UBC SCHOOL OF COMMUNITY AND REGIONAL PLANNING (SCARP) SOCIAL
It’s an honour to have the chance to put the 60th anniversary of the Planning Institute of British Columbia in the context of the role of SCARP and the part that Peter Oberlander played in the creation and evolution of both institutions as documented in my book, Showing the Way.
First, I want to express my gratitude for the support my book project received from SCARP through Penny Gurstein’s role as the Principal Investigator. From my biased perspective, it is one of the best things Penny did in her term as Director of the School. I also want to mention the contribution made by two SCARP students who served as research assistants, Magdalena Ugarte and Benita Menezes, and the financial contribution the School made towards the costs of publication. Without this support, the book might not have existed and it certainly would not have been as good.
I would also be remiss if I did not draw to your attention my debt to Brahm Wiesman, a former director of the School and my mentor from the beginning of my career as a planner, to whom the book is dedicated.
Cornelia Hahn Oberlander, literally a force of nature and an outstanding professional in her own right, was a critical factor not only in Peter’s success but also in SCARP’s affairs before and since Peter’s death in 2008. She proposed the project to me nine years ago and gave endlessly of her time and other resources to encourage me to complete the book. Cornelia is our own Iron Lady; at one point when I was fretting about whether the book would get done, she gave me a two-word instruction: “Finish it.”
I would also like to acknowledge the support of my partner, Angie Walkinshaw, whose entry into my life almost exactly three years ago inspired and energized me to act decisively on Cornelia’s instruction and get the damn thing done. And my daughter Jen Cameron is here tonight and has been with me through a long and sometimes difficult process.
The remainder of my remarks will deal with two themes: Peter Oberlander’s role in establishing the planning profession in British Columbia and what his life experience tells us about the meaning of citizenship in the 21st Century.
One of the most insightful current commentators on the evolution of planning in Canada is Professor Zachary Taylor, the first Director of Western University’s Centre for Urban Policy and Local Governance, whose PhD thesis at the University of Toronto, The Politics of Metropolitan Development, won the American Political Science Association’s award for the best Doctoral Dissertation in Urban Politics in 2016.
Taylor said, “Peter Oberlander virtually invented British Columbia’s planning profession.”
It’s a bold statement, but it’s true.
It has often been said that Canada entered World War II as a colony and emerged as a nation, and Peter Oberlander was at the nexus of this process. Colonial administrations don’t usually have much regard for the quality of their communities, but nations see cities as the cradles of their civilizations. This was the message that Peter conveyed on behalf of Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation to the Massey Royal Commission on the Arts, Letters and Sciences in 1949. As he recalled later, he said “Look, if you are serious about the cultural future of this country, there is only one place you have to start and that’s the city because that’s where music, drama, literature – all the arts – are encouraged, practiced and flourish…. 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 or American ideas for municipal problems in Canada.”
Those remarks rang a bell with Dr. Norman Mackenzie, a member of the Commission and the President of UBC, and prompted him to invite Peter Oberlander to come to Vancouver and establish Canada’s first graduate planning program at this university.
There were no professional planning positions in British Columbia at the time, so Peter had a clean slate as he went about inventing the the profession. The clarity of the vision he had is evident in the three principles that guided the process.
First, the profession was to be about two distinct entities: the community and the region. Each of the entities had its own characteristics – one was not just a bigger or smaller version of the other – and each had an essential role to play in a human settlement.
Second, planning was seen by Peter as comprehensive – involving not only physical dimensions but social, economic and environmental factors as well. I think we can share in this room the fact that many of our colleagues who come from architectural backgrounds - and Peter was among them – tend to see planning as essentially the same as architecture, only done on a larger scale. In contrast, Peter drew on his exposure to the world’s most outstanding planning minds who he encountered at Harvard in the mid-1940s, and articulated the view of the city as a human creation embodying all aspects necessary to a safe, happy and productive life.
Third, Peter saw planning as a democratic process where the people are responsible for their city’s future. During the height of the freeway debate in Vancouver in 1967, he asked the central question: “What kind of city do the people want?” As we will see in a few moments, this concept of citizenship embodied responsibilities as well as rights and an orientation to the future wellbeing of the city as well as the present.
The threads came together when Peter Oberlander and Henry Angus, the Dean of Graduate Studies, sought the approval of the UBC Senate for a graduate program in community and regional planning in 1952. As Peter recalls in the book, “The Senate had two questions: ‘What the hell is planning?’ to which we replied, ‘Keeping bad things from happening,” [not a bad definition] and ‘Where will these people work?’ to which we replied, ‘They will create their own jobs.’’
And it turned out to be true. From the beginning, SCARP’s studios were practical exercises set in real communities such as Maple Ridge and Powell River, and they always magically included a discussion of the merits of having a permanent planning staff, who almost always were graduates of SCARP.
So it is no exaggeration to say that Peter Oberlander virtually invented the planning profession in British Columbia. As part of that process, he also played a key part in inventing the Planning Institute of British Columbia whose 60th anniversary we are celebrating today.
Like so many of us, Peter assembled masses of files and publications over his working career. After he retired from SCARP, he was apparently given an ultimatum to clear his boxes and boxes of files from the School’s offices. There being no place else to store them because his home office was already full, they ended up piled under the back overhang of Peter and Cornelia’s house on Acadia Drive, where they became inadmissible to UBC’s Archives because of their exposure to moisture and extreme temperatures. So part of my work on the book was to go through this material (my dog came with me for company) and search for anything that might be useful before these records were destroyed. Among the detritus I discovered a thin file of records – done in purple ink on a Ditto spirit duplicator – of the first meetings of PIBC, of which Peter was a founding member. Those records are now in the PIBC offices in the Marine Building.
Before closing, I want to spend a few minutes on my second theme, which is what Peter’s life tells us about the meaning of citizenship in the 21st Century.
The word “citizenship” has two meanings, or as Peter would put it “two distinct and equally important meanings.” The first refers to the legal status of a person as a citizen of a country or other entity, which the dictionary defines as “the state of being vested with the rights, privileges and duties of a citizen.” The second meaning of “citizenship” is “the character of an individual viewed as a member of society; behaviour in terms of the duties, obligations and functions of a citizen, as in ‘an award for good citizenship.’”
From the perspective of the first, legal definition of citizenship, Peter’s life included much more than the transition from subjects to citizens which most people in Europe and the British Empire underwent in the 20th Century. After 400 years, the Oberlander family’s status as Austrians was eliminated in a heartbeat. They were suddenly stateless, and Peter was incarcerated as a suspected “enemy alien” in the United Kingdom and in Canada, to which he was transported without his consent and without any of the rights and privileges of formal citizenship. From that “complex and ambivalent welcome to Canada,” as Peter ironically described it, he went on to prominent formal roles, serving as a school trustee, a deputy minister in the federal government and a Citizenship Court Judge. In that process, he witnessed the codification of human rights for Canadian citizens which was enshrined in the Canadian constitution as the Charter of Rights and Freedoms through the efforts of his friend, Pierre Elliott Trudeau.
In the nine years since I started this book, we have seen in the world a retreat from these hard-won concepts of human rights; we seem to be travelling back towards a time when people were defined more in terms of their ethnicity or religious beliefs or the accidents of their origins rather than as human beings with universal rights. Citizenship, like religion or ethnic origin, can be a means of exclusion rather than inclusion. I think all of us in this room, aware as we are of the threats to the future of the human species which we have created, have to see all this obsession with exclusion as a massive waste of the resources which should instead be applied to ensuring the future viability of humanity as a species.
I think that the key to responding to this challenge lies in the second definition of citizenship, namely as a spirit of belonging and of individual responsibility for the well-being of the broader human family. It is here that we discover the importance of Peter’s commitment to tikum olam, a Hebrew expression that, roughly translated, means “healing or repairing the world.” Peter epitomized this commitment in everything he did, and he set an example for those of us who he influenced as planners, showing how our role as professionals was only part of what we should aspire to offer as citizens with rights and responsibilities at the local, national and global levels. He demonstrated that human settlements, which many of us (including me) saw as an almost entirely local problem, had national and even international dimensions. He helped us see that better cities, planned and managed democratically by their citizens, are not just part of a sustainable future for humanity, but the key to that future.
Looking at the human condition globally in 2018, I think that Canada has a unique opportunity to show how an open, inclusive society of citizens can harbour the world’s scarce resources for the benefit of present and future generations. Mark Kingwell, the University of Toronto philosopher, put it well when he wrote “’Canadian” is not an identity; it’s a relationship.” How many other countries can say that?
So it is appropriate, while we celebrate the 60th anniversary of a profession that has contributed greatly to the quality of life we enjoy in British Columbia, that we recognize the remarkable story of Peter Oberlander and the role that he played in this success.