What It’s Really Like to Be an Urban Planner

In our 9–5 series, we ask boss babes what their work lives entails. Canadian Business recently named urban planner as one of the best jobs of 2016, and this week, Vancouver planner Elicia Elliot gives us a glimpse into her daily grind

Urban Planner: Elicia Elliott

Urban Planner: Elicia Elliot

Age: 32

Bachelor of Arts in human geography from the University of Saskatchewan

Length of time at current gig:
10 years

What drew you into this field? In university, I was a big cycling advocate and activist. I saw a poster for a sustainable urban transportation conference in Ottawa, and I thought I would go and meet other people who like biking (maybe even a cute boy!). When I got there, I met people who had jobs like urban planner, transportation planner, and traffic engineer—and I had no idea that these were jobs that existed. I learned so much about what planning is and what it can do that I went back to Saskatoon and changed my focus from studying science to human geography.

What does being an urban planner entail? I plan and design transportation infrastructure and policy. That’s the most literal way of explaining it. Sometimes I do strategic planning where we’re figuring out what problem we’re trying to solve with transportation or a planning solution. For instance, if there are people living in one area and some jobs, a school, or a mall in another area, how do we link those two? We also ask things like: How many people are there? Are those areas going to grow? Does it make sense to have a bus or do we need a high-capacity train? Sometimes I go to the other end of the spectrum and do really detailed design, construction and commissioning—which means making something work in the field, like making sure a train works before we open it for the public.

It sounds like it’s more complicated than just helping people get from A to B. What role do people play in your work? It’s public infrastructure and although I’m undertaking planning and engineering work, because it’s going to be used by people and it’s for people, we must consider people as we do that work. So if we’re planning to develop an area, we think about the type of people that live there. Say, for instance, 80 per cent of the population is going to be over 60 by the time we build, that’s a consideration because their needs will be different than a young family community. We’re also seeing the communities getting into the decision-making around transportation and land use planning. They’re no longer willing to just get a flyer saying that the land is going to be developed, they want to be involved.

What is a typical workday like for you? I live in downtown Vancouver and my office is in New Westminster. I wake up early so I can enjoy my morning at home, then I take a 40-minute SkyTrain to work and on the train, I check emails and read fiction, which is my indulgent self-care thing of the day (right now I’m reading M Train by Patti Smith). When I get to work, I tackle whatever might be urgent at my desk. I tend to have a lot of meetings because the projects that I work on are so big and involve a lot of people, including engineers, lawyers, communications people, architects, urban designers, landscape architects, finance and risk people.

an urban planner named Elicia Elliot

Since your job is all about the city, do you end up going to different areas a lot? I do projects in all over the region so I can be in five cities in one day. It’s a lot of movement.

With all that travel, what are your hours like? Because I’m all over the place, it can be anywhere from 7:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. It’s not typical that I’m working a 12-hour day, usually it’s about 8 or 9 hours, and I have flexibility. I don’t really have fixed hours.

What are some challenges you’ve encountered in this field? Because it’s public infrastructure, it’s inherently political. So I’ve had moments where I put my whole leg in my mouth, not just my foot. Dealing with the public and learning about myself and my communication style has been a challenge.

What are some trends you’re seeing in urban planning right now? We’ve built all these roads, bridges and communities, and some of it’s getting pretty old. We have to start repairing and replacing it, but governments can’t afford it. So a trend that we’re seeing is focusing more on maintaining a state of good repair on existing infrastructure, before building new things. That’s been a huge trend shift because when I started my career it was all about build, build, build. Now people are pulling back.

Are people also more environmentally aware with what they build? All of the sustainable planning work is becoming increasingly attractive. The default is no longer building a city for cars. It’s still there but it’s shifting. Everyone in the industry is also aware of the huge cycling shift in Canadian cities, even in winter Canadian cities. It’s on everyone’s minds now.

urban planner

How does planning for urban areas differ from planning for rural areas? If I’m working in a rural context, I have to be careful of how the work I’m doing might change the space from being rural in some way—especially when we’re planning transportation solutions. It’s thinking about things like; If I build a rapid transit system out to that area, how will that area transform and should it? Maybe it doesn’t need to become the next downtown. The infrastructure that I’m working with is largely very permanent. It’ll be around longer than I’m a live, so that’s a huge responsibility.

Has working in urban planning made you see cities differently? It completely shifted everything. Every time I go on a trip anywhere and I’m just walking down the street, I can no longer just enjoy a space. I’m constantly dissecting it, whether it’s admiring a great lamppost or noticing that the road is too wide. I went with a friend to Seattle and every few feet I was talking pictures of curbs and gutters, things that other people would not normally think was interesting.

What’s your favourite city and why? I really love San Francisco. It has the cultural relevance and the pace of Toronto, but the vibe, beauty, and aesthetic of a West Coast city—but it’s not as sterilized as Vancouver. It has that grit.

Urban planning came in at #2 in Canadian Business’ Best 100 Jobs of 2016—why do you think it’s a good time to be in this industry? We’ve built ourselves into a situation that is irreversible. There’s a huge opportunity to retrofit and improve our cities.

What’s the best part of your day? Doing something better. Lots of the problems I’m trying to solve have pretty simple solutions and it would be easy to continue doing things the way they’ve always been done, but I love working with other people who, like me, are interested in doing it better. For instance, I worked on a light rail transit link being built near an urban ski hill, so we made sure that there were ski racks at that stop.

What’s the worst part of your day? I spend a lot of time sitting and a lot of time in too-long meetings.

What attributes does someone need to be an urban planner? Curiosity, patience, perspective, and diligence.

How do you unwind at the end of the day? I ride my bike, sometimes on the way home. I need dynamic movement after being in my head all day.

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