Faculty of Environmental and Urban Change students are all about planning

car flooding
car flooding

When Laura Taylor saw the opportunity for a grant that would pay her students for doing a work-integrated learning project, she immediately applied.

“It’s exactly the type of thing we do in class,” says Taylor, an associate professor in the Faculty of Environmental and Urban Change. “I had other projects planned, but I knew these would be just as rewarding.

“A lot of students, especially undergraduates, are feeling hugely affected by the pandemic. Many are working while going to school, and I thought the extra money would be of help.”

Laura Taylor
Laura Taylor

As a result of the federal grant, students in two of Taylor’s classes are working with the Climate Risk Institute, in partnership with Ontario Professional Planners Institute (OPPI) and Risk Sciences International, on climate change adaptation – adapting to extreme weather events – training for professional planners. Undergraduate students from Taylor’s Sustainable Urbanism course are reviewing the course modules for this training and providing feedback about them to the Climate Risk Institute, while graduate students in her Environmental Planning course are creating an additional training module focusing on environmental justice.

“In my undergraduate course, students are learning more about planning itself: land use, how municipalities deal with climate change and how complex and technical material must be communicated,” Taylor says.

Paul Cobb, a project manager with the Climate Risk Institute, visited the class to discuss the project and the expectations he has for the students. He will view final presentations about the modules and will review the results of a survey they are completing about the training course.

“They are learning to be professionals,” says Taylor. “They don’t need to please me; it’s the client who must be satisfied with their work.”

The undergraduates are learning to assess client needs, interpret data, critically analyze modules, sharpen their communication/presentation skills, utilize their teamwork skills and gain insight into the planning industry. They are also becoming familiar with a new software package and discovering more about land-use planning: the infrastructure required for clean water, wastewater and energy, and the intersection between land and people: housing, transit and access to healthy food, for example. The students will also sharpen their presentation skills as they present their findings.

“The students will be learning about the climate challenges we face going forward and how planners can take action to address climate change proactively,” Taylor notes.

Urban flooding can have catastrophic effects on the environment, urban planning, development and the economy
Urban flooding can have catastrophic effects on the environment, urban planning, development and the economy

Max Marmer, who is in the final year of an undergraduate program in Business and Society, has found the project to be “a very interesting experience.” Marmer works for an electrical contractor who sets up vehicle charging stations, and the understanding of climate change and adaptation relates directly to the work he does.

“I don’t come from a planning or environmental science background, but I do have a background in experiential education, so this was really relevant for me,” Marmer says. “I appreciate the opportunity to apply what we’ve learned to something happening in the real world and the chance to see our efforts make a difference. That’s not always the case in undergraduate courses.

“Courses like this open your eyes. The modules homed in on equity and I found that perspective very important. It added a different lens.”

Amanda Belgrove, a third-year environmental studies major, said, “It’s really interesting that we students are being offered real-world work to do.”

She has a strong interest in emergency management and was delighted to see that the module addressed the intersection between that subject, environmental management and planning.

“I think these modules are really important for municipal employees to understand and should be offered to all of them, not just planners,” she says. “When you’ve been in the working world for a while and haven’t been engaged with climate change and emergency management, these topics may seem a bit removed, but you need to be aware of current trends.”

The graduate students are tackling a research-focused task in creating the new environmental justice module for professional planners.

“For both sets of students, this is a unique opportunity to develop practical experience in integrating their knowledge of the science of climate change with its impacts and adaptation within urban planning contexts and processes,” says Taylor.

Erin Foster and Margaret Way, two first-year master’s in environmental studies students, are part of the seven-person team creating the environmental justice module. It looks at the planning environment with an equity lens.

“Through the literature we often see that climate adaptation and mitigation strategies are not always evenly distributed in cities,” Foster says, “and that even though it is low income and marginalized communities that contribute least to climate change, they often bear the brunt of extreme climate events and are the least protected.”

There is a great deal of current research for the students to review and winnow down to fit into the module. “We’re still hashing out what to include in the module,” Way says. “It’s good to have the opportunity to explore something we’re passionate about and create a useful end product for established planners.

“It’s important to provide these educational materials so those with more experience can make informed decisions. We want them to consider this information when they are looking at climate risk.”

Foster is also pleased by the hands-on experience. “We have to think about the theoretical information and translate it into plain language concisely,” she says. “Putting it into a PowerPoint presentation and keeping it interesting has been a good skill to learn.”

Taylor hopes that not only her graduate students but some of her undergraduate students will be interested enough by the project to consider careers in planning, but she is also committed to offering them practical experience.

“I always integrate experiential education into my courses,” Taylor says. “I come from a consulting background and I know that students are keen to have real-world experiences and learning that supports their future careers.”

By Elaine Smith, special contributing writer to Innovatus