April 8, 2020

Professor helps students finish degree by pivoting quickly to online solutions

Planning students continue to connect meaningfully with Crossroads community and each other even after social distancing measures implemented
Have your say Crossroads YYC
Have your say Crossroads YYC

Eleven planning students from the University of Calgary were looking forward to spring of 2020, when they could unveil their visions to transform the northeast community of Crossroads. They shook hands on a plan with community leaders back in February.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

In the past few weeks, the pandemic has not only been a health concern for these students and their professor, it was a potential barrier to the students completing their program.

  • Photo above: Using Engagement HQ, students built project-pages for Crossroads with a whole new suite of tools: ideation, pins, storytelling.

The Professional Planning Studio at the School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape is the final studio for the Master in Planning degree. In small groups, students work closely with residents and business owners to produce authentic, well-researched design interventions that the community can take forward and realize in the future.

The plan was for students to present their design interventions in April to the Crossroads Community Association and the public. With new social-distancing requirements, they were stuck with the reality of not being able to finish the consultation. A substitute for in-person participation was needed.

Search for a solution

Dr. Fabian Neuhaus, assistant professor, sought a creative alternative to connect with the community by taking the participation online. “There are two fundamental pieces to the Crossroads design studio: one is the academic success of students, where stakeholder participation provides the formal groundwork for design, and what the community wants to get out of it,” Neuhaus says. “Student work helps kickstart the community’s vision.”

For suggestions, Neuhaus turned to Ruth DeSantis, a Crossroads resident who works for Alberta Environment and Parks in community engagement. DeSantis suggested Bang the Table. “It’s a tool used by government organizations globally; a good for one for students to learn on and apply to their work in the future.” Neuhaus connected with the Australia-based company, who offered the platform to the Calgary students at no cost.

“Fabian wanted to help these students finish their master’s degrees, and the online tool would help them do that. We’ve committed to working with a group of very intelligent young planners so they can finish their program and really learn what sound online engagement looks like,” says Anthea Robinson-Shaw, engagement and client account manager for Bang the Table.

Student Jennifer Comrie, MPlan’20 candidate, says, “In my previous experience at a planning firm, online tools are widely used in Canada. It’s something we talked about last semester but didn’t have tangible interaction. I don’t know how Fabian procured the provider’s services so quickly, but now we have access.”

Another surprise for the studio is that students can create websites without any cost to them. Cargo Collective, a professional site building platform for designers and artists, has given Neuhaus “free keys.”

“I’m pleased to have been able to turn what’s happening right now into an opportunity rather than a constraint,” says Neuhaus, who is also lead researcher with the NEXT Calgary initiative.

Master of Planning students connect almost daily with their professor via Zoom

Master of Planning students connect almost daily with their professor via Zoom.

Jennifer Comrie

Envisioning a connected Crossroads

Neuhaus explains, “There’s lots of potential for Crossroads and number of assets, such as the big Firestone site with the Max Bell LRT station, lots of industry in the area, and 16 railway spurlines coming off the main Edmonton line. All of this provides interesting opportunities for connection.”

Comrie is excited about bold transformations. She envisions a five-, 10- and 20-year phasing plan for the community. Comrie and her group propose a number of design interventions; one she’s particularly excited about focuses on McCall Lake. “Crossroads loves their local Fiasco Gelato and wanted more gathering spots. McCall Lake is mapped as early as 1914 as a place where people used to recreate. We’d like to see this become something that brings new life into the community.”

In addition to typical planning interventions, short-term interventions for gathering and festival areas include social distancing measures.

“For this design studio in particular, the caring part of the project has become very important. We have a chance to take everything we’ve learned so far as a cohort and put it into action. Our whole career is to pursue meaningful work — it feels really exciting to learn from each other and the community.”

Advice to other students during the pandemic

While Comrie feels uplifted about new challenges and grateful for how Zoom connects people, she recognizes some of her peers might be struggling with this online format. She emphasizes the need to look after yourself, and reaching out to care for others if you can.

“It’s a difficult time right now with lots of moving parts, not just academically but also in personal life. Understanding we’ve made a commitment to the community, and balancing that as well, everyone’s going through their own mental and physical health issues. You don’t know when the feeling of being overwhelmed is hitting your partner or classmates.”

She’s started a new routine; a daily walk with her partner. “It kind of mimics the commute to school. Never thought I’d need it but it provides a breath of fresh air.”

Her advice? Stay connected, reaching out to classmates and friends; eat as healthy as possible; and remember to get up from the computer.

Explore the student participation page for Crossroads Community.


UCalgary resources on COVID-19

For the most up-to-date information about the University of Calgary's response to the spread of COVID-19, visit the UCalgary COVID-19 Response website.

For resources to support students, faculty, staff, alumni, and all our communities during this unprecedented time, visit the UCalgary COVID-19 Community Support website.