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The Economy Builders: Urban Systems

By May 3, 2022No Comments

It’s a community consulting firm on a mission: transforming public spaces into vibrant, exciting and accessible places where people want to be.

Q&A with Urban Systems

Urban Systems has energized and refreshed communities across Canada with their design and engagement work for almost 50 years. The employee-owned, interdisciplinary consulting firm has 15 offices across B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, with projects impacting multiple cities across Canada. Their teams work alongside municipalities, governments, Indigenous communities, agencies and private sector clients. 

Among projects completed in Greater Victoria, Urban Systems authored the Galloping Goose/Lochside Regional Trails Widening Study for the CRD, and led the Moving Saanich Forward plan, a two-year initiative to develop the District of Saanich’s first-ever Active Transportation Plan.

Urban Systems was also engaged by the B.C. government to design and coordinate stakeholder engagement to identify challenges and potential solutions to BC tenancy laws and processes, as part of work completed on behalf of the MLA Rental Housing Task Force.

In 2020, the Planning Institute of British Columbia (PIBC)’s annual Awards for Excellence in Planning bestowed The City of Quesnel and Urban Systems with the Gold Award for Excellence in Planning Practice. The company had been engaged by the City to develop a 20-year timeline waterfront planning process.

A member of SIPP since 2020, Urban Systems has also been named one of the Best Workplaces in Canada 14 times by the Great Place To Work Institute. 

Ehren Lee, Strategy Consultant for Urban Systems, explains why engaging with SIPP is an important part of their community-building work, while providing the company’s perspectives on growing a healthy regional economy in South Vancouver Island.

Ehren Lee of Urban Systems
Ehren Lee, Strategy Consultant for Urban Systems.

Why did you join South Island Prosperity Partnership?

We joined SIPP for a simple reason: building prosperity is not a spectator sport! We believe in the important work it takes to build vibrant communities and joining SIPP is one of the ways we contribute to that cause. We find that the relationships among the actors, and the robust conversations we are part of, fuels our contribution further. We live here and we want the South Island to feel great for all, so our motivation started high and has only gone up. 

What do you see as key to growing a resilient, robust economic future for our region?

This timeless question needs to keep getting asked.The last two years revealed so much about adaptation in today’s world which means the answer to this question remains dynamic.Today, there are a few areas of the economy we see as more relevant now and worth our collective attention and effort. 

Housing affordability is a fundamental pursuit because it continues to prove that it underpins almost everything else. Agri-tech and inter/intra community mobility need their own strategies because they are just too valuable to let organically play out. Where we see a national leadership opportunity is addressing the talent gap and upping our investment into Indigenous community builders. 

For the latter, the National Center for Indigenous Laws at UVIC is getting well-earned attention, and building out related areas of the economy with our Indigenous partners presents a unique opportunity to boost prosperity based on local strengths.

Given these are all interconnected, we have a keen interest in the higher-level view of how these key topics (and more) play out in growing a resilient, robust economy here.This is the crux of our professional practice – to contribute to the shared and integrated services that help communities thrive. 

What is our region’s secret sauce when it comes to competing internationally to attract quality talent, businesses with household sustaining jobs, and investment?

Great follow up question! Our ability to compete internationally has a lot to do with optimizing local opportunities to succeed at building prosperity here. Canada excels when it exports its credibility. So, pouring our attention into housing, mobility, clean tech, education, and Indigenous economic building will help us to learn better ways to thrive and then later, to share those experiences with old and new partners across the globe. 

What makes the Capital Region special though is the passionate, polite, well-educated, and caring people who reside here.That’s really it – our human capital coupled with a beautifully mild climate and thriving communities are the edges we should channel to attract quality talent, new businesses, and investment. 

What are you most excited about in terms of your own organization’s plans and potential?

Cities and communities are changing, many of them rapidly – perhaps at a pace we have never seen before. But the drivers to adapt are challenging – climate change, inclusion, housing affordability, rapid migration, mental health, addiction, energy resilience, and so much more that deeply impacts our collective wellbeing and ability to thrive.

As tough as the issues are, we are inspired by the courage and creativity we see in how we are responding. We are grateful to be invited by our clients into the spaces where policy meets practice meets infrastructure. Building vibrant communities is a quest, not a destination, and we are energized to serve our clients to do something special, that works, and is valued. 

What’s one thing about your organization you really want people to know that they probably don’t know?

That it is not about us. We care deeply about how we serve our clients and their appreciation for how well their needs are met by our teams. At the end of the day, we are here to serve others – we are here to help people live and thrive in their communities

Our professional practice is set up to be integrated and overlapping so we can help communities with whatever challenges they are facing – be it transportation, water, planning, housing, social topics – you name it.

So, for those who wonder what we are about, well…. we listen, we engage, we serve, and we deliver. The feedback we get from our clients and how they describe our service to others is how we measure our effectiveness. These are the things we want our clients and others to know about our organization. 

What challenges are you most invested in helping our community overcome and why?

Our teams are invested and engaged in the same key themes that we suggest must be tackled in the South Island for our economy to succeed, such as housing affordability, strategies for tech growth and transportation, and being part of addressing the talent gap with and for all sectors. We have our clients to thank for inviting us into these spaces to make a difference. 

What lessons have most profoundly impacted you since the pandemic sent shockwaves through our community and economy?

We are life-long students in our work, and our list of learning through the pandemic is not short. But Urban Systems has fared well, and we feel fortunate to be where we are but now equipped with some bonus wisdom to apply in our work.

Here are three profound teachings from the last two years that we hold close: (1) Virtual work works, but there’s magic when we are together, (2) Convening meaningful dialogue with an A-team, is the talk that precedes the action, and (3) our communities can adapt quickly and constructively if we’re given a clear, shared cause. 

When you envision the South Island region in 2040, what will have changed? What does our future look like?

That seems like a big year and some far away milestone, but it’s closer to today than the year 2000! Instead of distinct accomplishments, let’s talk a bit about what the priorities might be in 2040.

First, post-secondary education is becoming more integrated with city centers and their connections to commerce and the workforce are helping to address the talent gap. More positive collisions between emerging talent and employers will help to build human capital and create intellectual, enterprising urban neighborhoods. 

Second, mobility is dramatically changing, where in 2040 there are now central actors who represent the services, technology and financing for infrastructure and transport between and among our communities. Hundreds of little companies and tens of municipalities who modestly contribute to the transportation space today are represented by purpose-built, trusted organizations who appreciate the scale of change – we all need to move about in cleaner, safer, and more convenient ways. 

And our relationship with water is a little more tense, but there’s a design space emerging among architects, engineers, and developers to make resilient but ever closer connections between where we live and work and the “watersphere” around us. These close neighborhood ties to water – as dynamic as that will be – will be mirrored in other urban areas such as public green spaces, larger recreation corridors, and specialized buildings that meet our desire for community-based, highly accessible services.

These new areas are becoming better received, and the skepticism of density is waning while residents and business more freely and accessibly enjoy renewed public comforts. While we play more in the cities we live, we are not short on work to do as manufacturing has really blossomed in the agriculture and clean tech space, on top of all the other economic sectors that remain core to the prosperity in the Capital Region.

I guess we are future optimists, but that energy is well placed given the recent trend of communities diving into tough problems. We will shape and adapt our practice to be right there in 2040, as partners alongside our clients, to improve the local way of life with a clear picture of how the sum of the parts affect the whole.