Reaching for the Clouds – CIP Conference in Whistler, BC

Unable to travel to far destinations since 2020, I was starting to get the itch for adventure. Working remotely as a research assistant for the summer, I knew this would be the perfect opportunity to see friends, family, and perhaps even visit communities I had never been to before. So when I found out that I was the recipient of the 2022 David Palubeski Bursary from the Canadian Institute of Planners (CIP) and that I would have the opportunity to travel to Whistler, BC to accept my award at the annual CIP conference, I was over the moon. The David Palubeski Bursary is awarded to a student who demonstrates interest in planning initiatives in small and medium sized communities. Growing up in Northern Ontario has influenced my desire to contribute to research on smaller communities and their common challenges, such as urban shrinkage, an aging population, and the perception of being “left behind”. In addition to the support of the CIP, I am grateful to have received an Ages Foundation Travel Award to assist me in paying for the trip.

On July 4th I began my journey to British Columbia. After flying into Vancouver, I hopped on a shuttle to Whistler with four other people, all of whom happened to be planners attending the conference. Our driver was very knowledgeable of the built environment of Whistler, Vancouver, and everywhere in between, which led to great discussions on our 2-and-a-half-hour trip. We even made a stop at Porteau Cove Provincial Park to stretch our legs and take in the beautiful scenery.

Porteau Cove Provincial Park

Once we arrived in Whistler, I needed to find something to eat. That’s when I experienced Whistler Village for the first time. I tend to be a nervous traveller, especially when I’m alone. However, the Village made me feel not only safe, but welcome. There were plenty of tourists in the area at any time of day, adequate lighting, as well as a sense of security from all of the shops and the hotel rooms and housing above them. And in case you’re wondering about lunch, I found a local pub called the Beacon Pub & Eatery and ordered a delicious meat lover’s flatbread.

Whistler Village

After a good night’s sleep, I started off the first day of the CIP conference with a walking tour “Accessing Whistler Through All Ages” led by Emma DalSanto, Annie Oja, Vanessa Pocock and Sarah Tipler, who are all staff members of the Resort Municipality of Whistler, as well as Chelsey Walker, the executive director of the Whistler Adaptive Sports Program. As someone with an interest in age-friendly planning, I found this tour very enlightening. One of the key concepts that caught my attention was the use of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) by the Resort Municipality of Whistler to map out all accessibility features (ex. tactile paving, accessibility signage, etc.) and to note if any of them require maintenance or replacement. I also found it incredible that Whistler has an entire webpage dedicated to accessibility, including maps that can assist those requiring barrier-free paths to plan their commutes before arriving. Even if one does not plan in advance, the Village is full of signage indicating the nearest accessibility features, such as a map near every staircase displaying the nearest ramp.

Example of Ramp Access map located in Whistler Village

During the conference, I had the opportunity to attend many sessions discussing new planning initiatives and/or research. One of my favourite sessions was “What Is an Anti-Racist Planning Future for Canadian Cities? From Theory to Practice”, presented by Dr. Zhixi Zhuang and Ryan Lok from Toronto Metropolitan University (you can read more about Ryan Lok’s research on multicultural diversity in smaller cities here). Their presentation outlined the social exclusion felt by many immigrants, especially in smaller cities. An interesting case study on Brooks, Alberta, was discussed, a small community whose immigration rate is above the national average.

Another one of my favourite presentations was by the Keynote Speaker Mitchell Silver, the president of the American Institute of Certified Planners and former New York Parks Commissioner. His presentation, which mostly focused on quality parks and open space for everyone, was inspiring. He gave a few examples of parks he helped revitalize out of the dozens of projects he was involved in during his term as Commissioner and reflected on the positive impacts these parks had on nearby neighbourhoods. He emphasized the need to stop focusing on “affordable housing” and to start focusing on “affordable neighbourhoods”.

The view at Roundhouse Lodge, located at 1,850m altitude

While the scheduled sessions were enlightening, the most useful resource the CIP conference provided was the ability to connect with urban planners and planning students from across Canada. Most of the networking occurred during the Opening and the Closing Receptions. Prior to the Opening Reception, which was held at the beautifully designed Squamish Lil’ wat Cultural Centre, I was invited to attend the President’s Reception as an award winner. It was during this time I had the chance to meet other CIP and Canadian Institute of Planners – Planning Student Trust Fund winners, as well as the members of the College of Fellows. The Closing Reception was held at the Roundhouse Lodge, which required a gondola ride to reach. The view of the snowy mountain peaks from that altitude was incredible. These events gave me the opportunity to discuss my research interests and my future professional plans with others, while also learning about interesting planning research and projects taking place across the country.

CIP held an Awards Luncheon that celebrated every winner of a CIP or CIP-PSTF award from 2020-2022 (since there was no in-person conference held in 2020 or 2021). It felt amazing to accept an award for the research I’m so passionate about, but it was equally as incredible to hear the unique research topics of the other award winners, from the presence of trams in Quebec City, to nutritional planning. I also had the opportunity to meet Brandon Powell, a professional planner who is also the son of the late David Palubeski.

Brandon Powell (son of the late David Palubeski), myself, and Lindsay Soon (2021 award winner)

Unfortunately, on the last day of the conference, I tested positive for COVID-19. In retrospect, I should have followed stricter health protocols (even if those protocols were not being followed by most conference attendees or tourists). With my shuttle to Vancouver leaving in less than 24 hours, I needed to quickly make a decision about the next couple of days. Isolating in Whistler would be very inconvenient and expensive. However, traveling with symptoms of COVID-19 would put others at risk. And with Canada experiencing a national Rogers Telecommunications outage – which affected phones and also Interac, e-transfer and credit card repayments – the decision was even more difficult to make. I finally decided to continue my quarantine in Whistler, in the same room I had reserved for the conference. I am very grateful to Dr. Patricia Collins, my summer research supervisor, who supported me in making my reservations and found someone to bring me groceries. With COVID-19 still spreading in Canada, I believe provincial and federal governments should be doing more to encourage those with COVID-19 symptoms to self-isolate to limit the spread of the virus. At the same time, funding through travel insurance or another source should be made available to those who are unable to travel home if they must self-isolate. Ultimately, I wish everyone would acknowledge that we are still living through a pandemic and that COVID-19 is not a simple flu or cold.

In summary, the people I met, the views I saw, and my experience with COVID-19 have made this trip an unforgettable one. I look forward to taking a closer look at my conference notes to research new ideas and contemplate how some of these ideas can apply to the topic of shrinking and aging cities. I also look forward to my next conference experience to relive some of the amazing experiences I had at the CIP conference and to experience other things for the first time. Here’s hoping COVID-19 won’t be a conference attendee next time.