Book Review by Nancy Knight, Ph.D. MCIP RPP, June 2018
Ken Cameron’s latest book is an inspiring biography of Peter Oberlander who was a major figure in Canadian planning for 60 years and illustrates how the concepts of citizenship and service were central to Oberlander’s life. Equally, Ken’s book provides an overview of a formative time in the evolution of planning in British Columbia in particular – the latter half of the 20th century. Far from a dry, dusty tome, Cameron’s book blends factual information with entertaining and humanizing anecdotes, photos and illustrations. For the planning profession, the book lucidly illustrates planning leadership at work and shows us how it can be done; Professor Oberlander combined his core planning principles with a pragmatic, action-oriented outlook and an extraordinary network to achieve great things for Canadian urbanism.
The book begins with a brief history of the Oberlander family’s origins in Austria, and Peter’s birth in Vienna before the second World War. The book does not flinch from covering the horrific war years that saw a teen-aged boy torn from his family and treated as a threat by the Nazis, then the British and finally the Canadians. An indomitable spirit, thirst for learning, and talent for making friends helped Oberlander persevere through this period of his life. When he had the freedom to choose his path in life, Oberlander first studied architecture at McGill and then city planning at Harvard. Ken’s book identifies the rich intellectual influences and personal bonds from those study programs that underpinned Oberlander’s life-long planning principles.
A large part of the book is devoted to key moments in Canadian planning history. One of the important changes was the development of planning schools at Canadian universities. Peter Oberlander was at the leading edge of this change. In 1945, there were very few Canadian planners (The Canadian Encyclopedia’s article ‘Urban and Regional Planning’ states there were 45 practitioners in Canada in 1949). Canadian cities were growing rapidly and relying on American, British and French planning expertise to address the needs of post-war reconstruction and future growth. In 1947, Oberlander, as the first planning professional hired by the Central (now Canada) Mortgage and Housing Corporation, seized the opportunity to make a presentation to the Massey Commission, which was charged with developing recommendations for the cultural and scientific reconstruction of Canada. Oberlander and his CMHC colleague Humphrey Carver argued that it was crucial for the cultural development of Canada that Canadian cities be planned by Canadian planners trained in Canada. Shortly thereafter, Norman Mackenzie, President of UBC and a Member of the Massey Commission, invited Oberlander to start a graduate planning program at UBC. Thus, the School of Community and Regional Planning was born in 1950. In the development of the curriculum and the school, Professor Oberlander stressed that the purpose of planning was to guide the development of cities and towns for the benefit of the community as a whole, that plans had to
result in action, and that interdisciplinary knowledge, collaboration and community involvement would be key to successful planning. These were significant departures from the typical curricula in other planning schools.
From the very beginning of SCARP, Professor Oberlander also emphasized that understanding the cultural context of the community was crucial to successful planning. Early on, focus was given to the regional context, and over time the School increasingly emphasized a global context. SCARP developed numerous programs of collaborative learning with different countries with the blessing of UBC’s leadership. Professor Oberlander was generous in the time he devoted to working with students and practitioners from other countries. In later chapters of the book, Oberlander’s involvement with the United Nations is explored. The UN Conference on Human Settlements, hosted in Vancouver in 1976, and the UN World Urban Forum in Vancouver in 2006 benefitted from Oberlander’s guidance and energy. The Centre for Human Settlements at UBC was a legacy from the 1976 conference that Peter Oberlander led for many years afterward.
In other chapters, the book also relates how Professor Oberlander developed a professional planning practice, participated in and led professional and lay planning associations, and advised governments around the world on community planning. Chapter 7 covers Oberlander’s involvement in local Vancouver politics and Chapter 8 provides an in-depth look at his role as the first Secretary (Deputy Minister) in the federal government’s experiment in urban intervention – the Ministry of State for Urban Affairs. There are a great deal of interesting observations and lessons from these parts of the book for planners in the trenches today.
Peter Oberlander was a remarkable man and a remarkable planner. The book notes his numerous professional achievements and distinctions. Three in particular highlight Professor Oberlander’s global, national and local commitment to creating better cities: the United Nations 2009 Scroll of Honour for his ‘lifetime of promoting the urban agenda around the world’; his investiture in the Order of Canada in 1995, and the City of Vancouver’s Civic Merit Award given in 2008 to Peter and Cornelia Oberlander, his very accomplished wife and partner.
Professor Oberlander was often at the heart of changes in Canadian planning, and his clear planning vision and commitment to citizenship and service resulted in lasting contributions. Ken Cameron’s book, Showing the Way provides insight into the life and times of not just Professor Oberlander and his family, but also professional and political colleagues in British Columbia, Canada and around the world. Through the clever weaving together of biography and history, Showing the Way makes an important contribution to our understanding of Canadian planning and recognizes the crucial, and inspiring, leadership role played by Professor Peter Oberlander, not only as a planner but as an exemplary citizen of his city, his adopted country and the world. It is a must read!