Inventing a Profession

By Ken Cameron FCIP RPP


“Peter Oberlander virtually invented British Columbia’s planning profession.” That comment was made by Professor Zack Taylor of Western University, an expert on regional governance, upon reading my book, Showing the Way: Peter Oberlander and the Imperative of Global Citizenship. Here are excerpts from the book to substantiate his statement.


Peter Oberlander’s Role in CMHC’s Presentation to the Massey Royal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters and Sciences

In 1949, CMHC was invited to appear before the Massey Commission. CMHC management was reluctant because they had no clue about what they might contribute. Peter remembered the Corporation’s conundrum:

The one thing the Feds wanted to avoid was being deeply involved. Constitutionally, it was not federal territory. Municipal affairs were under the provincial governments. I had just started to work at CMHC. David Mansur was our President who brought to the Corporation his enviable record of having marshalled enormous wartime production resources through the promotion of popular investment in Victory Bonds. His deputy was John Young, the youngest Brigadier General in the Canadian Army and its former Quartermaster General. In search of some meaningful task, he commandeered me to prepare a submission to the Massey Commission on behalf of the Corporation, inventing whatever tenuous link I chose between the Corporation’s and the Commission’s mandates. Humphrey Carver, a long-term friend and genial spirit, was drafted to work with me….

Oberlander and Carver worked all night on the brief on what could be done in relation to city planning within the larger mandate of the Commission and its focus on areas of federal jurisdiction….

To the utter surprise of Oberlander and Carver, the Brigadier approved the submission and instructed them to present it to the Commission the next day during its public hearings in the Supreme Court building on Wellington Street….

As the Commission members settled down in their chairs for the day’s hearings, Peter was summoned into the chamber to make his presentation. Peter quickly glanced through his brief, composed himself and began his presentation…. His argument was simple but powerful:

If we are serious about rebuilding, designing or expanding Canadian cities, it has to be done by Canadians. We can no longer sustain importing European and American ideas for municipal problems in Canada. The role of the CMHC should be to support education, not hire planners from abroad to design new subdivisions in Canada.

If the Massey Commission’s vision of a cultural and scientific renaissance were to be achieved, it would be achieved in cities which were planned, designed and managed with this purpose in mind. Such cities would have to be built by Canadians for Canadian people according to Canadian values, goals, and objectives. The bottom line was that “better cities would create the opportunities for the arts in Canada, but they required Canadians to be city planners who were trained at Canadian universities.”


Establishment of the School of Community and Regional Planning at the University of British Columbia

The perspective presented by CMHC on the interdependence between cities as the cradles of a national culture, planning education and the role of the university struck a chord with the keenly observant Norman Mackenzie [a member of the Commission and the President of the University of British Columbia].


The day after the submission to the Commission, Peter received a phone call at his CMHC office from Mackenzie who had left a message for him asking, “Would you have breakfast with me at the Château Laurier?” Peter had never met Mackenzie and had only a vague idea of what Vancouver and UBC were. …. Mackenzie with characteristic directness said, “How would you like to come to UBC and experiment with your idea of an academic educational program in urban planning?” It was an opportunity for Peter to embark on a new journey that involved not just talking about the need for and role of planning education in postwar Canada but actually applying his ideas in real life — to move from ideas to action.

At the time, Peter was in a contractual position with CMHC. Having invested in Peter’s training in Britain, CMHC did not want to release him from his duties, but Norman Mackenzie was keen to get Peter quickly on board to UBC. The astute politician that he was, he managed to persuade CMHC to provide Peter with a paid leave of absence for two years….

Until the 1940s, the concept of a planning profession did not exist in British Columbia. Moreover, planning was seen as a technocratic process, managed by public administrators and politicians mostly detached from the public view and opinion….

In March 1952, Peter wrote an engaging piece in The Ubyssey to promote the new program. He carefully outlined why the School focused on community planning as opposed to town and country planning. Peter explained how nothing was new about planning or city building as an activity and how it had evolved since antiquity. What was new in the twentieth century, however, was the purpose of planning cities and the methods being drawn on for city building. No longer was city planning meant to glorify God or any specific ruler, nor was it meant to control rebellious citizens. The planning program at UBC was seen as a way to “guide the development of our cities and towns for the good of man and the benefit of the community as a whole.” For this reason, the program was open to students from the natural and social sciences to understand how to “relate their academic background to the professional practice of community planning.” The core course was a workshop or studio in community planning in which students formed teams and attempted to solve real-life planning concerns through the application of the skills and tools they acquired in various courses.


In 1952, Dean Angus [Dr. Henry Angus, UBC’s first Dean of Graduate Studies] convinced the UBC Senate to convert the diploma program to a degree program. As Oberlander recalled the discussion,

The Senate had two questions: “What the hell is planning?” to which we replied, “Keeping bad things from happening,” and “Where will these people work?” to which we replied, “They will create their own jobs,” which turned out to be true. Many of the School’s graduates went on to do new things or to define existing roles in a new way.


Generic definition of the role of municipal planning staff in “Living and Working in West Vancouver”

One of Oberlander’s early studies at SCARP was a strategic plan for West Vancouver titled “Living and Working in West Vancouver.” As in all such studies, Peter included a recommendation that a permanent planning staff be established.

What would be the role and value of a municipal planning staff? It was the same question the UBC Senate had asked, and a clear and convincing answer was required for Peter to be successful in his educational career as well as in meeting the needs of local governments to whom he provided advice in his various capacities. He had to justify the additional cost, in West Vancouver in this case, where money was tight. Peter however was committed to his belief that ideas were of limited value if not followed by implementation.

The role for the municipal planner, Peter wrote, could be three-fold.

First, it would entail advising the Reeve, Council and Municipal Manager on planning-related policy and programs. This could help the municipal administration stay updated and informed on provincial and federal government policy orientations. Using the framework provided by “Living and Working in West Vancouver,” the municipal planner could undertake the preparation of a master plan. When the plan was complete, the planner could provide oversight of the day-to-day implementation of new improvement or expansion programs and could call for necessary revisions to the master plan….

The second function for the municipal planner would be to serve as a coordinator with respect to the physical development in the municipality. This could be achieved through a staff coordinating committee involving senior administrative officials who could provide an integrated approach to various planning and development projects…..

As the third function, the municipal planner could be the institutional link between the municipality and planning-related agencies outside West Vancouver….. Contacts from this function would not only ensure that West Vancouver became an active participant in regional and metropolitan planning programs but also that its developmental goals were known and respected at the regional, municipal and community levels.

“Living and Working in West Vancouver” provided a clear strategic direction that not only enabled the municipality to navigate past the financial and economic hazards of the postwar era but crystallized thinking about the community’s role and potential within the region that is reflected in the highly livable and successful place that exists today.

From there, Peter Oberlander played key roles in establishing British Columbia’s planning profession development, including the creation of the Planning Institute of British Columbia in 1958.