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Forecasting 2017 and Beyond: Geography & Planning

A&S News asked some Faculty leaders what’s ahead in their fields in 2017 and beyond.

Here’s what the head of our geography & planning department, Virginia Maclaren sees coming soon.

Photo of Virginia Maclaren

Virginia Maclaren, Associate Professor and Chair
Department of Geography & Planning


Geography & Planning at U of T is comprised of three sub-disciplines physical geography, human and environmental geography, and planning. Respectively, these areas address: the physical, chemical and biological processes that shape Earth’s surface; the ways people use and experience the natural and built environments; and the application and practice of research and theories that emerge from the first two areas, with an emphasis on sustainability and social justice.

I expect we will see an increase in the overlap of all of these areas as time passes. It’s part of a move towards a more interdisciplinary approach to understand our world as an array of increasingly complex and intertwined physical, environmental, social and cultural problems continue to pose major challenges.

As a result, the planning side of the department will continue to grow in the coming years, especially at the undergraduate level, where we are proposing to introduce a new planning focus to complement our geography programs of study.

Transportation, access to health care for aging populations and immigrants will continue to be key focus of planners

We are already strong in the area of urban research, with transportation being one area of growing interest. There are many big questions on the horizon around transportation, including how to finance major transit improvements and how to provide a safe pedestrian environment.  Some researchers in the department will continue to work closely with Metrolinx, the Ontario provincial government agency responsible for the development of public transit across the Greater Toronto Area, while others contribute their expertise directly to municipal governments in Toronto and elsewhere.

Others still will turn their attention to the question of how to plan for aging populations and the increasing influx of immigrants and refugees to Canada. They’ll be looking particularly at access to health and social services for each of those groups, as well as analysis of how well immigrants and refugees adjust to their new home.

From cities to countries, challenges abound

Questions surrounding borders and security, as well as transnationalism, citizenship and belonging are becoming an increasingly important focus of urban as well as national scale research in geography and planning, particularly with the major changes in policy that we are seeing in the United States. Cities are the engines of economic growth, and many researchers will be asking how can urban economies thrive? How do innovations, creative industry clusters, financial markets and the rise of precarious work (particularly for women, new immigrants and youth) support or detract from healthy communities?

Rapid urbanization is accompanied by growing social problems related to housing affordability and gentrification, as well as urban inequalities, segregation and social marginalization. New forms of urban governance such as the rise of public-private partnerships – are also being studied. Further, a host of environmental issues are being analyzed at the urban, national and global scales, ranging from reducing waste to increasing food security and finding ways to reduce reliance on fossil fuels.

We are all geotrackers now

One way that our researchers will further research in these areas is through the increasing use of geographic information systems (GIS) that capture, store, analyze and present spatial or geographic data. Geospatial information and technology is now ubiquitous in Canada and many other parts of the world allowing for anyone with a smart phone and data plan to navigate spatial, social, and economic networks in new and different ways. That same technology is also being harnessed by companies and academic researchers to understand human behaviours.

From the academic perspective, there are many new questions we can explore through these data where, when, and why do people go where they go? How does access to all of this information change the planning of cities? How has the geography of our social networks shifted? Are companies using these data doing so responsibly? Physical geographers also use GIS and, along with increasingly sophisticated satellite and drone technologies, will be investigating one of society’s most critical research questions, namely the extent and impacts of climate change. Our environmental geographers complement this work by looking at the human impacts of climate change, such as the impact of flooding on livelihoods.

An Indigenous approach to planning

Increasing opportunities for education around Indigenous planning and Indigenous geographies is a high priority for geography and planning departments in Canada. Next year, our department will welcome an accomplished practitioner or scholar of planning with Indigenous communities through our Bousfield Distinguished Visitorship in Planning.

We hope to find someone to share with our faculty and students his or her experience in aspects of Indigenous planning, including the preservation of language and culture as it pertains to urban, community, and/or regional planning, building and refining governance and planning systems, community wellness, sustainable resource management, establishing self-reliant and sustainable communities, and improving living conditions of Indigenous peoples.

Experiential learning makes better geographers and planners

Increasing experiential learning opportunities for students at all levels continues to be a primary focus.  For students of geography and planning, taking the learning outside, beyond the walls of the classroom is critical. In addition to our field courses and other learning activities outside of the classroom, we will work with our partnerships with governments, city-based associations and non-governmental organizations to increase the number of such opportunities available to our students to ensure that they get a hands-on taste of the work that many will pursue upon graduation.

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