Ryerson Shadow Day

November 8, 2019

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We had a great time hosting Ryerson Master of Planning Students last week. They were with us for the day, shadowing experienced Planners Anna Iannucci,
Sunjay Mathuria, Neil Loewen, Lauren Haein An, Haya Rizvi, Kaitlyn Hundt, and Michelle Rowland. Below is an article by the students about their experience.

Applying Theory to Practice at Urban Strategies

By Vanessa King, Ellen Molloy, Ely DeSandoli, Hannah Chan Smyth

Figuring out how theory applies to practice can be one of the steepest learning curves for students. That’s why the advanced theory course in Ryerson’s Master of Planning program asked students to shadow a planner and see the planning practice first-hand.

Seven of us jumped at the chance to shadow planners and designers at Urban Strategies. As a strategic consultancy that balances public and private sector work, we thought it would be the perfect place to see how theoretical knowledge translates to day-to-day life as a planner.

The day was packed with learnings. These are our top five takeaways.

1. Planners don’t have a set job description.

Throughout the day, all of our shadow casters worked on projects that required different skillsets including writing, project management, people skills, graphic design, strategic thinking, and more.

Beyond having a generalist skillset, we also learned that planners need time management and prioritization skills to be successful, especially at a busy firm like Urban Strategies.

But our biggest takeaway was how important communication skills are for today’s planners. The ability to communicate verbally, visually, and through writing is fundamental for sharing information and rallying stakeholders.

2. Rich engagement is about quality, not quantity.

In our courses, we learn a lot about the importance of engaging local communities and stakeholders throughout the planning process.

Luckily for us, our shadow day included a presentation from Emory Davidge, a public engagement expert and planner at Urban Strategies. Using her work as an example, she explained how planners need to create engagement strategies that identify the context, topics for discussion, and stakeholder groups at the onset of a project. Once that’s done, planners should write a tactical plan with details on how, when, and where you’ll engage those groups.

Thinking of public consultation in this way helps planners focus on the groups that matter most. A strategic approach also helps planners leverage more multifaceted tactics, as different stakeholders might benefit from different types and levels of engagement.

3. Planners never stop learning.

The planning profession is constantly evolving, so it’s important that planners keep learning even once they’re no longer students.

Our shadow day coincided with a scheduled Academy Session about what planners can learn from urban designers. Being able to translate written strategy to visual design is a superpower, especially when you’re working on a large project with lots of moving parts.

The Academy Session taught us a lot about visual communication, and we were excited to see professional planners learning about the design process and levelling up their skills.

4. Shadowing adds context to course work.

It’s important to leave the classroom and see how what you’ve learned relates to actual planning work. Teams at Urban Strategies work on a wide variety of projects, and observing each of them provided a chance to connect what we’re learning in school with real-life practice.

Sitting in a meeting about a heritage project helped us better understand the Heritage Act, learning about public engagement strategies gave context for our theory course, and learning about urban design sparked ideas for our visual design course.

We’re grateful that Professor Ugarte created such a unique, real-world assignment and that Urban Strategies opened their doors (and desks!) to us.

5. The planning community gives back.

Since beginning the program a few months ago, it’s clear that Toronto’s planning community is extremely supportive and generous to new planners.

Urban Strategies takes that support to another level with their time and mentorship. From teaching our entire class design basics to organizing a shadow day for seven students, Urban Strategies has helped our class see planning in action and better understand the practice from a professional viewpoint.

Thank you again to the entire team at Urban Strategies for making our shadow day so productive and meaningful. It was an important learning experience that we’ll never forget.