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Beyond the Numbers: Planning for Success with Land Economics

Urban Systems’ Land Economics Reinforces that Good Planning Starts with Collaboration

When David Bell and Justin Barer first joined Urban Systems as the leads of our new Land Economics practice, there was certainly a lot of excitement around the possibilities this would open up, not only for Urban Systems, but also for David and Justin. Two years on, they could not be happier with where the practice has taken them, including the addition of JP Raulot-Lapointe and, more recently, Mike Birmingham, who have added much needed support as increased opportunities throughout Canada have presented themselves. The two had envisioned a practice that allowed them to work with consultants across the company and a diverse range of clients, and as their profile has grown, so too have their opportunities for collaboration, including building land economics capacity with junior consulting staff in Vancouver and at other Urban Systems offices.

Integrating Practice Across Urban Systems

“One of the more rewarding things that we’ve really enjoyed over the last few years is just seeing the success of the integration of our practice into all the other practice areas at Urban,” reveals Justin. “Building those connections with groups like Communities–municipal finance, First Nations Planning, development planning–Landscape Architecture and Transportation, is key to our practice’s growth.” As they’ve become increasingly connected with consultants across Urban Systems, the Land Economics team has been able to benefit from the wealth of knowledge and experience of their fellow consultants, who provide insight into specialized areas including planning policy, municipal finance, and costing for municipal asset and infrastructure services.

And that knowledge sharing is certainly mutual; “Before our group arrived at Urban Systems, a lot of the work related to land economics tended to be outsourced on an as-needed basis,” JP points out. “Now just a desk or a quick phone call away, we’re helping to add value on a wide range of project types wherever – and whenever – we are needed.”

While they definitely have a reputation as the ‘numbers people’ in the Communities group, David explains that they’re also professional planners. “We just happen to be comfortable looking at things through a market/financial lens. That allows us to help our colleagues and clients reality-proof development concepts, site and building plans.” Being so well integrated within the company, they are also able to regularly bring in expertise from other practice areas to make sure all of the key bases are covered. “It’s all about creating land use and development concepts that can be actively implemented rather than sitting on a shelf.”

Opportunities Come in All Sizes

When it comes to the types of work keeping them busy, they’ve had the fortune of working on some pretty large-scale projects, including a City-Wide Industrial Land Strategy in Abbotsford, the Downtown and Marwell Plans for the City of Whitehorse, and working with the Calgary Municipal Land Corporation on the development of a Master Plan for Calgary’s Victoria Park/Stampede Park area. But like many of the practice groups at Urban Systems, Land Economics has also enjoyed measurable success in smaller and Indigenous communities and Indigenous communities that don’t benefit from the same level of resources as their larger city counterparts.

“Both small and Indigenous communities are being more strategic and thoughtful about what their future is going to look like,” Justin explains. “They’re being very proactive about planning a sustainable future, including using their land assets in new and exciting ways that align with their longer-term vision.” He points out that, while smaller communities are often cash-poor and land-rich, their land assets offer tremendous possibilities.

In their work with the N’Quatqua First Nation, they are helping to explore tourism-driven opportunities as economic drivers for the nation. Working with Matt Steyer, a Planner who also works closely with Indigenous communities, they have focused on ideas like eco-tourism, backcountry skiing, cabin rentals and aquaculture initiatives in developing their Highest Best-Use study that links comprehensive community planning with active development and business opportunities. At their essence, they are plans that make economic development more practical and real for smaller communities. “We’ve got decades of experience looking at site opportunities from both a municipal and private sector perspective,” David notes, “so now we’re enjoying leveraging that background for clients in small to mid-sized communities, helping to get real projects off the ground.”

Using Land Economics to Help the Housing Crisis

Helping smaller groups leverage their assets is also extending to non-profits, as the team is exploring opportunities with Urban Matters CCC, specifically in their work around supporting socially-minded solutions to the affordable housing crisis in cities of all sizes. Land Economics is vital in helping non-profits leverage real-estate they may be sitting on to help provide funding for vital services, as well as helping housing providers figure out how they can create projects that are self-sustaining.

You Can’t Plan in a Vacuum

“You don’t want to be designing plans in a vacuum,” David reinforces. “You have to understand the underlying economics of what’s driving things if you want to work with realistic puzzle pieces to find out what you can actually do. You’ve got to understand the real dynamics of a place–what’s driving things locally and regionally–rather than simply importing concepts wholesale from other markets.”

As Urban Systems continues to grow its presence across Western Canada, with new offices from Courtenay to Fort McMurray to Winnipeg, the Land Economics team is thrilled with the opportunities to build new relationships and play a significant part in helping communities achieve their vision.

Meet Michael Birmingham: Michael joined the Land Economics team in May of 2018 through an existing connection with David Bell, who he worked with at Colliers after he graduated from Capilano University. He has several years of experience working as a development coordinator, researcher and analyst, and is excited to experience the Urban Systems culture and meeting new people across our locations. And while he’s ready for the opportunity to build on his knowledge and experience, he’s already been making sure to make time for fun, enjoying a staff Cinco de Mayo lunch, helping the Urban Systems team for CLICK’s annual Pulling for Inner City Kids Tug-of-War event, and even relaxing during the monthly Urban Spirits night, all within his first week! Welcome, Michael!

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