With Your Woman Wednesday: Michelle Kearns

Photo credit: Clare Scott

This week on With Your Woman Wednesday we’re speaking with Michelle Kearns. Michelle is a suburbanite-turned-city dweller who is pursuing an MSc in Planning at the University of Toronto. While we complain about the city’s problems, she’s going to school to figure out how to solve them. Talk about developing street smarts!

To start, what is your educational background?

I just graduated from the Glendon Campus of York University with an Honours BA in Environmental and Health Studies. I also wound up going on exchange to Maynooth University in Ireland during my third year, and to the University of Saskatchewan in spring 2013 on a quest to learn French (I know. I got placed there. It was wonderful, however.)

Oh, and I have a year of nursing school under my belt. I was a misguided 17 year old coming out of high school and nursing looked like a sure shot at financial stability. I hated it.

What made you decide to pursue a Master’s degree in Planning? Were you simply drawn to it as an area of study based on your previous academic work, or were there specific issues regarding cities that you noticed in your everyday life and were eager to address?

I’d always been very aware of urban form growing up. We moved from pre-WWII transit-oriented East York where you could walk everywhere to the traditional sprawl of Ajax when I was little. My mom, being the city dweller she’s always been, didn’t want to buy another car. I vividly remember attempting to traipse through open fields with her trying to find a pedestrian shortcut to a shopping complex, only to be stopped by a huge fence. Or waiting an hour for a bus that only went in one direction and took us through every single subdivision north of the 401 before reaching our destination. As a kid, I had major anxiety about being outside on the empty sidewalks with my mom, walking. “What if someone else sees us?” “People keep staring.” “This is so lame.” “Can’t we just buy a car?”

When I got older, I realized how much I was affected simply by the design and culture of the suburbs. I took a lot of classes at York about urbanism, the history of cities, and the socioeconomic pressures that result in places like Ajax. I got to travel and see how other cities deal with the same problems of sprawl, transit, traffic, walkability, etc.

Honestly, when I applied to various planning programs, I only had an abstract idea of what “planning” was. I knew it would entail zoning, and I’d read a lot of articles about cool things some cities were doing, but I had no real idea. Thankfully, my first semester has gone well and now I somewhat know how to explain it. Somewhat.

What does an MSc in Planning entail?

It’s a two-year master’s program, as is every master’s program that’s officially accredited by the Canadian Institute of Planners. The program is class-based, meaning you don’t do a typical thesis that you have to defend. In your second year, you research and write a “Current Issues Paper” – which I believe is like a thesis, just shorter and/or without the defense. In the summer between first and second year, you need to secure some sort of internship. This is where all the stress comes from during first year!

Planners can get professional accreditation. You don’t necessarily need to be a “planner”, but some jobs require it. You have to go through a few years of logging your hours and connecting with a mentor, but I’m planning to pursue accreditation. You also have more pull when testifying at the Ontario Municipal Board when you’re accredited.

Is there a deliberate reason the program is referred to as Planning and not Urban Planning?

I’ve started to notice that the entire profession is just called “planning”. This makes it incredibly difficult to search for jobs on LinkedIn, by the way. You can be a social planner, community planner, rural planner, environmental planner, transit planner, policy planner, urban planner – it’s a very fluid sort of program. There are probably more that I’m forgetting. I usually just say “urban planning” when I’m being introduced to new people, because “planning” could literally be anything to most people. My boyfriend had a good laugh when he found out that Toronto’s top document guiding development is simply called the Toronto Official Plan.

What are your career goals? What area of planning do you want to be involved in, and what steps do you have to take in terms of academics and networking in order to get there?

Right now, I’d love to get some experience with land use planning from the private side. We had a great assignment in my land use planning class that took us through a theoretical planning rationale for a plot of land. It was so difficult to get through, but I learned a lot. Land use planning looks at what is the highest and best use of land on a site. You need to take into account current bylaws, area precedents, shadow effects, infrastructure concerns, community resources, the history of the area, and so much more.

My mentor, whom I’ve been connected with through our program’s alumni committee, is a land use planner at a well-known firm. Academically, I’m taking courses on real estate development and infrastructure, on top of my land use planning course first semester. A lot of it is about interpreting various policies at the municipal and provincial levels and how they work together. Hopefully I can score a relevant summer internship in this field!

What are your side hustles? By side hustles I mean jobs you are working in order to support your studies. More importantly, how do you find ways to incorporate your area of study into your part-time work?

A side hustle that actually makes me money is being an Invigilator. It’s a CUPE job only open to grad students. I love it. The scheduling system for shifts is so great for grad students, as you do your shift selection each week online. I’ve also got the chance to meet grad students from all over U of T doing a variety of really cool work, which is something I have not had the chance to do otherwise.

Side hustle that is actually 110% relevant to my program: Research Assistant at the Toronto Cycling Think and Do Tank. I love biking. I love research. I’m learning so much in regards to actually designing, performing, and analyzing a study.

I have dropped the ball on being a keener in my program, however. At Glendon, I was part of so many on-campus things – here at U of T I’ve gone a bit slack. I didn’t even run for any positions on the program’s student society. I sort of regret that.

How competitive would you say your field is in terms of the availability of jobs?

It’s a bit worrying, as there are three planning schools in Toronto at the graduate level (Ryerson, York, U of T), and one at the undergraduate level (Ryerson). THREE! So there are lots of people looking for jobs.

Condos and developments keep happening, however, so hopefully things will be okay when I graduate in 2017. The second years in my program don’t seem too worried. They’ve seen the year before them graduate and end up in good places.

What is your favourite theory of urban planning?

Can I do an anti-favourite theory? Or my favourite “OHHHHH, THAT’S WHY IT LOOKS LIKE THIS” moment?

In my theory class, we talked about Le Corbusier’s “Towers in the Park” style of modernism. Modernism aimed to separate and organize the traditionally intertwined “street ballet” (see: Jane Jacobs) of city life. We ended up with blocks of huge, menacing towers, with huge setbacks from the sidewalk. You can see the influence of this style of planning all over Toronto (St. James Town, for one).

Name a favourite planner or academic in the field.

I’ve been doing a lot of research on walkability, and Paul Hess has written some wonderful articles on the subject. He’s actually the director of my program at U of T, but he’s currently on sabbatical. You can see his Google Scholar profile here.

If you had VIP connections, and it was simply a matter of being qualified for the job, what urban planning project would you want to work on or position in the field would you like to occupy?

I would love to work on some sort of rejuvenation/infill project for certain areas of Toronto’s inner suburbs. Just driving around southwest Scarborough you can see so many empty, overgrown lots surrounded by broken fences. Ideally, a developer would buy a lot and have me on the planning team to figure out what is feasible and ensures respect and benefits for the community.

In your opinion, what is the most frustrating urban issue in Toronto?

Funding. There are so many things we know we can do to improve TTC service and get people out of their cars or at least provide a practical option to, but there is not enough money. People commuting to Glendon (at Lawrence/Bayview) from Ajax, for example, have to pay both GO and TTC fairs. For a three-hour class, it’s easier just to drive in, if you have that option available to you. All those wonderful, grand ideas, for building bike superhighways and improving safety fall by the wayside when there is no funding. Plans can be commissioned, people can get excited about changes, but years later still nothing is changed because there is no funding. It’s incredibly frustrating.

What are your favourite spots for getting things done in the city?

There’s a little cafe by my house on Dupont called Cafe Con Leche that’s chill and has great WiFi. I’m also a big fan of my department’s computer lab. Boring, I know.

Learn more about Toronto Discursive’s new Q&A series At Your Man’s House Mondays and With Your Woman Wednesdays here.

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