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In my opinion

Health, design and planning: will COVID-19 lead to any changes in graduate education?

There is a critical gap between what is required to respond to the pandemic on the ground and what we’re being taught in grad school.


In the early stages of the pandemic on the East Coast of the United States, Anne Forsyth of the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University argued that, despite growing ties between research and practice in public health, urban planning and architecture in recent decades, scholars and professionals did not pay enough attention to how infectious diseases relate to the built and unbuilt environment. As a former professional planner in rural, suburban and urban places, I was struck by how this was both shocking and obvious. Trained in the U.S., the U.K. and Canada, I did not have the tools to confront the challenges of the pandemic. This led me to ponder what the graduate programs in planning, public health and design look like in Canada.

I knew a global pandemic would hit at some point in my career, but not at this specific point. Now I am a PhD student in the geography and planning department at the University of Toronto, where my work navigates the interdisciplinary waters of planning, design, public health and sustainability. Like so many others, I was anxious about what the pandemic would mean for my research as well as for my family’s ability to afford to live in Toronto if the university closed down (it didn’t, but we can’t). However, one thing that has proven a lifeline during the pandemic has been my membership in two graduate collaborative specializations at U of T: Global Health at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health and Environment and Health at the school of the environment.

Like most public sector planners in small and medium-sized cities, my job was what I like to call a “slash position,” meaning I never really knew what exactly my project would be on a given day so my title would vary: environmental / transportation / policy / development / community / social planner who, occasionally, would also provide childcare at public meetings amongst other seemingly random tasks. Yet, despite this range of activities, I never once worked directly with staff or officials from public health. I was tasked with building healthy cities and towns which are “resilient” to natural disasters and hazards, as well as economically and socially vibrant. But, in those three years I was never once directed to talked about what to do if there was an infectious-disease outbreak.

Collaborative specializations

So how does all this relate to interdisciplinary graduate education? Many graduate programs, to their credit, now offer programs similar to those at U of T where students have the option to join collaborative specializations, do a double major or otherwise work beyond their discipline to be exposed to, and receive training in, fields of their own interest.

Universities cannot force students to participate in these programs, nor are they of interest to all students. As graduate students, we are, after all, trying to get in and out as quickly as possible to, ideally, land jobs. Sometimes, taking the additional courses and participating in the internships that are often required in such collaborative initiatives can be a financial, temporal and emotional strain.

Adding to the conundrum is that Canadian universities now face greater financial constraints than at perhaps any other time in recent history and, as is often the case, innovative programs are often the first to go when budgets are cut. If the response to the pandemic is for more students to enroll in graduate education, as happened in the aftermath of the most recent financial crisis of 2008, now is the time to critically appraise how public health, urban planning and design programs reflect the on-the-ground realities of work during the pandemic.

The answer to this, I believe, is to consider the origins of contemporary Western public health, urban planning and design in response to the pandemics of the late 19th-century. A most famous example is the work of British physician John Snow, who tracked the cholera outbreak around the Broad Street pump. Solutions and responses to infectious disease outbreaks were and remain interdisciplinary in nature. Siloed practice and graduate training undermine our collective capacity to prepare for, respond to, manage and recover from the on-going pandemic, and likely future pandemics.

Academics, policy makers and “city builders” have spilled much ink in recent months about the need for a coordinated and transformative response to COVID-19. I applaud the work of professors who have, despite the shift to online formats, designed and delivered interdisciplinary courses on the pandemic this semester. The issue, however, is larger than individual multidisciplinary course offerings. What’s needed is a critical reassessment of the primary purpose of graduate education in the first place.

I do not claim to be an expert in university administration or pedagogy. But I have been a student and professional on and off for more than a decade and regularly experienced a critical gap between what is required of professionals and citizens to respond to the pandemic on the ground and what I have been taught. I hope that university officials do not waste this period of intense change. Society, and graduate students, are counting on them.

Garrett Morgan is a PhD student in geography and planning, and a graduate fellow in the School of Cities, at the University of Toronto. He would like to recognize Alicia Bojkov and Jordan Balint for providing valuable feedback on this article.

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