Are neighbourhoods, cities, and regions taking a turn for the worse? Or are they relatively stable?

I’m a co-investigator on a project called Neighbourhood Change Research Partnership (NCRP), a Canada-wide project examining how urban neighbourhoods are changing in places like Calgary, Winnipeg, and Toronto. The Halifax team includes Howard Ramos and Martha Radice, professors in Sociology and Anthropology, and Jill Grant and myself from the School of Planning. Each of us have hired students as research assistants, collecting and analyzing data for the study as well as using the data for their own projects/theses. Jill’s student Uytae Lee conducted research on rooming houses for his undergraduate thesis, and another student, Janelle Derksen, delved further into the issue for her Masters independent study project. You can read their work on Jill’s website (everything from Bachelors theses to academic articles).

Written work is the typical type of product we use to disseminate academic research, but we’re constantly looking for new ways to do this.Lots of researchers use Twitter to release links to their research results, and it’s common to set up research websites like Generationed City, established by University of Waterloo professor Markus Moos. Colleagues at the University of Amsterdam Department of Geography, Planning, and International Development Studies created videos to summarize and disseminate their research on the HOUWEL project on international housing trends among young people.

As I’ve written about in previous posts, Uytae and his classmate Byung-Jun Kang founded the non-profit PLANifax. The duo, alumni of the Dalhousie School of Planning, hires students to work on production, produces videos for clients such as municipal governments and non-profit organizations, and uses their work to educate the broader public about planning issues. They’ve done everything from encouraging involvement in the city’s downtown planning process to exposing the details of rejected development applications. In the latest PLANifax video to summarize Uytae’s thesis findings on rooming houses. It had 7,000 views within 24 hours of posting and Uytae will be interviewed on News 94.7 this afternoon.

Halifax’s Kindof Illegal Student Houses

Student apartments in Halifax are very affordable, despite often being messy, sketchy, and crowded. But in some cases, they may be illegal, kindof.

Not only do videos like this give researchers a potentially unlimited avenue for research dissemination (when’s the last time your academic paper had more than 100 views on the journal website?), but PLANifax is a fantastic example of young entrepreneurship: Byung-Jun won Dalhousie University’s Student Entrepreneur of the Year award earlier this year. I plan to partner with them on research grants so that I can have an interesting product to show to community groups, clients, and students, not to mention at research conferences. Much more interesting than the usual PowerPoint.

I’ll be posting more about the NCRP in future posts, specifically on my own sub-project: development and retention of non-profit housing in Halifax.

 

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

The results of a two-year partnership, My Health My Community, give us a lot of insight into Metro Vancouver’s active transportation trends: 43% of residents say their primary transportation mode is walking, cycling, or public transit.

Transportation agencies and municipal transit providers do a lot of their own research, but most of this is not open data and is summarized in publicly available reports. In the absence of Census data or a national transportation survey, transportation researchers often have to collect their own data. The My Health My Community study surveyed over 28,000 residents in Metro Vancouver on their primary mode of transportation, health outcomes, lifestyle behaviours and neighbourhood characteristics.

Key findings from the study include:

  • Active transportation users have lower body mass index, walk more each day, and are twice as likely to meet the requirement for 30 minutes or more of daily recommended walking
  • Car users with longer commute times have a lower sense of community belonging
  • Transit use is highest among lower income, visible minorities and recent immigrants–it is 69% lower among parents with dependent children and 70% lower among households with incomes of over $100,000 annually

Screen Shot 2015-04-29 at 4.23.42 PMAnother interesting result is shown on this map which depicts areas with higher than average active transportation (the darkest purple) in relation to existing and proposed transit infrastructure–and there is a second map showing the same for car users.

My Health My Community is a partnership between Vancouver Coastal Health, the Fraser Health, and the e-Health Strategy Office at the University of British Columbia.  The survey was conducted in 2013-2014 and the results are just beginning to be released. Dr. Jat Sandhu of Vancouver Coastal Health will be presenting the research tomorrow, April 30th at the SFU Segal School of Business, from 7:30-9:00.

Despite this warning, I’m throwing all caution to the wind and going home to Toronto. As my contract at the University of Amsterdam comes to an end in a couple of months, I am happy to be returning to Toronto to continue my career in urban planning. I think that my experiences here will help me to work with local planners, non-profits, and citizen groups to develop planning solutions to the complex problems that the City of Toronto currently faces.

Amsterdam and The Netherlands has a lot of lessons to teach about planning: anyone who is interested should check out the Municipality of Amsterdam‘s comprehensive research on air quality, traffic safety, spatial planning, and all sorts of other issues. Likewise, the national portal for spatial planning, Ruimtelijkeplannen.nl, allows you to find the spatial, zoning, provincial, and other plans for your neighbourhood and shows you how the national policies on planning apply. The Kennisinstituut voor Mobiliteitsbeleid (Institute for Transport Policy Analysis) does a yearly study of transportation patterns in all Dutch cities. These are the kinds of research and accessibility to information that we need so badly in Canadian cities, where all too often research on housing, transportation, and other critical urban issues is scattered and/or not publicly accessible.

But all is not perfect in the Land of Windmills and Olympic Speed Skaters. My work in TOD has shown how municipalities can identify their strengths and weaknesses in terms of actors, governance, and policies and use policies from other cities to inspire their own programs. In the Dutch context, some cities and regions have been better at others at collaborating, establishing informal networks, improving actor relationships, and developing a vision for the future. Amsterdam, in particular, does not have great relationships between the municipalities and the regions–there are unclear roles for the development industry and the national government in achieving policy innovation and change in TOD. While other cities and regions innovate, Amsterdam remains hesitant, the actors in planning processes stalled by inter-municipal competition and professional silos. Transportation planners don’t talk to spatial planners, and the public aren’t involved in the development of large-scale visions or ideas for the future. The longstanding resistance to “outside” ideas from other cities and countries is only just starting to break down. Does this sound familiar?

During my two years here, it’s become clear that the City of Toronto faces serious planning challenges as well. Toronto is no stranger to odd, melodramatic, and ineffective leadership at City Hall, but I will say this–my Dutch co-workers only asked about Toronto, or Canada, when Rob Ford started making headlines. Toronto residents, and indeed, international spectators, have been puzzled as to the consequences of such actions for a municipal leader. While no one person can be responsible for the problems of Canada’s largest city, the Toronto story demands the question, “Where is this city headed?” Do the municipalities and regional governments within the region have complementary goals? Do transportation plans from one city conflict with another? Are the actors involved clear on their roles in supporting compact growth and development? Is there a grand vision, and if so does the public support it? If you answered “no” to more than 2 of these questions…well, you see where this is headed.

Every city, every region, has its challenges. However, the lesson of The Netherlands is that challenges can be overcome through steady, ongoing collaborative efforts. At UBC, planners were taught that through communication and dialogue, residents, business owners, governments, and non-profit organizations alike would help contribute to better plans and policies. The process, as planning theorist John Friedmann would say, is integral to the success of the plan. The City of Vancouver has had great success in involving its residents in the development of neighbourhood plans and visions for the future. Above all, they have achieved a level of understanding of planning issues in the general public that I have not yet seen in any other city. I think that Toronto is ready to approach its challenges this way: through dialogue, through collaboration, through the development of a shared vision that will help shape the public understanding of planning goals and the public good. This is what I’d like to bring home with me: those of you in Toronto, I’m looking forward to working with you in June!

The Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars has recently published a report on the state of the estimated 9,000 postdocs in the country. The report highlights postdocs as yet another highly-skilled but low-paid profession in a polarized labour market.

Their survey of 1,830 individuals at 130 universities showed an equal breakdown of men (53%) and women (46%) with an average age of 34. Over half of the postdocs in Canada are permanent residents (15%) or on work visas (38%). In the survey, 46% of respondents worked in the Life Sciences, 32.4% in Physical Sciences/Engineering, 13.7% in Social Sciences/Humanities and 8% in an Interdisciplinary field. Most postdocs were between 2-3 years in length.

Key concerns of Canadian postdocs are administrative ambiguity, low compensation and benefits, and insufficient training. These concerns arise from the unclear employment status of postdocs, who often exist in a hazy mid-ground between student and employee status, missing out on the benefits of both. With an average income of $40,000-45,000, less than half are satisfied with their salaries and only 29% are satisfied with their benefits. This has to do with the fact that postdocs are often paid through tax-exempt research fellowships, and therefore do not have access to Employment Insurance, maternity leave, or the Canadian Pension Plan. Although several universities, such as the University of Toronto, have now reclassified their postdocs as employees, others classify their postdocs as mere trainees, which contradicts the years of graduate school required to do research. This is very different from the situation in The Netherlands, where Ph.D.s and postdocs alike are classified as employees with corresponding salary scales and benefits. Foreigners are even able to apply for a lower tax status (the 30% tax rule) as postdocs.

While postdocs used to be viewed as short-term stepping stones to full-time academic positions, this is no longer the case. Nearly one-quarter of the survey respondents said their career goals had changed since starting their position, with the most common explanation being the unfavourable job market. As most postdocs will not obtain faculty positions (unless there’s a significant increase in the number of positions for new faculty), postdocs have identified the need for training that will help them succeed in non-academic settings. This includes grant/proposal writing, project management, group or lab management, and negotiating skills, among others.

The survey was supported by MITACS, a national not-for-profit organization that supports national innovation by coordinating collaborative industry-university research projects involving graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. To download the survey, click here.

Many have argued for broader public access to academic research. Few, however, considered it as important as internet activist Aaron Swartz. The 26-year-old programmer pushed to make publications free to the public, including those held in the American repository for judicial documents (PACER, Public Access to Court Electronic Records) and JSTOR, which distributes scientific and literary journals on a subscription basis. Swartz was found dead in his apartment on Friday January 11th.

Traditional academic journals hold a prestigious position: faculty members are required to “publish or perish” and universities alone can pay their high subscription fees. In the internet era of free and widespread information, journals remain an almost impenetrable fortress with access granted to a small percentage of the population. Yet, academic research is in many cases funded by national governments and public agencies–in Canada, two main source of funding are the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC). Is it fair to publish the results of publicly funded research in journals to which only current university students and faculty have access? In fields like planning, which stress public participation and community dialogue, this is a major concern. Open Access journals have begun to address this, but with faculty tenure decisions hinging upon journal impact factors, publishing in traditional journals is still the desired option for most faculty members and graduate students.

Fighting against these restricted databases was Aaron Swartz, who used his programming skills as a weapon in the fight for public access to information. In 2008, believing that the PACER legal documents should be free to the public since they’re produced with public funds, he created a program to download millions of documents from free library accounts. The government did not press charges in that case, but it did three years later. Swartz was indicted by a federal grand jury in 2011 after an effort to provide free public access to JSTOR. He had downloaded nearly its entire library of publications–4.8 million documents in total. He faced a potential penalty of 35 years in prison and $1 million in fines.

On Wednesday, JSTOR announced that it would increase public access to its journal articles, giving limited free access to its over 1200 journals. Now anyone can sign up for an account and access up to three articles for free every two weeks. It’s an improvement on JSTOR’s Register and Read program, which saw 150,000 people register for free access to 76 journals during its 10-month pilot test. This month, JSTOR began allowing subscription-holding universities to give alumni access to their journals, following Sage Publications. The top 100 editors of Wikipedia will now also receive free access to JSTOR’s collection.

Is JSTOR’s recent–although limited–move toward public access the result of Swartz’s actions? Or was such a move inevitable in the internet era? Years from now, those of us in academia may well remember Swartz as an internet crusader who offered the public its first glimpse through the cracks in the armour surrounding academic journals.

I’m pleased to announce the call for papers for my upcoming edited book on Canadian planning. It’s been accepted by Oxford University Press with the working title Planning Canada: A Case Study Approach and will feature case studies from across Canada on issues as diverse as infrastructure planning, food policy, affordable housing, and natural resource planning. We’re hoping to give undergraduate students an understanding of the diverse plans, policies and processes that are happening right now across the country.

I’m looking forward to receiving proposals from interested authors from academic, public, private practice, and non-profit planning settings in a number of theme areas: for more details about these, check out the dedicated page on my site, www.renthomas.ca/publications/books

Proposals are due February 1, 2013 and selected authors will have until December 1, 2013 to finalize their case studies.

University of Groningen's Zernike campus

Researchers are often accused of working in “ivory towers” separated from the real world. Perhaps planning suffers less from this syndrome since it is firmly rooted in practice. But most universities still retain strong boundaries between academic teaching and learning units. Even in an interdisciplinary field like planning, efforts must be made to exchange ideas and achieve some sort of synergy between different groups. While the Department of Geography, Planning, and International Development at the University of Amsterdam seems to have these internal boundaries between groups, several key efforts have been made to link our work to that of others.

Last week several researchers from our transport planning group joined researchers at the Rijksuniversiteit Groningen for a unique exchange. A few years ago, our professors Luca Bertolini and Jos Arts discovered that the two departments had a lot in common, and they decided it would be a great idea for the researchers and students to meet up and discuss their ideas. This week’s exchange was the seventh such workshop between the two groups of transport planners. The workshops are organized by two students, one from each school, twice a year.

From Groningen, Assistant Professor Eva Heinen presented her latest research proposal to study cycling in the Netherlands. PhD student Ori Rubin discussed travel trends among family members visiting each other, concentrating on parents visiting their children, children visiting their parents, and siblings visiting each other. PhD student Niels Heeres encouraged discussion on what makes a focus group or a workshop: is one a data collection technique and the other a learning opportunity? Or are both research methods, one centred on a particular issue and the other seeking to develop knowledge or skills? Masters student Marije Hamersma presented some fascinating insights from her study of people living near highways at two Dutch sites–a surprising 80% of people she surveyed had no problem living in these areas, and about 20% chose the location for proximity to the highway.

University of Groningen's Zernike campus

From Amsterdam, PhD student Els Beukers discussed her research on cost benefit analysis as a tool that is problematic for many planners. Her research sought to bring together planners and evaluators to discuss some of the problems they had with cost benefit analysis; the Dutch government requires cost benefit analysis as the final step in approving land use-transport plans for federal funding. Els, Luca, and several other researchers at the University of Amsterdam are attempting to change the policy planning process through these types of projects: bringing together planners, policy makers and members of other professions to hear about innovative practices, reflect on them and try to develop their own policy and plans in focus group sessions. Can planners stage workshops that act in the same way as public health introduces interventions? Andrew Switzer, who is studying transitions to car use in Zurich and Munich for his PhD, hopes to use insights on this historical shift to learn how to shift current trends towards alternative transport modes. Postdoctoral researcher Lucas Harms has been mining data to explore demographic patterns in cycling in the Netherlands, including what percentages are due to population growth, increased distances, or increased trips. Although cycling has increased in the Netherlands in general, it has changed more rapidly in certain age groups and certain regions of the country.

This exchanged offered us the opportunity to hear what others are working on in planning and mobility issues, discuss methods and approaches, and our connection to planners. While Groningen researchers seem more linked to national agencies and organizations, at Amsterdam we tend to meet with local and regional stakeholders. The mix of qualitative and quantitative methods to explore these issues was also interesting, so much that we decided to devote our next meeting to mixed methods approaches. I only wish we had annual exchanges of this type within our own department–I’d love to know what the economic geographers and international development researchers are working on. But we’ll stick to interuniversity exchanges for now: in January we’ll host researchers from the University of Alborg, Denmark in a similar exchange.

Ever wondered about women’s role in housing trends in Canadian cities? Check out The rise of women’s role in society: Impacts on housing and communities. In this paper based on Census data, researcher Luis Rodruiguez compares women’s housing patterns across six generations:

  • Pre-1922 (born before 1922, aged 90+ in 2011)
  • Baby Boomers’ Parents Generation (born 1922-1938, aged 73-89 in 2011)
  • Second World War Generation (born 1939-1945, aged 66-72 in 2011)
  • Baby-Boom Generation (born 1946-1965, aged 46-65 in 2011)
  • Baby-Bust Generation (born 1966-1974, aged 37-45 in 2011)
  • Echo Generation (born 1975-1995, aged 16-36 in 2011)

    Chart 1 from the report, a comparison of housing tenure across the generations

Rodriguez tends to focus on housing tenure and type; he is after all a retired senior researcher from Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC). And these trends are interesting, for example the much higher rental rate among the oldest and youngest generations of women, and the fact that homeownership among women is approaching parity with men. The older generations’ desire to age in place will place a demand on renovations and community services that can meet their needs (including public transit and walking facilities), and some may move to condos or apartments if they can no longer remain in their homes. Those of the Bust and Echo Generations tend to want low-maintenance housing due to professional and family time constraints, and are less inclined to choose larger single-family homes.

However, he doesn’t address recent trends such as the tendency of the Baby-Bust and Echo generations to choose housing that is close to public transit rather than car-dependent locations; fitting as they have much higher rates of public transit use than older generations. He touches on this and the desire for mixed-used residential options in the section on the Echo Generation, but I believe this extends to the Baby Busters as well. These generations also will have significantly bleaker employment prospects despite having higher educational attainment, and will receive less support from government sources such as the Canada Pension Plan by virtue of the economic trends that have followed them. This will likely have a significant effect on housing tenure, particularly extending the period of renting and delaying home ownership, and housing type (more condos and townhouses, fewer detached houses). This will be even more apparent among those living in Canada’s largest CMAs where housing is less affordable. Nevertheless, the paper offers an interesting perspective on generational trends and preferences among women in Canada.