Over the course of the 2018-2019 academic year, the Canadian Urban Institute worked with students from urban studies, planning and policy programs across the University of Toronto and Ryerson University on a project called the City Building Leadership Program (CBLP). The CBLP was a co-curricular program aimed at developing the professional skillset of students by engaging them in an experiential learning project. This year’s project involved students developing communications materials to better engage and educate City of Toronto residents in the planning process. Program Assistant Tom Piekarski caught up with some of the CBLP participants to learn about the challenges and successes of the program.
- is a graduate of the Latin American Studies program with a double Minor in Urban Studies and Political Science at the University of Toronto. Her research focuses on social housing provision and neighbourhood development in urban Latin American contexts. This summer, her photography project “This Goes Here: Creating Home” which explores “home” as a process of place-making and identity-shaping through narratives of (im)migration will be showcased at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) in Mexico City. In September 2019, Hannah will return to UofT to begin her SSHRC-funded Master’s research project: “Urban displacement and the “right to the city”: The case of Brazil’s mass social housing program Minha Casa, Minha Vida.” Hannah hopes to move back to Latin America upon the completion of her Master’s to work in a research and consultant capacity on urban development projects across the region, particularly projects related to affordable urban housing.
- is an MPP graduate from the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy. He now works as a Policy Analyst in the Land and Minerals sector at Natural Resources Canada. When he’s not at work you can catch him reading books at different cafes in the city and updating his fantasy basketball lineups. Here, he talks about how the CBLP helped him better understand policy and planning at the municipal level, how to navigate team dynamics and his improved civic engagement toolkit.
JASPER: Before participating in the CBLP, I had moderate exposure to policy specifically. My time in the Ontario Public Service and in the Munk MPP program at UofT taught me a lot about analyzing and developing provincial and federal policies. However, I did not have a lot of experience in urban planning and/or policy at the municipal level, which is why I was naturally attracted to the CBLP. I knew it would be an excellent opportunity to learn more about the field and contribute to my understanding of how cities are organized and developed.
HANNAH:Of course! Before participating in the CBLP, my exposure to urban planning and urban policy was mostly at a theoretical level. During my undergraduate studies, my research papers focused on urban policy issues in the Canadian and Brazilian context, particularly issues related to affordable housing. I worked at two different homeless shelters during my undergrad where I gained a more practical understanding of the complexities of the dynamics between urban planning and policy at the neighbourhood level. The CBLP was, however, the first project I participated in where I was required to put theoretical and practical urban planning and policy dilemmas in conversation with one another to deliver an outcome for real stakeholders
JASPER: I was drawn to participate in the CBLP for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I was greatly interested in the responsibilities associated with the program. For example, I looked forward to working as part of a team to craft communication materials, consult with urban planning professionals in Toronto, and think of ways to actively engage citizens in the planning process. Secondly, I thought that the CBLP was an excellent opportunity to contribute to the policy knowledge and skills I’ve gained through my MPP degree. Urban planning and the planning process were not things that I really got to work on or learn about in my classes, and so I sought to learn about them through the CBLP.
HANNAH: Last summer, I noticed that there were five homes on my street that had been recently bought and that were being demolished and transformed from bungalows into two- and three-storey homes. My neighbourhood has changed a lot since we first moved into it eleven years ago but seeing all of these homes transform at once had a different kind of impact on me. Until that moment, my focus and interest had been primarily on urban policy and I saw CBLP as a unique opportunity to engage more with the planning side of urban development. As an immigrant to Canada, I have always recognized the value of public information that is both accessible and clear. I applied to the CBLP because I wanted to learn more about how to make political information (e.g. land use appeals process in Ontario) more accessible as well as how we (as a city) might encourage greater levels of engagement on planning issues through public education resources.
JASPER: Along the way to completing the CBLP there was one particular challenge that I had to navigate. With 15 different people on the same team working to develop one deliverable, it was challenging to create an environment where everybody is making their voices heard, maximally contributing to the development of the final product, and feeling like a valued team member. However, over time we were able to overcome this challenge by maintaining more consistent communication, clearly outlining individual responsibilities for each team member, and setting firmer deadlines for ourselves. In the end, the CBLP really opened my eyes to the realities of the team-based nature of policy and urban planning and taught me about some practical strategies to mitigate conflicts and sub-optimal group dynamics.
HANNAH: The greatest challenge – and perhaps the most important lesson – was learning how to coordinate with more than ten different student researchers to produce one deliverable. As we met over the year, I was consistently reminded of the value of the diversity of our experiences that allowed us to approach the same problem from a variety of perspectives. As a result of our different experiences, we were able to identify a range of challenges and opportunities in the process of developing and refining our education resource. It was challenging to come together and choose what solutions we were going to prioritize, but I think this process of collaboration and negotiation was really important for me to recognize that theoretically the problem may (in some situations) be clear, but practically, the solution to that problem can be incredibly complex.
JASPER: I would say my biggest contribution to the team was creating the initial draft brochure, which served as a jumping-off point for the final communication material. I took the first attempt at curating all of the research our CBLP team did on key contact information and the overall planning process and put it all into one concise tri-fold brochure. I presented the brochure at the next meeting and solicited feedback and edits from the team. Subsequently, we worked together to continuously tweak and develop our final product, which we successfully presented to key stakeholders at the City of Toronto.
HANNAH: From the beginning of the project, I was really interested in identifying and communicating with the different neighbourhood and city-wide stakeholders of our project. My main contribution was identifying our stakeholders and communicating with them throughout our research. I wanted to ensure that we all delivered a product we could be proud of. As a result, I made an effort to create open lines of communication between my neighbourhood team and the other neighbourhood research teams to help facilitate the exchange of ideas and solutions to the different problems we came across.
JASPER: The most valuable thing I gained from my experience with the CBLP is an increased understanding of the challenges of fostering civic engagement in urban planning and policy more generally. I have always understood the value of incorporating lived experiences and diverse perspectives throughout the policy process, but the CBLP has provided me the invaluable opportunity to learn more about the practical strategies and tools that make that possible.
HANNAH: In the fall, I will begin my MA in Human Geography at U of T where I will be conducting my thesis research on social housing provision in urban centres in Brazil. The key takeaway I took from the CBLP is the value of incorporating a practical component to my theoretical analysis. For example, in Toronto, it will be very difficult to successfully oppose a development in your neighbourhood if this development abides by all of the municipal and provincial rules concerning urban planning and development. In other words, moving forward I will place greater emphasis on the question: how does my theoretical analysis of this urban policy problem interact with the urban planning mechanisms at work? I think approaching my thesis project with this mindset will allow it to have more of an impact on a practical level than it might have had otherwise.
JASPER: I believe that reducing the number of people in the CBLP would improve the experience for everyone involved. Working in overly large groups is logistically difficult and naturally reduces the amount of personal responsibility that falls on each individual participant. I predict that the program would run smoother and would be more beneficial to participants if there were maybe 10 team members, as opposed to the original 15. My advice for future participants would be to definitively (and collectively) define the specific objectives of the team at the beginning of the program. This change will likely reduce confusion and duplicated work moving forward.
HANNAH: One question that the planners we met with often asked us was, “do you have a ‘work plan’”? At the end of the CBLP, I came to understand the value of this tool not only to lead a successful team project, but I also came to recognize the usefulness of this tool in my individual research projects. My recommendation to future CBLP participants would be to develop a work plan at the very beginning of the project. This will allow everyone to have a clear understanding of the different timelines and expectations of the project as the project developments. But most importantly, enjoy the process! This is where I learned the most.
This program is funded by the Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities. It is helping to give planning and policy students the soft skills and real-world experience needed for success after graduation.