Experiential education takes planning students abroad and it’s a boot camp for the brain

Jumping high in the suburbs of Johannesburg, South Africa in the fall of 2016. Photo by Ute Lehrer

Taking students into the urban field to explore what a city has to offer is critical to Professor Ute Lehrer, who teaches urban planning in the Faculty of Environmental Studies (FES) at York University.

Ute Lehrer

“To be a good planner, you must have your feet solidly on the ground; it needs your engagement with the everyday life in cities,” said Lehrer. “But it also requires the experience of other places so that you can come back with new insights and be better at what you are doing.”

In all of her courses, Lehrer uses mindfulness, where students are encouraged to engage with a variety of perspectives and to become aware of different approaches and answers. This is accomplished through experiential education, going into the field to experience different urban environments and different modes of mobility, and comparing these experiences to what a student has learned academically.

To integrate teaching and research in the field, Lehrer has developed the Critical Planning Workshop, a graduate course for planning students that is linked to a multi-year research project on global suburbanisms funded by the Social Sciences & Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC). This large-scale international research project is housed at York’s City Institute, as well as at FES, and it presents an ideal situation for increasing experiential learning opportunities for graduate students.

Students tour downtown Frankfurt by bicycle during their recent trip to Germany this past spring

With the help of the research grant and other sources of financing (such as York International), groups of students have travelled to Leipzig, Germany (2011); Montpellier, France (2013); Shanghai, China (2015); Johannesburg and South Africa (2016 and 2017); Florence and Milan, Italy (2018); and Frankfurt, Weimar and Berlin, Germany (2019).

As part of their 2019 tour of Frankfurt, students learned about the city’s greenbelt

This particular learning experience is also tied to the pedagogical approach that FES has been known for with its individualized Plan of Study, where students write their own program plans that then direct them over their two years of studies at York. Experiential learning is front and centre in guiding students through their studies at FES, and the Critical Planning Workshop allows students to learn invaluable lessons by going into the field.

During a 2011 trip, students posed for a group photo in Leipzig, Germany

The format of the workshop has students and the course director acting as part of an (imagined) planning firm that has just received an offer to do a project in an unfamiliar city. Since planning regulations are always specific to a place and the practice of planning is tied to cultural practices, a group (made up of the students and course director) is sent to this imagined city to report back on the specifics of the location, as well as what Toronto and Ontario can learn from the group’s insights. While abroad, students meet academics, activists, politicians, planners, community people and journalists.

As part of the larger project, students also attend overseas workshops related to the themes at the foundation of the global suburbanisms project. Upon their return, students produce a planning report demonstrating what they learned. They also give presentations to both academic and professional audiences.

In 2015, students explored new developments in Shanghai. Photo by Ute Lehrer

The Critical Planning Workshop expands students’ horizons. Imelda Nurwisah (MES ’13), who is now working as a planning consultant in Vancouver, spoke about her experience. “The Montpellier course allowed students to truly understand the Canadian planning framework – not to take it for granted and to see what else is possible,” she said. “This is invaluable for practitioners that want to do more than keep the status quo.”

Travelling together and learning from and with each other is key to the experiential education approach.

“The team environment gave students the chance to meet new colleagues and quickly build rapport to work together as a team to deliver our final project,” said Andria Oliveira (MES ’12), who now works as a transportation policy project manager for the City of Brampton. “We got to explore the city together, learning from the experience and each other with walking and bike tours, workshops, lectures and dinners, which forged relationships that anchor all of us as we each continue professionally on separate paths in the same industry.”

Jumping high in the suburbs of Johannesburg, South Africa in the fall of 2016. Photo by Ute Lehrer

Most students feel that this learning experience abroad also helps them secure meaningful employment. “The course enriched my global perspective on planning and sharpened my ability to engage with both academic literature as well as official government narratives,” said Nabeel Ahmed (MES ’18). “I believe these are attributes that helped me get, and succeed in, my current job at OpenNorth, Canada’s leading not-for-profit organization specializing in open data, open government and open smart cities.”

Will Lamond, who recently returned from this summer’s course, highlighted all the reasons why it is important to go out and learn from other places: “The Critical Planning Workshop was an incredible experience that offered some truly unique learning opportunities. In Germany, we got to learn from and have discussions with some of the top academics in planning and urbanism. The 10 straight days of lectures, tours, discussions and travel was gruelling, but in a great way. It was like boot camp for my brain!”

Since the teaching is also linked to an active research agenda on global suburbanisms, students are integrated into an additional workshop structure that gives them access to some of the leading thinkers in the field.

FES is particularly well suited for experiential learning, according to Lehrer, because of its Plan of Study and the flexibility and interdisciplinarity that comes with it. “These experiences outside of the classroom are what make good planners,” said Lehrer, noting that it motivates her “to go the extra mile and organize this kind of learning experience for students who want to learn, even though it can be challenging at times.”