: they started days, weeks, and months ago, they have built up force and represent a collective, cumulative process in history. We’re at a moment when a new generation is mobilizing for change: “a crisis that distills a complex history”, not people with their backs to the wall but people whose backs have been pushed through the wall. From this, Lipsitz anticipates a break which will lead to new policies, people, personalities, and perspectives. Social movements produce new knowledges, teaching us how people without resources become resourceful. Equity-oriented collaborative community-based research works with groups in motion and can help support social movements.

We’re also pleased to have the fantastic Charla Williams as our host for today’s event. Charla has an extensive background in employment equity and is the chair of the Halifax African Nova Scotian Employment Network. She is also, as one participant stated, “a magical person who can somehow keep everyone on track and make sure things run on time.”

Community Organizing Panel

Panelists on the Community Organizing panel included Raymond Shepard, Stephen Thomas, and Dr. Deborah McGregor. Shepard spoke about his experience growing up in Lincolnville, a predominantly black community in Nova Scotia, and the history of community activism that exists there. Thomas’ work as Energy Campaign Coordinator at the Ecology Action Centre is helping communities transition to clean energy, and he gave a few examples of local Indigenous communities who are building solar energy farms on their territories using their own local skills and expertise. Dr. McGregor spoke of an Anishnaabe understanding of environmental justice, and how difficult it was to translate stories, topics, practices, and ideas into English and vice versa.

Cultural Transitions

After moderating the Community Organizing panel, I’m back listening to the incredible Umoja Cultural Diversity Drummers, a group of African Nova Scotians who performed using beats from Indigenous, Middle Eastern, and African musical traditions. It provides an integrative conclusion to our first panel, which was also introduced by Indigenous drummer and spoken word artist Richard Simon Taylor.

Research Panel

For the Research Panel, our speakers are Dr. Michael Mascarenhas, Louise Delisle, Dr. Cheryl Teelucksingh, and Dorene Bernard. Mascarenhas, a professor at UC Berkeley, has published a book called Where the Waters Divide: Neoliberalism, White Privilege, and Environmental Racism in Canada. He spoke of a presumed new emphasis on humanitarian efforts (e.g. tsunami relief, hurricane relief) which still involve discrimination: NGOs decide who gets relief and who does not, and there’s a major increase in the number of NGOs worldwide with less government aid going to communities. Even once access to water is enabled, taps and wells are kept locked so that communities have limited hours in which to gather it. In the US, half of black communities in Michigan have lived under emergency management, which means that their schools, parks, and other institutions come under private management. Even though Mascarenas feels that we’re increasingly blaming the victims affected by environmental hazards, residents and communities are often doing their own research and presenting their own data to governments.

Dorene Bernard is involved in the Truth and Reconciliation process as a member of the Mi’kmaq community. Just seven of the 94 Calls to Action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada have now been completed. The United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in Canada and around the world has been similarly slow. Bernard spoke of the Alton Gas Project, and the lack of consultation and false resource mapping process of the Mi’kmaq community during the Environmental Assessment process. The Nova Scotia Supreme Court has returned this flawed process to the Minister of Environment.

Louise DeLisle of the South End Environmental Injustice Society spoke about environmental racism in Shelburne. SEED is a community-based non-profit group located in a mostly low income, African Nova Scotian community. They were recently successful in having a 90-year-old landfill removed from Shelburne. Through the ENRICH Project, they participated in research on the health effects of the landfill, where waste was often burned, and water pollution in their community. They are now advocating for more research on the potential links to the town’s high rate of cancers, asthma, chronic fatigue, and depression.

Dr. Teelucksingh, professor at Ryerson University’s Department of Sociology, spoke about the Black Lives Matter movement and its link to racialized communities in Canada. Blacks represent just 2.9% of the Canadian population, but 10% of the federal prison inmate population. Activists have called for the end of the carding process in Ontario, after they showed that 27% of those carded were black youth. The Black Lives Matter movement protested the death of a Somali man in Ottawa in August 2017 by disrupting public space in Toronto. She is using critical race theory to link the Black Lives Matter and environmental justice movements: the need to reject colour blindness and race neutrality, critique claims of meritocracy, and recognize a convergence of interests (e.g. making all of our institutions more inclusive so that Indigenous, black, and other community members are all involved in decision-making).

Policy Panel

The final group of panelists are Dr. Carolyn Finney, a professor in geography at the University of Kentucky, Vanessa Gray, a community organizer from Sarnia, Halifax journalist Tristan Cleveland, and Dr. Meinhard Doelle, an environmental law professor at Dalhousie.

Dr. Finney talked about home and being visible/invisible in our home communities, and how easy histories can be erased. Policies have embedded bias and privilege, as do the institutions in which they are developed. The Homestead Act (1862) allowed European settlers to obtain 160 acres of land for a pittance set the precedent of stealing land, power, and privilege. In developing policy and working with communities, we have to unearth unwritten stories and histories and commit to relationships where mutual learning is the goal. Looking for innovative projects and connecting them through communities of practice, building relationships and reciprocity, embracing conflict (one person’s conflict is another’s revolution), committing to the process. She mentioned The Next 100 Coalition, a coalition of faith and civil rights organizations, environmental justice activists who developed and led a national conversation on public lands, which led to a presidential memorandum right before President Obama left office.

Dr. Doelle discussed four legal reforms in Canada right now: the Environmental Protection Act, Environmental Assessment Act, Fisheries Act, and the National Energy Board Act. The report on the review of the Environmental Protection Act talks about substantial environmental rights, which could protect vulnerable communities and effect the siting and regulation of polluting industries. It recommends a new stipulation on state of the environment reporting, which can identify areas/communities that are affected. The review report also explicitly acknowledges environmental racism and that standard forms of consultation are not appropriate or sufficient in culturally distinct communities. Environmental Assessment Act review was much weaker, and we’re now waiting for a draft bill. In the Fisheries Act, the policy review has addressed fair access to resources, especially for Indigenous peoples. The National Energy Board Act review has less relevance for Nova Scotia, but on a national level there is a lot of conflict between local communities and large energy companies. In Nova Scotia, the provincial government is dragging its feet on reviewing the EA process (first enacted in the 1980s).

Tristan Cleveland discussed historic communities in Nova Scotia: Africville and Membertou, an Indigenous communities in Sydney that is now self-sufficient through its international business certification. While Africville was systematically dismantled, Membertou was able to stay together and thrive. He also discussed jobs accessible to transit, which are scarce in the African Nova Scotian communities of Linconville and Preston, and the growth rate in Halifax that is pushing out traditional communities.

Vanessa Gray is from the Aamjiwnaang First Nation near Sarnia, Canada’s chemical valley, where the US-Canada border bisects the traditional territory of her people. She characterized governments as unnecessarily violent when Indigenous peoples are defending land, air, and water with their lives. This is part of systemic violence that includes residential schools and missing and murdered indigenous women. Aamjiwnaang is affected by the international petrochemical companies located along the river, where there is a 39% miscarriage rate (compared to the national rate of 15%) and toxic substances above the levels specified by the Ontario Ministry of Environment and Energy. Gray and her colleagues were arrested and charged with mischief in their protest against Enbridge’s Line 9, but luckily the charges were dropped.

Cultural Transitions

Sadie Beaton from the Ecology Action Centre and spoken word artist Abena Amoako-Tuffour ended our day with five-minute summary and powerful piece about the themes we’ve discussed today.

What an inspiring, challenging, and emotionally resonant day of discussions and learning from each other! I’m hoping that Ingrid is successful in her goal to bring together people from different backgrounds and disciplines to act together for more environmentally just communities.

It’s fall, which means that my fourth year undergraduate planning studio at Dalhousie University’s School of Planning is working on another complex project. As some of you know, last year my students worked on improving the social and open spaces in Mulgrave Park. This year, students are developing a proposal for affordable rental housing on Quinpool Road.

Students work on an in-class exercise

For students in the fourth year honours program in planning, it’s the first time they have worked in a studio setting. I’ve designed the course so that they can develop skills in drawing and design to help bring them up to similar levels (some of them have taken drawing classes and some have not). For example, in-class exercises teach them how to draw floor plans, axonometric drawings, and site analysis diagrams.

But because it’s a planning studio, and combines students from urban design and environmental planning, the course also incorporates financial aspects of development, demographics and policy aspects, and sustainability. Our partner on the project, Jeffry Haggett, is a planner at WSP. He helped determine the site for the project, a now-vacant lot on Quinpool Road where St. Patrick’s High School once stood, accompanied the students on a site visit, and has provided them with technical information such as GIS data. Neil Lovitt, a planner specializing in financial considerations at Turner Drake, taught them how to do a pro forma to determine whether their proposal is feasible. Both Jeffry and Neil are alumni of our planning program, the Bachelor of Community Design.

Councillor Lindell Smith (center) brought his own experiences of living in social and affordable housing to the class

Yesterday, Halifax Regional Municipality (HRM) Councillor Lindell Smith came in to discuss his experiences living in social and affordable housing in North Halifax. Smith grew up in the Uniacke Square public housing and the Gottingen Street neighbourhood, where he still lives. Just 26 years old when he was elected last fall, he is the first African Nova Scotian elected to city council in 20 years. He encouraged the students to think about the needs of the demographic groups near their site, and everyday considerations of people living in mid-rise and high-rise developments (e.g. access to open space, services for the community). For the mid-term review next week, Bob Bjerke is our guest critic. In addition to working as the chief planner in both HRM and the City of Regina, Bjerke was Director of Housing for the City of Edmonton, which is doing innovative policy work on integrating affordable housing and community supports.

Students are working in groups on their proposals, which must include:

  • a site plan and landscape plan
  • floor plans for the proposed buildings
  • information on their target demographic groups and relevant policies (e.g. land use, funding programs)
  • financial feasibility (pro forma)
  • a sustainability framework (e.g. financial, social, and environmental characteristics)

Groups will continue to refine and redesign their proposals until the end of this term. They developed group contracts the beginning of the term and will have a chance to evaluate each other at the mid-term and end of term. This helps keep group members accountable to each other and identifies uneven participation. Their individual grades on the in-class exercises also help evaluate their skill development and performance. In this way, the course also blends structured (time-limited assignments) and unstructured learning (group dialogue, consensus building and decision-making).

 

Bob Bjerke will no longer be in the position of chief planner at the Halifax Regional Municipality, according to the Coast. Bjerke had worked as the Director of Planning and Development since 2014, winning a nation-wide search for the newly-created position. Before that, he was the Director of Planning and Sustainability for the City of Regina. At this point there’s some mystery about his departure, with the usual speculation that the planning department has ruffled the feathers of the region’s developers. I only met Bob once, at this summer’s Canadian Institute of Planners conference. He certainly seemed to be a driving force behind Halifax’s new Centre Plan and other major undertakings such as the Integrated Mobility Plan.

Update: Some say that it’s not Bjerke who should have been fired, but the city’s Chief Administrative Officer Jacques Dubé. Urban thinker Tristan Cleveland wrote in the Metro that Bjeke hadn’t “made any major screw up” and was “widely respected as competent and forward-thinking by the planning community in Halifax, including those who work for him.” Planner Jenny Lugar wrote in the Coast that Bjerke “was asked to build a fair and predictable standard for planning in the HRM” and says that he largely accomplished this with his work on the Halifax Centre Plan. Bjerke himself said last week that he believed he had achieved “good results” as chief planner.

I moved to Halifax a year ago, and one thing I noticed was that planners in the city did not work together or collaborate much. There is a silo effect which allows people to work quite separately from each other, even if they’re working on similar projects, like integrated mobility planning and transit scheduling. As a mid-sized city, I also felt that it was a tough nut to crack–it’s too big for everyone to know everyone else, but too small to have a lot of informal social events like Meetups. This lack of social cohesion is palpable even among our students: at Dalhousie there is little connection or collaboration on events between the undergrad and grad students.

Our School has actually done research on this: Dr. Jill Grant, Dr. Patricia Manuel, Dr. Eric Rapaport, and Dr. Ahsan Habib recently finished a project on plan coordination in municipalities with Dr. Pierre Filion at the Waterloo School of Planning. The research is featured here. Masters student Meaghan Dalton’s working paper, “Building a culture of collaboration: Internal collaboration as a tool for coordinating plans” (2016) analyzes interviews from 92 planners across Canada from the Vancouver, Edmonton, Toronto, Halifax, and St. John’s city-regions. The interviews were conducted in 2014 by the research team. In her content analysis of the interviews, Dalton found that a culture of collaboration in planning was most present in Vancouver, which has a long history of consensus-building, while Edmonton had a more recent positive trend towards formal and informal practices and structures. Planners in Toronto, Halifax, and St. John’s were much less likely to work in collaborative environments. And we know from both theory and practice that this impacts plan coordination. The main barriers to collaboration between departments or organizations in Halifax were:

  • a lack of interdepartmental communication and data sharing
  • a tendency for departments to focus on their own mandates, with no common vision for the city
  • departments having differences of opinion that made it difficult to reach a consensus
  • lack of physical proximity between departments
  • no history of trust or sharing information
  • a toxic work environment at HRM (e.g. a trend of discouraging collaboration, lack of respectful relationships)

“Halifax represents a stark contrast with the culture of respectful relationships and enforcement of collaboration and consensus seen in Vancouver and Edmonton.”    –Meaghan Dalton, researcher

While informal connections won’t solve all of Halifax problems, it’s a good start. After discussing the lack of social cohesion with some of our planning students, I decided to start a monthly social event in Halifax. It’s open to anyone working in planning, however that is defined: those working in public, private, or non-profit sectors, on municipal planning and program delivery, in research and in practice. It’s also open to anyone interested in planning issues, like community members or groups. The idea is that we encourage people to get to know one another informally, there will be a positive effect on the work that they do: they will find out that someone from a non-profit is working on a similar initiative, or someone from a private sector firm wants to pick their brain on a bylaw requirement. This community of practice involves some social engineering on my part: when I meet someone I don’t know, I listen to what they say about their role and organization for just a few minutes, and then my mind starts spinning with other people they’d like to meet. I make introductions and let the conversations continue. With students, I try to introduce them to as many others as possible, and also encourage them to introduce themselves to people they don’t know.

We’ve had two Planning Socials so far, and both were successful–about 25 people or so attended each, with a mix of students, recent graduates now employed in the region, and a few long-time planners. We have met downtown after work because it’s easy for students to walk to (many of them don’t have cars) and within a few minutes’ ferry and walk from the main office of the Halifax Regional Municipality in Dartmouth, so planners there can stop in on their way home.

People have told me that they are so happy someone is doing this, that informal socializing in the profession is badly needed. And each time I ask them, “Why didn’t you do it? It’s as easy as sending an email.” There is no magic formula to building a community of practice–anyone can do it. My plan is to eventually choose a fixed date/time/location so that people know about the event and can drop in whenever they have time. Until then we will sample the many downtown pubs. We’ll also eventually publicize the event on the Department of Architecture and Planning Facebook and Twitter accounts–until now we’ve been relying on the School of Planning listserv and a few dedicated folks at HRM to spread the word (thanks Sarah Bercu and Kasia Tota!) If you’re a planner in Halifax, come and join us!

Tim Shah, me, Penny Gurstein, and Silvia Vilches

The Canadian Institute of Planners (CIP) gives annual Awards for Excellence in 13 categories, including urban design, Aboriginal community planning and development, neighbourhood planning, social planning, rural/small town planning, sustainable mobility transportation and infrastructure, international development, new and emerging initiatives, city and regional planning, planning publications, and natural systems planning.

I’m pleased to announced that my edited book, Planning Canada: A Case Study Approach (2016, Oxford University Press) has been awarded an Award of Merit for Planning Publications, as “an exemplary resource to the planning profession.” Congratulations to all of the 41 authors who made this volume a success! It is truly the product of years of effort, presenting Canadian planning practice and research as worthy of recognition, study, and exploration in our own country and elsewhere.

I accepted the award yesterday at the annual CIP conference in Calgary. I was so pleased that three of the authors (Penny Gurstein, Silvia Vilches, and Tim Shah) were at the awards ceremony with me. Silvia and I attended the Canadian Association of Geographers conference in Calgary in 2011, where we met Oxford University Press developmental editor Caroline Starr. It was Caroline who suggested an introductory book in Canadian planning and encouraged me to submit a book proposal. It was amazing to come full circle, back to Calgary to celebrate the award with Silvia and Penny, our mutual Ph.D. supervisor and Director of the School of Community and Regional Planning at UBC. We also met up with our SCARP alumni at a great reception hosted by the Association of Canadian University Planning Programs (ACUPP), and reconnected with friends from Dalhousie, University of Waterloo, University of Manitoba, Ryerson, York, University of Alberta, and University of Saskatchewan.

 

 

As most of you know, I’ve just started a new position at the Dalhousie University School of Planning. I’ve often thought that one barrier to effective public consultation in planning is the lack of knowledge about urban planning issues, such as the relationship between density and public transit provision or how a municipal plan sets out land use guidelines. It’s great to find out that Dal students are on the same page.

A few years ago, two undergraduate students, Byung Jun Kang and Uytae Lee, started producing videos that aim to educate the public about a variety of planning issues. The videos are between three and six minutes in length, and they often use humour to illustrate thorny issues. In September 2015, they incorporated as a non-profit co-operative called PLANifax that includes Byung Jun and Uytae as executive directors, three board members (current students and alumni), and many volunteers. Students do all kinds of work such as GIS mapping, finding planning documents and getting permission to use them, filming, and conducting interviews with planning staff. For example, third-year student Juniper Littlefield has directed and narrated a number of videos and Uytae (now in his fourth year) has acted in many.

Some of the videos are general in nature, such as their “Planning Basics Episode 1: Planning Process” (2016) which gives a brief overview of how planning works in Canada, including the Planning Acts, regional and municipal plans, and the role of planners and councillors. This is the first in a series aims at people who know little about the planning process, so I’m really interested to see how it progresses.

Transportation is a major theme in the videos: an upcoming initiative will involve how we use transit maps for navigation and information. In “A Case for Protected Bike Lanes” (2014), students partnered with local paper The Coast and the Halifax Cycling Coalition to show the cycling environment on some of the city streets by showing how dangerous it would be for a pedestrian to use the narrow afterthought of space on the right side of the road. They peppered the video with statistics on cycling safety: in the city’s Active Transportation Plan, over 40% of Halifax residents expressed an interest in cycling if it were safer. Halifax’s transportation plan states that it wants to double the rate of cycling by 2026.

In “Cars vs Pedestrians” (2015) students discuss the proposed hike in Provincial fines for pedestrian crossing infractions to almost $700. They ask whether our crosswalks are set up to encourage or deter use, showing examples of intersections that are difficult to cross as pedestrians: long signal timing, deceptive curb cuts, very long blocks present real barriers.

“What you Need to Know about HRM’s Centre Plan” (2016) goes over the region’s newest planning initiative and interviews some of the planners at HRM, and lets people know how they can get involved in the process.

Some of the videos explore historical issues. In “Down with the Cogswell Interchange” (2014) students explore the historical and present-day plans to take down the interchange and replace the streets with a more traditional grid street pattern. The stretch of arterial overpasses is just 1 km long, and doesn’t do much to handle traffic anymore. Students do a good job of reviewing the critical planning decisions that changed history, such as Gordon Stephenson’s A Redevelopment Study of Halifax, Nova Scotia (1957). It was based on this report that city council decided to build the interchange, among other ill-fated decisions like demolishing the existing African Canadian community Africville (which the students show as the proverbial “elephant in the room” at about the four-minute mark in the video). They really packed a lot of information into a six-minute video!

In a video profiling Halifax’s Viola Desmond (2014), a black businesswoman in the city with a hair salon on Gottingen Street, students touch on the history of racism in the city. Desmond’s car broke down on a business trip through New Glasgow in 1946, and while waiting for it to be repaired she decided to watch a movie at the Roseland Theatre. She was asked to leave because she was sitting in the whites-only main floor seating, refused to pay the one-cent difference in ticket prices to sit in the other section. She was eventually escorted out by police and spent the night in jail on a tax evasion charge. This occurred nine years before the famous Rosa Parks incident in the US. Desmond took action against the Province of Nova Scotia, who didn’t formally apologize and pardon Desmond until 2010. Her gravesite is in the Camp Hill Cemetery in Halifax.

PLANifax shows a tremendous initiative by students, many of whom are undergraduates who moved to the city to study planning. Their “outsider view” on the city and region is critical, because this distance allows their work to be instructive for anyone who is just beginning to understand planning as a practice that shapes so much of our urban environment. Here’s hoping PLANifax can live up to its hope “to be to planning what Bill Nye was to science”!

 

Let us know you’re coming on Eventbrite!

Book launch postcard-Vancouver

 

Last September, I took a position as a Visiting Assistant Professor at the University of Oregon. Even though the position was only for nine months, and required me relocating across the continent to the US, I decided it was worth it. For those of you in a PhD or postdoc, you probably understand this decision–we are all taught that academic jobs are scarce and that we should jump at the chance to take whatever we get. Private sector professionals in urban planning often balance local and international contracts–the larger firms regularly bid on jobs in the US, South America, Europe, and Asia. For those of you working in the public sector, one of the last bastions of job stability, my decision may make less sense.

Contract, temporary, and precarious work has hit virtually every sector and industry. You would be hard pressed to find an office environment, trade, or career option that does not begin with unpaid internships, years of job insecurity, and/or lack of employee benefits. I know people in fields as diverse as nursing, education, and accounting who have had difficulty securing permanent or even long-term employment in their fields. On the other end of the spectrum, it’s not uncommon for a seasoned professional with over twenty years’ experience in their field to go out on their own as a consultant. Academic job scarcity has been intensified during the era of “adjunctification”, which began back in the late 1980s and has reached epic proportions in the US and Canada. For every three retirements, a planning department may be able to hire one new assistant professor. Limited-term teaching-only contracts are now all the rage.

I worked short-term contracts in landscape architecture and public sector research before returning to graduate school, then kept at it during the six years it took to get my Masters and Ph.D. I decided to apply to the Ph.D. because I wanted to do research–not necessarily academic research, but I wanted to apply the methods I had learned in graduate school to help solve real world problems. With that end in sight, I tried to maintain my connection to the practice of planning by attending events hosted by the Planning Institute of British Columbia and met local planners at events hosted by the School of Community and Regional Planning. I also published three peer-reviewed publications, a book review, a couple of freelance articles, and hundreds of blog posts here.

During the final year of my Ph.D. I began looking for research contract work–it was 2010 and the US recession was in full swing. I knew that it could be some time before I found an academic position and in the meantime I wanted to keep doing research. I soon found a contract with a local non-profit working on a housing program evaluation, then another similar evaluation, and then a contract for a study on social enterprises in affordable housing. By this time I had finished my Ph.D. and was on the job market for the second time.

In the spring of 2012 I had a number of job interviews and that May I received three job offers within two weeks. The best of these was a two-year research position at the University of Amsterdam studying transit-oriented development. After careful consideration (it involved an international move, visas, and putting my possessions into storage while I was away), I decided to take the position.

During the two years in Amsterdam I taught a metropolitan transportation planning course and the masters research colloquium, conducted research on the iTOD project, met regularly with the project team from two other Dutch universities, organized a monthly meeting of transportation researchers in the department, and helped plan an international housing conference. I signed a contract with Oxford University Press for my first book, published three articles, an encyclopedia entry, a book review, and two freelance articles. I had five interviews with universities for tenure-track positions.

But despite all this, I found myself without a position at the end of my postdoc in the summer of 2014. I decided to regroup and focus my energies into planning practice–by then I had spent four years on the academic job search and I just wasn’t feeling it anymore. I returned to Toronto, where I’d lived during my undergraduate degree, and started a contract position at the provincial government. I had finished my required years of experience to become a professional planner, so I took the next step towards becoming a full member of the Canadian Institute of Planners. Planning faculty and friends (especially those who were now postdocs) kept encouraging me to apply to tenure-track positions, so I did. I had an interview in the spring of 2015, and after it was unsuccessful I got reckless. I applied to a couple of one-year positions. I was tired of interviewing–bone tired. I was tired of trying to downplay my academic expertise in public-sector interviews, and tired of downplaying my consulting expertise in academic interviews. I felt a surge of anger when anyone asked “But what do you want to do–be a professor or be a consultant?”, as if I had a choice in the matter.

Finally, the University of Oregon bit. The contract was in a planning program with a stellar reputation for experiential learning–the students work on real world projects, so my consulting experience was as valuable as my academic training. Spending nine months teaching, including designing a course where students worked with a municipality on their affordable housing plan, was valuable in so many ways. Not only did I hone my teaching skills with some of the best instructors I’ve ever met, but working at an American school somehow made me viable on the academic market.

Even as I decided, in the fall of 2015, to give it “one more go”, I knew that I’d likely be unsuccessful. In fact, a consultation with Kellee Weinhold from The Professor Is In reinforced that as a candidate who has been on the market for five years, my chances of getting a tenure-track job were next to nothing. She told me that schools prefer the linear career path: finish the PhD, get a tenure-track position where you will continue research on the same question(s). There is no tolerance for postdocs that diverge from the path or time spent working outside of academia, even though the market has basically eliminated the linear career trajectory. But despite her foreboding, I was offered six campus visit interviews across the US and Canada. I spent a total of 24 days travelling over three months, while teaching two courses. A few days after my last interview, I received the print copies of the book I’d begun working on back in 2012. A few weeks later, at the end of April 2016, I had two tenure-track job offers. I’m happy to announce that I will be starting at Dalhousie University in the School of Planning, Faculty of Architecture and Planning, on July 1st.

It’s the end of a five-year road that involved working in three countries, gambling on three short-term contracts, and buying/selling household goods innumerable times. Filing taxes in the US, Canada, and The Netherlands. Making lifelong friends who are now working in London, Birmingham, Amsterdam, Den Haag, Groningen, and Brisbane, and overjoyed to begin collaborating on research. It’s been a long road, and I certainly wouldn’t advise others to “keep applying” in perpetuity. People mean well, but there has to be a better solution than this. Not everyone can sacrifice this much–some of the best candidates out there may not be able to pick up and move to another country for a one- or two-year contract. At some point, most of us decide we want stable, well-paying jobs–we have to give up the endless annual cycle of applying and interviewing. We ask too much of our aspiring academics, and also our aspiring teachers, nurses, and accountants–much more than was ever demanded of the generations that came before. Eliminating the majority of long-term and permanent contracts, devaluing our skilled workforces, and discriminating against those whose career paths have been more erratic than linear (yet somehow stayed employed during one of the worst recessions in history) are not the answers to economic efficiency. We need to restore those long-term and permanent jobs that help guarantee more equitable workplaces, more productive employees, and more satisfied “clients”, whoever they may be. The University of Oregon, under new President Michael Schill, recently decided to hire 80 new tenure-track professors in the next five years to bring us up to a higher ratio of permanent to non-permanent faculty. I’d love to see other schools take similar approaches to fixing a problem that has strained the higher education system to the breaking point.

Book launch postcard-Vancouver

As most of you know, I’m currently a Visiting Professor at the University of Oregon at the Department of Planning, Public Policy, and Management. One of the reasons I took the position was the university’s amazing Sustainable City Year Program, which has been running for six years now. This year’s partner is the City of Redmond, a rapidly growing city of about 20,000 on the east side of the Cascade Mountains in Oregon’s High Desert. The City identified a list of projects in the spring of 2015 that they needed help with, and the result is 22 courses at the university focused on Redmond.

I’ve been working hard at designing one of my winter term courses, Housing Policy, around one of Redmond’s identified interests. They adopted an Affordable Housing Strategy in 2007, which was unfortunate timing with the mortgage crisis striking the US the following year. Now that it’s time to review the strategy, Redmond is looking for ideas on the AHS.

I typically design my courses with a lecture on one day and an application and reflection activity on the next–Oregon courses are always on two separate days (Tues/Thurs or Mon/Wed). For this course, the students will be divided into groups, with one focusing on the policy side and the other on the implementation side.

  • On the policy project, students will review the AHS and Comprehensive Plan, as well as other relevant policy documents. They will be looking for areas of overlap and points of implementation for key AHS strategies.
  • On the implementation side, students will be designing an interview guide that they will use in interviewing key informants (planners, housing associations, community groups) to determine barriers to implementation of current and proposed AHS strategies.

Students will be able to work on the group project during the weekly application and reflection sessions. This is a mixed undergraduate/graduate course, with eight undergrads and three grads. It’s similar in makeup to a course I taught last term, Seminar in Sustainable Transportation. This does require some extra thought in terms of assignments, in this case getting the Masters students to be responsible for managing the projects and making sure everyone is following the schedule, for a separate grade.

Tomorrow we start off with a bang, and Friday we have our field trip to Redmond where we’ll meet with Grant Program Manager Chelsea Dickens and Assistant Program Administrator Ginny McPherson. I’ll be updating you from time to time on the course.