J Bolduc

An anthropological eye on urban planning

Jacob Bolduc is a planner with Fotenn Planning and Urban Design. He has worked on projects related to affordable housing and cultural heritage. One of the reasons Jacob enjoys planning is that it allows him “to be practical and philosophical at the same time.”

As I was wrapping up my final year at Laurier in 2011/12, I discovered urban planning when I started looking for a graduate program where I could apply my anthropological knowledge to everyday issues. In my time studying Anthropology at Laurier, I took courses on numerous socio-cultural topics including the culture of science and technology, the interplay of race, ethnicity and nationalism, and the intricacies of religion, ritual and magic.

While these courses were instrumental in shaping my education, it was the concepts of structure and agency from my course on space and place that led me to consider urban planning as a career. While most anthropologists focus on human behaviour, I found I was particularly interested in the human relationship with the built environment. As humans, we make spaces and places – we shape the environment and of course, the environment shapes us.

In 2014, I completed a master’s degree in Urban Planning from the School of Urban and Regional Planning at Queen’s University. Throughout my time at Queen’s, the concepts of structure and agency resonated with me as I learned about land use planning, environmental policy, private and public spaces and affordable housing. As planners, we can spend years making policies and plans (structures) to influence and shape behaviour patterns, but it takes a keen anthropological eye to understand the way behaviours respond to and shape those very same structures (agency).

When you’re standing at a street corner and you notice a path in the worn-down grass along the hypotenuse of the two intersecting sidewalks – that’s agency. People have seen the structure in place and decided against it. Agency is behaviour that usurps the planned function – it shows us what could be, and in many cases, what should be. Anthropology at Laurier taught me to keep my eyes open and notice the subtleties of the human condition as it relates to people and their environment.

At its core, planning is the management of land and resources for current and future generations. We look at existing policies and regulations and try to find ways to improve the system, and with it, the quality of life. Simply put, while architects design buildings, and engineers make sure they work, planners answer the “what?” “where?” and “why?” If you have a vacant site – what should go there, and why? If you want to build something specific like a school, where should it go, and why?

As a planner, my answer to the “why?” is grounded in municipal and provincial policies and regulations, movements within the profession, and past experiences and lessons. But as a student of anthropology, I remember to participate in, observe, analyse and reflect on the human condition. Planners strive to create great spaces and places for people to live, work and play, but we must never forget that it’s the people and their interactions with their environment, that make them the great spaces and places we aim to create.