Celebrating women’s leadership and innovation

March 8, 2018

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From our very beginnings, women leaders have been a fundamental element of Urban Strategies’ DNA. Partner Andrea Gabor, one of the city’s most respected planners, led many significant planning policy and development projects across the region and internationally before passing away in 2015. Our CFO, Connie Pasqualitto‘s leadership has guided our steady growth for three decades, and we salute her as she prepares to begin her next adventure – retirement. Today, we mark International Women’s Day by asking eleven of the women of Urban Strategies – from Partners, to emerging leaders, to bright young graduates – to share their perspectives on the future of city-building.

What do you love most about your work?

I love the process of figuring out the role of whatever we are working on in the story of that place. What is this thing? What is it supposed to accomplish? How does it connect to what is going on? Or how does it make a new path forward for change? – Leigh McGrath, Senior Associate, Planner

I love the variety. I get to work at different geographic scales and levels of detail, in different parts of the world and for very different clients. I like that I get to learn about other planning-related sectors through collaborating with other consultants on my projects. I’ve learned about everything from sewer twinning to coastal erosion and accretion to positioning of building cores. – Anna Iannucci, Associate, Planner

Our ability to work across a number of different sectors (technical, political, etc.) and the role we play in bringing together expertise from these areas to create strong communities.  – Habon Ali, Associate, Planner

Even as a kid I liked cities – my Lego creations tended to the urban as opposed to the mechanical, so now being able to be immersed in their creation at all scales on a daily basis is still so exciting. – Emily Reisman, Partner, Planner

The people I work with and the great variety of communities I have had the privilege to get to know and work in. – Melanie Hare, Partner

The people and having been here through the transition of generations.  It is great to see so many young staff members. – Connie Pasqualitto, Partner, Chief Financial Officer

I work with a lot of smart and interesting people. I feel like I can learn a lot about city building and our urban environment from other Strategists. – Ella den Elzen, Urban Designer

The diversity of wonderful people as well as projects of all geographic areas and scales keeps things endlessly interesting. – Jennifer Sun, Planner and Urban Designer

I have always loved how urban planning provides the lens through which multi-disciplinary considerations can come together to make great places for people to live their lives and earn their living. I’m especially grateful to practice planning at such a creative place as Urban Strategies, which from inception, was structured to integrate the practices of urban planning and urban design to solve complex problems in creative ways. – Cyndi Rottenberg-Walker, Partner, Planner

I really appreciate the diversity and fast-paced nature of my work in urban planning so far. Every project is different – presenting context-specific challenges and opportunities. The skills you gain in one experience play a major role in your capacity to delve into the next. But there is also an essential and distinct learning component to each project requiring you to discover the various perspectives, players, and features that make that project unique. – Keira Webster, Planner

What advice would you give a young person considering a career in planning? Would your advice be any different for a woman looking to work in this sector? 

Be curious about everything. Learn from people who do the same things as you do, in different ways, and from people who do totally different things than you do, for your whole life. No gender distinctions. – Cyndi

To any young person considering a career in urban design (including myself!) I would suggest getting involved in community building projects and to take walks around the city. I find walking is the best way to understand a place. I always discover something new or have a better understanding of how a space works the more time I spend walking around it. I would also suggest finding a mentor that can help you grow professionally, this can be said for both men and women.- Ella

If you love places and how they work and all the things that go into how we experience our cities and towns, planning and urban design is a great career choice. I would advise to stay involved in where ever you are now – go to public meetings and lectures, get a sense for process, how decisions are made and how to be part of positive change. Know the active debates in your community and get involved.  – Leigh

Go in eyes wide open. Urban planning has a very wide spectrum of opportunities from environmental to social and development planning. Public versus private versus third sector. While skill sets are similar the practice and culture of these fields are quite different. Set a direction that you are passionate about and aligns with your goals and aspirations. For women, know yourself and keep true to this.  You don’t need to change to be successful.  – Melanie

Take a moment to stop and look around and identify the features or elements that make up your favourite places. Every building and open space represents a choice. Imagine some of the choices that were made to create the places that you like. What choices do you think could make it even better? These are the kinds of things planners think about. Women often bring a different perspective to conversations about community – we are all (men and women together, adults and youth) invested in the places we call home and part of our communities so all voices are important and valid. If you have something to say, be heard! – Emily

Build time in your calendar for conferences, events and activities not related to planning/urban design. This will push you to gain new perspectives and will teach you how to communicate effectively with people outside of your field. – Habon

What inspires or excites you the most about the future of your profession, and the young planners joining Urban Strategies? 

I think we’re at a really fascinating time for city building. We’re simultaneously facing the challenges of a rapidly growing urban population, the ever-increasing need for urban climate resilience, and the integration of innovative technologies in many aspects within urban planning from the Internet of Things to autonomous vehicles. I think the urban planning profession has a crucial role to play in addressing these intersecting elements while also having the opportunity to make a real difference. – Keira

The premise of our practice is to put people at the center – thinking about gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic backgrounds, age, and how all this is incorporated as our cities become more and more diverse.  What is exciting is that this allows us to shift our perspectives to include variety and really push for innovative thinking – Shushmita Mizan, Planner and Urban Designer

I’m excited to see planning continue to converge with other disciplines. Today planning has become a public health issue as we recognize the impact of built environments on human health. I think we’re at the very beginning of planning and IT coming together as we start to talk about “smart” cities. Adding different lenses to our thinking about cities is always challenging and exciting. – Anna

Planning in the future will be based on the same solid principles we practice today but we may have very different tools at our disposal to bring those principles to life. Today’s newest planners and designers have grown up in an interconnected world and are already have certain expectations around how we can harness collective thinking to do great things or how devices can improve tasks. They are already asking questions about how technology can help us work better and smarter and improve the communities we work in. – Emily

I am inspired each day by the energy and creative thinking of our newest planners. They have an interest in the global world we live in and the challenges we face.  They often challenge convention and are open to very new shifts in there way we work, live and share.  – Melanie

I am excited by the continued and rapid expansion of cities around the world. In particular, I think Toronto’s continued growth will allow urban designers to tackle many of the current challenges our city faces. These problems leave room for us to design creative solutions. Solving problems such as delivering density, improving transit and encouraging active mobility will all contribute to the creation of a better and more vibrant city. I am also curious about the potential of leveraging technology to make more efficient, productive cities, and where that may take us in the future. – Ella

The growing number of disrupters in the field that are challenging the way we have traditionally built our cities. – Habon

How technology has changed our thinking and how it will further transform our city building process in an innovative and exciting way. – Jennifer

That how we grow and what we do is always changing. That each site is unique and has a history and how we understand those spaces is always changing as our cities grow. – Leigh

Cities are where it’s at now and planning is a hot profession as a result. That’s a far cry from 30 years ago when I graduated – not a bad thing at all to be cooler in your 50s than in your 20s! My colleagues—especially the younger ones—know and care about so many important things, and they walk the talk with energy, enthusiasm and commitment. They cycle, take transit, tweet, volunteer, sit on boards, connect, and have so much passion for our world – it gives me so my energy and optimism for our future. – Cyndi

What would you change about the planning sector? How can women play a leadership role in this shift? How can men support women leaders?

Planning is one part of community building. Planners and developers, together with lawyers, financiers, architects, politicians, and others all work together on place making. Respectful dialogue among all parties, even when there are disagreements, is the foundation for creating a culture of mutual respect, which allows people to thrive. – Emily

Our cities have consistently been planned by small group of privileged individuals, usually white men, which needs to change. In a world with divergent thoughts, cultures and socio-economic classes, I think it’s critical that the urban landscapes of the city embody multiplicity. Growing up in the Middle East and South Asia, I have been exposed to how gendered relations are contested and negotiated on the streets every day. Women face harassment and violence on daily basis, which is perceived as normal and often justified. Basic urban systems have failed to respond to women’s needs, which has impacted their safety, movement, and even income. Leaders have the opportunity to promote a culture that fosters empowerment. It is critical that those of us with the privilege of opportunity and higher education offer our support to those who are making the climb. It is critical that men be included in this conversation, mentor women, and advocate for equitable policies. – Shushmita

Women are often credited with listening well, thinking holistically, acting strategically, behaving respectfully and being attuned and compassionate, but really, these are just good leadership characteristics – we don’t have the monopoly. What matters most is that the diverse perspectives we bring to the table are heard, and that gender diversity, like all diversity, has meaningful impacts on the plans and places that result. – Cyndi

I would like to put more emphasis on educating and reaching out to the public on what is good planning and how it improves everyone’s overall quality of life to get over NIMBYism and focus on the broader vision at community consultations. Women definitely can play a key role in this, communicating key planning messages while also being empathetic to individual concerns. – Jennifer

I hope in future to see more women in different types of planning-related jobs. Today I see lots of women at municipalities and planning firms like Urban Strategies, but fewer in architecture and even fewer in development. I think we’re missing something by not having women’s voices at the forefront across all these sectors. To get there we need to encourage more women to step out of their comfort zone and into spaces where they might be the minority today, and we need men to support women by making them feel welcome and listening to what they have to say. – Anna

Reach out more to other sectors and professions. The integration and application of planning, technology, culture are merging closely together. The skill sets of planners are highly valuable in these collaborations.  Women are often particularly good at this and can take a lead pushing this frontier. – Melanie

Looking back over your career so far, what has surprised you the most?

It was not always easy being a woman in the work world for all the obvious reasons. Generations have fought for many changes in the treatment of women and trying to achieve parity. There is much more to do and it is great to see women now becoming more vocal on the issues. I am at the end of my career and hope for a much better working climate for all women. – Connie

The amount of stakeholders involved, internally and externally. – Jennifer

Twenty five years later, I am still in planning, my work is always morphing and of interest and I am still loving it! – Melanie

We invite you to join us in celebrating International Women’s Day 2018!