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‘Our goal is to hit some home runs’: School of Cities’ interim director encourages U of T city builders to dream big

Matti Siemiatycki, an associate professor of geography and planning, is the interim director of U of T's new School of Cities (photo by Romi Levine)

University of Toronto’s School of Cities has just announced its senior leadership team, tasked with shaping the newly-created school’s urban-focused research, educational and outreach initiatives.

The team will be led by Interim Director Matti Siemiatycki, an associate professor of geography and planning in U of T’s Faculty of Arts & Science.

“I'm really excited to be taking this on,” says Siemiatycki. “I think it's a huge opportunity for the university to develop an organization that brings together all of our urban work across the many faculties.

“I think it's a chance to do something that's special and long-lasting that will have a big impact for this city and cities around the world.”

Siemiatycki’s team of associate directors will focus on different aspects of the School of Cities’ mandate. They are:

• Shauna Brail, associate director, partnerships and outreach. She is also the director of U of T’s urban studies program and an associate professor, teaching stream.

• Mark Fox, associate director, research. Fox is a distinguished professor of urban systems engineering and a professor of industrial engineering and computer science.

• Marieme Lo, associate director, education. She is also the director of African studies and an associate professor of women and gender studies.

The School of Cities has also named University Professor Richard Florida as a distinguished scholar in residence. Florida is also the director of cities at the Rotman School of Management's Martin Prosperity Institute.

U of T News spoke with Siemiatycki about his new appointment and the School of Cities’ plan to connect urban-focused scholars and industry partners to address the most pressing urban challenges faced by cities around the world.


What's your vision for the school?

The school is something that is going to bring together our research, our teaching and our engagement activities at the university to amplify the work that is already happening and give us a vehicle to bring it out to an even wider audience – to deepen our connections out into the communities and to do research that is across disciplines and really brings together people and ideas that may not have intersected. There was a long consultation process and a lot of community building around what this should be. 

The School of Cities will focus on three pillars – research, education and partnerships and outreach. How will its leadership help to facilitate those activities?

For each of those pillars, we have an associate director who is going to be bringing together colleagues, students and external stakeholders to help drive the activities of those pillars. 

For research, we have Mark Fox, who is a distinguished professor. He is going to be bringing forward this idea of how to do interdisciplinary research to tackle the grand challenges that society faces. 

Marieme Lo is leading the education pillar. This is going to be a place where we augment the student experience, bringing together different disciplines in order to enable them to learn in ways that add to the programs they're already in.

Shauna Brail will be the associate director of partnerships and outreach. There's a whole host of stakeholders that the university wants to engage with and, as urbanists, we want our work to support and provide insight so people can make better decisions and understand the world around them, and inform how we create a more thriving and just society.

We also have a distinguished scholar – Richard Florida – who brings this excitement and exuberance about cities. He has done some really phenomenal work in identifying how cities thrive and what makes them successful. 

As a new U of T institution, how will School of Cities approach urban issues differently?

In terms of people's imagination and creativity, we're going to try and remove as many barriers as possible and allow people to dream – the sky is the limit. We're going to give them support. We're going to say 'how can the school facilitate your success?' It has that incubation function where they bring their ideas and we support them. 

Many of these things are hard. When you're doing something new there are often barriers, often there's learning. The school is going to provide that support, networks and the guidance that can help some of these ideas really thrive. Our goal is to hit some home runs – to see things get launched that come from our communities. 

How will the School of Cities help us to better understand Toronto?

Toronto has been experiencing a sense of urban growth and dynamism and change over the last two decades that has made it one of the great cities in the world. It has grown phenomenally, it is phenomenally diverse and it is grappling with many of the challenges other cities are facing around affordability, income inequality, race and inclusion. The strategies that are being applied here are worthy of study and are providing insights into how we can address these issues. We also have a lot to learn.

Part of what the School of Cities does is creates this vehicle for a university to be at the core of how you understand how cities are changing, and how you develop policies and programs and entrepreneurship that allows cities to thrive. It's a mutual learning – we hope to share our insight with the city and we hope we can learn from the city to inform our research and teaching. 

The School of Cities has a downtown component, but it is also rooted at U of T Scarborough and U of T Mississauga. Having that tri-campus base is very significant because it allows us to build deep and enduring connections in communities with very different compositions. 

What is the School of Cities’ role in providing a global urban perspective?

The school is based at the University of Toronto but we see our goal as understanding cities globally. We see it as an opportunity to learn about cities and gain insights from around the world, and to be a convener of conversations about what's working in cities across North America and internationally. We also see opportunities to do research, education and engagement at a truly global scale. 

What kind of opportunities for collaboration will the School of Cities offer students, faculty and industry partners beyond their own disciplines?

If you think of how a project like a new transit line gets designed – it will have urban planners, architects, engineers, people doing financial modelling, accounting and oftentimes there's a public art component. There's such a broad diversity of perspectives that are coming together. We need to create these vehicles that teach students and provide opportunities for research that recognize this multidisciplinary perspective, which is how cities are being built.