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Why Study Urban Planning?

October 30, 2023
There is a growing need for city and urban planners. The UBC MEL in URSY equips students with the skills to become leaders in urban planning.

The crises of climate change and inequality call for new approaches to urban planning. Cities are both significant contributors to climate change and disproportionately affected by climate impacts, just as they are sites of innovative economic growth while also being areas of profound income disparity.

Addressing these and other challenges in a holistic way requires a new generation of leaders who can bring multidisciplinary approaches to their work and can unite diverse stakeholders to build smart cities that work for all.

As noted by Jordi Honey-Roses, an instructor in the Urban Systems program, there is a pressing need for professionals with

“The ability to think beyond their own discipline, enabling them to be more confident taking leadership roles in organizations and balancing different perspectives and priorities as they work to create more environmentally sustainable, just and equitable cities.”

Gaining this confidence – and accelerating your career development – can come through a master’s degree in urban planning that exposes you to new knowledge, tools, industry connections and professional development opportunities.

An integrated curriculum focused on urban planning

The Master of Engineering Leadership (MEL) in Urban Systems offers an interdisciplinary curriculum that integrates engineering, urban planning and architecture. Courses are taught by world-renowned experts from UBC’s Faculty of Applied Science and cover topics in urban systems planning, infrastructure asset management, urban systems engineering, urban systems and society and urban systems project delivery and economics. Students also take two electives.

In the project delivery and economics course, students learn how to deliver a public sector project by exploring various procurement models and project delivery options. Read the article Multidimensional understanding of public infrastructure project delivery and economics for more.

In urban systems and society, students look at holistic and equitable decision-making processes through case studies and discussions. This includes developing decision-making frameworks that support the ability to balance different perspectives and priorities and take a more inclusive approach to planning than has been done historically.

Many projects are completed in collaboration with municipal partners. For example, in the infrastructure asset management course, students work with local municipalities to propose recommendations for specific real-world issues. One group of students developed a streetlight asset management plan for the City of Surrey, which was in the process of transitioning to LED lights to reduce energy consumption. Another group completed a research project that explored whether people were following no-smoking and no-vaping guidelines on the UBC campus and developed recommendations to achieve greater compliance.

“We had to look at actual issues in the area and be mindful of how those might impact our infrastructure decisions,” says student Alejandra Padron.

“It really forced you to put the proposal into context instead of just coming up with utopian thinking. You had to be realistic and confront the reality of urban planning.”

Students also complete a capstone project where they propose ideas for the redevelopment of a 546-acre development in Edmonton, Alberta, that meets the site’s environmental, social and economic goals. Students fly to Edmonton and spend a day meeting with planning and development leaders, and then work in teams to develop proposals that use a value engineering approach.

“What makes these courses work is how integrated they are,” says alumni Grace Sonmezsoy. “They span the lifecycle from planning and design to procurement, finance and operations. They give you a broad perspective of the challenges of aging infrastructure, complex system design and sustainability. Unlike my education in civil engineering, which was quite siloed, this program requires you to think about the totality of the system and the holistic approaches needed to successfully address challenges.”

Preparing city planners to be leaders in their field

Being a leader in urban planning and smart cities requires more than technical knowledge. It requires a familiarity and ease with business, organizational leadership, strategy, innovation, analytics, accounting, project management and more.

Urban Systems students gain this broad-ranging business knowledge through courses taught by UBC Sauder’s Robert H. Lee Graduate School, one of the world’s top-ranked graduate business schools. In these courses, students explore case studies, engage in lively conversation and work together in interdisciplinary groups.

An intense three-week course in the summer delves into six core business competencies, including accounting, organizational behaviour, finance, marketing, business technology management and professional development.

These are useful tools for professionals who want to take on leadership roles. As alumni Stephanie Tsui states, “The business and leadership skills have supported my abilities in planning and delivering projects, as well as negotiation with multiple stakeholders who may have different interests or priorities.”

Advancing into leadership positions in smart cities

Graduates of the MEL in Urban Systems are in high demand by municipalities, consulting companies, industry and in the public and not-for-profit sectors.

Alum Stephanie Dalo moved from a position as a structural engineer to her current role as a sustainable design engineer at DIALOG, an interdisciplinary firm of architects, urban planners, interior designers and engineers.

“It can be easy to get pigeonholed into certain kinds of work, certain ways of thinking,” she says. “The technical courses were very good at encouraging us to see the interconnects and overlaps in how systems are connected. When you understand both the individual parts and the whole, you can design better and more sustainable projects.”

Other alumni echo her words. Gabriela Mercado, a trained architect in Chile who completed the degree in 2022, is now working as a Sustainability and Resilience Advisor for BC Housing. “This program prepared me to think in a more holistic way, to see buildings not as an isolated thing but a part of a larger complex system,” she says.

“The MEL also provided me tools and frameworks for decision making and effectively communicating the business case for sustainability.”

Stephanie Tsui graduated with a degree in environmental studies and worked for three years as an urban planner, which included a focus on cycling infrastructure. She wanted to accelerate her career by pursuing a master’s degree that emphasized professional development and leadership rather than a focus on a research-based academic pursuit. She was hired before she graduated to work as a planner for TransLink’s Bus Priority Program – proof that graduates of the MEL in Urban Systems are in high demand.

Start your future as a leader in urban planning and smart cities

Studying at UBC offers other advantages for urban planners, architects and engineers who want to be part of a more sustainable future. The university is a recognized global leader in sustainability, with the campus itself a “living laboratory” that creates opportunities to test and implement new approaches to smart cities and infrastructure development.

Finally, for those who are ready to accelerate their career growth and launch their future as a leader in urban planning, the MEL in Urban Systems offers a proven path to gain the cross-disciplinary technical knowledge, business insight and industry connections needed to lead complex projects and teams while working to build more liveable, sustainable, and smart cities.

Urban Systems

Urban Systems
Gain the high-level technical knowledge and urban planning perspective to design and manage urban infrastructure systems and create more resilient cities.

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