Stephan Nieweler

PhD Candidate in the Department of Geography

Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia

When Stephan Nieweler went back to university after nearly 10 years in the professional planning world, he decided to broaden his research to include a mix of planning and economic geography. Now in the final year of his doctorate at Simon Fraser University (SFU), Nieweler is examining three small transitioning resource towns in northwest British Columbia—Prince Rupert, Kitimat and Terrace—poised for massive development as a result of their strategic location for resource exports to Asia. He is interested in understanding if progressive economic development strategies can be synergized with aspirational planning principles in order to retain the vitality of downtowns as the focal point of commercial and civic life through periods of boom, bust and stagnation.

1. What resources offered by your university helped you find a job after graduation?

During the final two years of my undergraduate degree in Geography at SFU, I participated in a co-operative education program to gain work experience. I always had a passion for urban planning, and while some of these positions were not directly related to my particular interests, they certainly gave me exposure to diverse professional environments and new ways of thinking. My last co-op term was at the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), where I worked in a branch that

examined some of the challenges of rising car ownership in eastern European countries, an area very much related to planning. When I finished my degree, CIDA actually kept me on contract as a policy advisor. Just being in the environment and getting to know people helped open doors for me in a big way.

2. Can you describe the relevance of your university classes in the real world setting?

While doing my master’s in Planning at the University of Toronto, the professor who taught real estate planning was a major land developer and advocate for urban sprawl. It turned out to be one of the best classes I ever took because he basically shared with us the developers’ playbook. During my undergraduate degree, I learned that urban sprawl is unsustainable, and that transport and land use should be highly integrated with good transit, mixed uses and higher densities, but I did not fully understand why the system is set up the way it is. This course had a huge impact on my career because it got me interested in transit-oriented development as a way to retrofit cities and change suburbs that already exist, rather than spreading outward.

3. What skills do you wish you learned during your education that would help you in the job market today?

If I could do it over again, I might have taken a class on drawing. I was never great at drawing master plans or urban designs, so I avoided it as a student. At the time, I was making a decision based on efficiency—students in these courses spent long, late hours in the lab drawing things out. As a teacher, I actually get my students to draw because creating an image and communicating your ideas visually has an impact. 

Basic competence in GIS is also an asset, although being a guru is not necessary, as most firms have experts on staff. I directed others to complete GIS outputs that complemented my strengths that were centred on critical thinking, presentations and writing.

4. Do you have any advice for students wishing to attain a fulfilling career in geography?

Employers like geographers because of our broad skills, our sense of the lay of the land and our flexibility. Many do not consider us specialized and a lot of students do not realize that big picture thinking is actually a good thing. Some of my students tell me that their parents frown on geography and urge them to go into economics or business. You do not have to leave geography to get a job. I have friends who studied urban or economic geography and have good careers. One of them works at Foreign Affairs, another is the head of location planning for Boston Pizza, and another is a Senior Planner for the City of Toronto. There are good opportunities—you just have to build up your base of relevant job skills, meet people at industry events, and then strategically time your career moves – either internally or between organizations.

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