Michael studied at UBC, getting his bachelors degree in Geography before moving east to get a Masters in Planning from the University of Toronto. He worked as a municipal planner for the City of Vancouver for 10 years, then spent four years as a manager of planning in Abu Dhabi, one of the United Arab Emirates, before returning to Vancouver in 2011. He then practiced as an international urban planning consultant until his appointment at UBC in February.
Campus and Community Planning: Tell us a little about your planning background and what drew you to a career in planning.
Michael White: I was born in the Okanagan and lived there till I was eighteen. The region changed dramatically in those years. Growing up, Kelowna was a lovely lakeside village, swimming and hiking in the summer and skiing in the winter, a real connection with nature. Then the boom came. It really impacted livability and enjoyment with tens of kilometres of sprawl along the highway. Seeing that happen was the real foundation piece that sparked my interest in urban planning.
I studied Geography at UBC, and was always interested in governance and decision-making processes and how the public was engaged. This was another thing that got me interested in urban planning — I started seeing issues on the ground and wondering what kind of processes had taken place to get there. I was attracted to planning because it’s an applied art — one of the few. As a planner, you can actually be an agent of change.
Tell Us About Your Work for the City of Vancouver.
That’s where I started my career. I worked at the City for more than a decade on a range of programs and initiatives. I had the good fortune of having my tenure during the era of Ann McAfee and Larry Beasley which saw the introduction of a multi-year citywide conversation on how to manage growth and improve livability (CityPlan), a highly livable and walkable downtown, many rapid transit decisions, and leveraging communities’ amenities through the development process. This all on top of the foundational pieces that were laid down earlier in the 20th century, such as not allowing freeways, the creation of the public amenities like the seawall, and open spaces like Stanley Park. All this has meant that Vancouver is continually identified globally as a model city for sustainability and livability.
What Did You Learn Working in Abu Dhabi?
I spent four years working for the government in Abu Dhabi. It was a very exciting chance to shape a city experiencing rapid growth, with a government dedicated to principles of good urbanism. I led the policy planning team, we developed plans, policies, regulations and guidelines for the whole emirate.
We also pioneered the first public consultation in the UAE, probably in the whole Gulf, with workshops looking at the needs and concerns of residents. The interesting thing was, regardless of the culture or climate, it turned out people were worried about the same issues as in North America: walkable streets, good schools and health care, parks and open space, and mobility options.
What interested you about coming to a role like this at UBC?
I think it’s one of the best and most interesting planning leadership positions in the region. UBC has been a pioneer in environmental sustainability, with incredible progress, investments and acknowledgement for green buildings, public realm re-design, mode split for transport, stormwater management and energy production, amongst other things. I was also keenly interested in the way that UBC approaches land use planning and development working with a tightly integrated model between the planners, developer(s), engineers, and community.
The third big draw for me is the more recent focus on social sustainability. The University is looking to improve housing affordability, the experience of place, vibrancy, and health and well-being, all areas I find very exciting and that need to build upon the recent success on the environmental sustainability front. They connect back to my early interests in engagement and collaboration. In making this a more vibrant place, we need to work more closely with the various interests that comprise UBC, including academic, student and resident interests, as well as neighbours such as the City of Vancouver, and regional partners like Translink and Metro Vancouver.
When you worked for the City, You Helped Plan the Canada Line. Are You Hopeful About the Plans to Bring Rapid Transit to the Campus?
The economic health and livability of the region will be impacted by the decisions around rapid transit to UBC. This is a once-in-a-generation shot at a fundamental city shaper, just like previous decisions such as the Expo and Canada lines. These lines are of course big-ticket items and a thoughtful approach will be required involving all levels of government to make this work. But the cost of not making this decision is significant for the region and for western Canada.
What Upcoming Projects Are You Excited About Working On?
There is so much going on. But if I had one area of emphasis, it would be social sustainability, where we’re looking at vibrancy, health and well-being. That’s an area we want to emphasize, both through physical design of place — how public spaces are designed and developed, how buildings interface with campus landscape — and how we program and animate the campus with activities and events, how we continue to mix uses and introduce housing: student, market, non-market. One of the most exciting ideas being implemented are the student commons, five mixed-use hubs of housing, academic units, and commercial, where students living or commuting can find shops and services nearby.
The second piece is how we engage, consult and communicate with all those interests. We want to refresh our approach in these areas so that issues and interests are heard and reflected, clarifying why and how people will be consulted, using various techniques for input, communicating clearly before, throughout and after processes, and emphasizing the need for ongoing contact and collaboration.
What is your long-term vision for the campus?
Our fundamental mission will always be academic — as part of that, we want students, academics and residents to have an active and vibrant experience and to be an integrated part of those processes and decisions. The biggest successes recently have been in environmental sustainability, and we would like to hold UBC up as a hallmark for social sustainability, which comes back to those same themes: building an active, interesting, vibrant community, a wonderful experience of place.
That will mean continuing to add various forms of housing, the mixed-use hubs and more services and amenities. We’ll complete the Public Realm Plan, creating all these wonderful spaces and places for year-round activities and events. These won’t just involve students but also residents of the peninsula and visitors from elsewhere.
So it’s a better place to learn, and a better place to live.
You’re also involved in planning for the Okanagan campus, tell us a little bit about what’s going on there.
We’re updating the master plan to accommodate future growth and address issues around access and circulation and sustainable planning. We are close to reaching the expected student population and attendance so need to think about how to plan and manage change in the future. There are landscape and public realm improvements. It's a truly incredible landscape and environment that the campus is set in.
It’s great to go back there, I feel like I’ve come full circle, getting to have a hand in part of the development of the Okanagan, after leaving so long ago. I still have many family members who live in the Okanagan.
What is your favourite spot at UBC?
In Vancouver, one of my most memorable places is War Memorial Gym. I recall seeing the band REM there in the late ’80s, when I was still in high school — I have fond memories of that place!
In the Okanagan it would be the views looking out towards that arid landscape: the great pines and grasslands, the dry climate. It makes me think how important it is to design with the environment. And it’s the landscape of my childhood.
If you are interested in more information regarding the planning process, please visit our website at planning.ubc.ca