Child Planner – A Short Planning Biography

15 07 2008

I was a child planner. I didn’t realize it until I was nearly done my undergrad and was desperately wracking my brain to figure out what I would do when I graduated (because History felt like a dead-end for me). I didn’t feel like I had any direction, and it was both frustrating and scary.

I started designing early.

I started designing early - photo by Robert Young

My mother helped me a lot, suggesting that there might be clues for me in the things I liked to do when I was a kid. She told me that when I was really little she used to take me out for walks in the neighborhood, and instead of pointing out people, cars or pets as some children would, I would point and say “house!” at each one we passed. Sounds a little funny to imagine, but my interest at age 2 was pretty clear.

My older brother Mike lived with us when I was in kindergarten. He’d had a bad accident which crushed his leg, so he took care of me for the better part of a year while he recovered. Mike loved to collect toy cars, and would buy them for me, too. With Lego, we’d build houses and coffee shops and pretend to live there, driving around and having conversations like “in real life”.

Mike eventually moved out again, but I continued building and playing. My parents built me a low table, painted it gray and gave me a roll of yellow tape to put traffic lines on it. Then I set to work putting everything in it I thought a town would need, populating its streets with toy soldiers and cars. I built a grocery store, a restaurant, a post office, a police station, even a used car lot. I would ask my mom periodically what else a town needed, and she’d shortly find me building something else.

Eventually I stopped building with the Lego, but I started mapping these places I imagined. I don’t know that I’d ever seen a land use map, but by age 9 I was drawing maps of a town I named Dennison, in my sketchbook.

I didn’t just limit my imaginings to towns and cities, either. A school project in grade 6 had me create a one-page encyclopaedia entry for a fictional explorer. I came up with George Fulner, who discovered the Fulner Islands west of Australia in the Indian Ocean. That gave me the idea to develop this fictional country, and I wrote, over the period of about a year, a complete national biography. I wrote it sort of like a tourism brochure, trumpeting the island country’s institutions and culture. And yes, I drew maps.

I was an urban explorer as well. Learning to ride my bike, and then taking the bus to school, were both freeing experiences for me, in a way that learning to drive, curiously, never was. The summer I learned to ride my bike, I rode through practically every neighborhood in southeast Edmonton, getting to know them like the back of my hand, mapping out streets in my mind. And when I started to take the bus, I would try as many different routes home as possible, to see which was fastest. Sometimes when we had a day off school, I would just ride the bus to new parts of the city I’d never seen before. I think the fact that Mike was then a City bus driver made riding the bus all the more interesting to me.

Teenage malaise set in for the next, oh, 8 years or so, and it seemed like when I emerged from it, I was starting from scratch on what I wanted to pursue. Acting was a possibility, but I decided I didn’t have the fire in my belly for it. History was my fall-back position, but that mostly just served to keep me working on my degree. It was hard to see what I would do with it, career-wise.

In the last year of my undergraduate degree, I started taking human geography courses. I also started reading intensely about urban issues, realizing that the only part of the newspaper I read consistently was the City section, especially articles on transportation and urban development. And my mother, always full of thoughtful encouragement, suggested I read books by Jane Jacobs. I don’t think my mom, like many people, knew precisely what an urban planner did, but she knew my interest, so did whatever she could to help steer me towards it.

And finally, in the final semester of my BA, I met Erik Backstrom, a planner with the City of Edmonton who came to talk to our geography class, and then took a group of students on a tour of a big box development and a New Urbanist-style neighborhood. He became a mentor of sorts to me, and I discovered a job description that seemed to encapsulate all the things I was interested in.

And that is the story of my journey towards urban planning. It seems I knew better what I was interested in as a child than I did as a young adult. So, always listen to your inner child. It had some pretty excellent things to say to me.




One response

8 06 2009
Lego and the City « Tom Young

[…] So, since I have made little headway on this overambitious project, I offer you a link this week to Don Iveson’s website, Edmonton City Councillor Extraordinaire. His website is generally excellent, revealing a grasp of urban issues that would put many city planners to shame. And his most recent post is classic and fun and dear to my own tiny planner heart: […]

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