This interview features in the January 2016 edition of The Planner as a part of a series of interviews with RTPI members working around the world.
Name: Anne Fisher, RTPI Chartered Member
Job title: Heritage Planner
Employer: Town of Milton
Location: Milton, Ontario, Canada
What do you currently do?
I work as a Heritage Planner which essentially means that I deal with any development proposals that involves heritage resources and provide planning policy advise relating to cultural heritage resources. The Town of Milton, where I both live and work, is the fastest growing municipality in Canada (and I think North America). It is situated just west of Toronto in southern Ontario with the Niagara Escarpment (a UNESCO bio-sphere reserve) running through it. Milton is also close to the Great Lakes and the border with the United States.
When I arrived here from England in 2002 it had a population of 40,000. It is now over 102,000 and is scheduled to grow to 228,000 by 2031. This massive growth is ultimately fuelled by immigration and the Province of Ontario has developed a Growth Plan to ensure that the Ontario can accommodate the population and employment growth, while also protecting primary agricultural land, the natural environment and cultural heritage resources.
It is an exciting environment to work as a planner. Much of my work entails reviewing development applications for heritage buildings and trying to conserve and integrate cultural heritage resources into new subdivisions. It is very different from my time in central London but the work here is so much more diverse and the environment is changing rapidly.
What are your working hours?
Monday to Friday, 8.30am – 4.30pm.
What attracted you to the profession?
At school, history and geography were my favourite subjects and so town planning seemed a natural fit. It was only when I started work that I really started understanding what working as a planner entailed. I worked for Westminster City Council for 10 years and Coventry City Council for 5 years before moving to Canada with my family. I had 3 young children at the time. When the youngest started school I saw a job advert for my local council and got the job. I now work 264 steps from by house.
What are the three biggest issues in the built environment where you live?
There is insufficient investment in public transport. New growth in Southern Ontario is all designed to be transit friendly, however there is insufficient public transport between communities. In Milton there is a commuter train service to Toronto, however the trains only run during peak hours and there are not enough of them. There are plans to provide an integrated public transport system across the Greater Toronto Area but public funds are not provided to realise this vision.
Planning for the infrastructure for the scale of new development in southern Ontario is problematic as new development is meant to pay for itself. Infrastructure improvements become even more problematic as we try to intensify development in our existing urban areas.
There are insufficient regulations for requiring good urban design, designing for distinct communities and heritage conservation. As a consequence rapid growth is taking place but each community looks the same as the next. Too much emphasis is put on having variety and individual freedom. As a consequence new residential streets can appear cluttered with too many house styles, materials and decorative additions. Canadian's are modest, polite and understated (unlike our southern neighbours in the US) and do not (in my opinion) sufficiently value their built heritage. There is so much pressure for new development and change that the simple beauty of old, small and sometimes poorly maintained buildings is undervalued.
What aspects of the planning system would you change?
The Province should have a greater role in conserving heritage resources and requiring good urban design. At present it is up to a local authority to identify their significant heritage resources and whether or not they should be conserved. The pressures to plan for growth are so great that conserving the best of what we already have is overlooked. The Province should require (not just allow) local authorities to seek good urban design and heritage conservation and put the planning tools in place to ensure that this is achieved.
Planning appeals are dealt with by the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) whose decisions sometimes appear arbitrary. There is widespread dissatisfaction with the OMB. In addition there is no provision here for appealing planning decisions through written representations. The whole appeal system needs to reviewed to make their decisions more consistent and in line with provincial and local planning policies. There should also be a fast track system for smaller appeals that does not involve a full hearing with lawyers in attendance.
Review or replacement of the zoning system as it does not offer the flexibility to deal with higher density development and intensification in existing urban areas.
What is the best part of where you live?
The weather - it is much sunnier than in the UK. Even in the winter, when it can get to -40 degree Celsius, it is sunny. Summers are always warm and the autumn is spectacular. Winters are too long though (ending in late April) and spring is grey and very muddy (as the snow melts) but luckily it is very short.
Mill Pond in Milton Image credit: Lois McNaught/Flickr
Living near the beautiful Niagara Escarpment where there are lovely places to go for a walk or bike ride and where we can go downhill skiing, cross-country skiing and snow shoeing in the winter. We also have a brand new velodrome in town that was built for the 2015 Pan Am Games. It is fun cycling on an indoor track.
If I could change one thing about where I live...
A ban on people building massive houses that are just an ostentatious display of wealth.
If you could change one thing about the planning profession what would it be?
Just like for the RTPI, professional planners in Canada are required to undertake continuous professional development, however there are fewer on-line resources to fulfil the CPD requirements.
Is there anything else you think UK planners should know about planning where you live?
Planning in the UK derives from the concept that permission is required to undertake development. There is a clear definition of development (that every planning student can recite) and then legislation lists a series of developments that do not require permission. Planning in North America is based on the division of land. This arouse from the original surveys of the land that took place in the eighteenth and nineteen centuries when Europeans first arrived. At one time you only needed permission from the local authority if you sought to divide land into smaller lots. Zoning was then developed to ensure that the development on the land did not cause harm. In this way, provided you complied with the zoning by-law (which listed things like the height, use and lot coverage permitted on a parcel of land) you could develop your property as you liked without interference from the local authority. However over time more and more regulations and requirements have been introduced. Now zoning by-laws are massive documents that try to cover every eventuality – they are cumbersome, difficult for laypeople to understand and do not offer the flexibility to deal with dense urban environments.
Is there anything useful the RTPI assists you with in your role?
I think it would be useful if the RTPI helped to link UK planners who work abroad. I have met a few UK planners while I have been in Canada, but it would be nice to have a formal network. This would also help UK planners who have recently moved to Canada.
How did you end up working outside of the UK?
We came to have an adventure. My husband is an architect and the company he worked with had branches all over the world. We often talked about moving abroad for a few years. Then one day the option of moving to Toronto came up and we just went for it. I was 6 months pregnant with my third child at the time. We only came over for 2 years, however as the children grew we became settled and it became more and more difficult to move home. We now have one child at the University of Ottawa, one at high school and our youngest is 13 years old and in her last year at middle school.
Any favourite foods?
We generally prefer British food and especially miss new potatoes and blackcurrants. Food here is often too sweet and not spicy enough. We like the chicken wings, frozen lemonade, maple syrup and we love black bear sausages (pictured, right).
Image credit: Jerry Genesio