By Neale McDevitt
When asked to define the role of urban planners, Raphaël Fischler smiles softly. “It’s a complex métier,” he says. And why is that? “Because cities are themselves extremely complex places.”
Fischler is the Director of McGill’s School of Urban Planning, which marked the 65th anniversary of the launch of the first-ever Urban Planning program both at McGill and in Canada with a day of events on Nov. 8. The School offers a professionally accredited Master of Urban Planning degree and an ad hoc Ph.D. program in Urban Planning, Policy, and Design.
Adding to the complexity, Fischler tackles the question of what urban planners are by emphasizing what urban planners are not.
“They are not engineers because they don’t handle the technical aspects to that degree. They are not architects because they do not design the buildings. And they are not social workers because they don’t necessarily deal with people’s personal issues,” he says.
“What they do is plan the layout of cities and plan the use of land. Where should infrastructure should go? Where do we need to expand the city for a new population? Where do we need new parks and playgrounds? Where do we put affordable housing?” says Fischler. “But they are not only concerned with the physical development of the city. They are also very concerned with the process by which cities develop.
“They are not only designers of urban environments, they are also designers of decision-making processes.”
Versatility a plus
Fischler maintains that many urban development issues are contentious – even ones, that on the surface, seem to be a benefit to the community. While a new condo development may increase property value of a neighbourhood, some may complain that it blocks their view of Mount Royal. A new playground and basketball court may be a boon to local youth, but some residents may also worry about noise or the increased potential for vandalism.
In a word, the most successful urban planners are very versatile.
“In a single day a planner may go to a morning session on some technical issue with the redoing of a public square with all the infrastructure and traffic problems and other technical issues; have a lunch meeting with an elected official to talk about what mandate to give to the planning department for the public square that would make the most sense politically; sit in on a design session with colleagues about how to lay things out; and then head off to a neighborhood meeting in the evening and participate in a public forum in front of a potentially angry crowd,” says Fischler. “On top of the technical and creative components there’s a very strong social component.”
To help develop well-rounded, successful urban planners, the School relies on the “McGill approach,” which guides but does not spoon feed students and gets them involved in team-oriented, real-world projects almost immediately.
“Even though, in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s, a lot of planning schools put less emphasis on projects and more on things like economics and sociology, we’ve always maintained the traditional approach,” says Fischler. “Planners do not spend much time writing papers. They work on real projects with a variety of stakeholders… They have to be very quick on their feet in a way that you only really learn by doing.”
This philosophy has led to the creation of an extensive network of partnerships between the School and various local agencies. Students have long surveyed, studied and presented their recommendations to the City on improving living conditions for neighbourhoods-in-transition.Another Urban Planning class has students working directly with local organizations, such as the Agence métropolitaine de transport or the City of Montreal itself on any variety of planning issues from housing to transportation to changing zoning bylaws.
At the end of their studies these same students are more than ready to begin their careers in the “real world” because much of their classwork has already taken place there.
“Montreal is our lab,” says Fischler, “and we’re the richer for it.”