Pamela Sweet, M.PL. '05, MCIP, RPP

The importance of a notable degree for networking and learning best practices

by Meredith Dault, ​May 22nd, 2011

Pamela Sweet

​When Pamela Sweet started her Master’s degree in Urban Planning at Queen’s, she had no idea where it was going to take her. “In those days - the 1970s - planning wasn’t a well-known profession,” she recalls, “but it was coming to the forefront. So I applied to Queen’s and never looked back.”

Sweet, who is Senior Vice President and Principal with FoTenn Consultants, was one of the first graduates of the program in Urban and Regional Planning (she finished her course work in 1974, but graduated formally in 1978). She says it was a great time to get into the business. “When we were graduating we were being recruited at campus,” she laughs. “We were getting various employers interviewing the whole class and picking the bright ones. We had job offers in March and April, well before we had finished the course requirements.”

But as Sweet explains it, that’s because the notion of planning was still relatively new. Her first job was with the provincial government, where she worked for the Ministry of Housing (which she describes as being equivalent to today’s Ministry of Municipal Affairs) in Toronto and then Ottawa. “Municipalities were less interested in planning,” she explains, “and didn’t necessarily have official plans and zoning by-laws. So the province had to set up its own policies and grant program on planning, and also to protect resource lands.”

One of Sweet’s jobs at the time was convincing rural communities in eastern Ontario to draft municipal plans. She describes driving home late at night after meeting with small city councils to discuss zoning by-laws. “They saw it as a restriction,” she explains, “or as the government imposing their ideas about (what they should do). They didn’t want people telling them what do with their land.”

Sweet says that the idea seems preposterous now. “I’ve gone from trying to convince people on the merits of planning and zoning, to today, where even small municipalities in Northern Ontario have planners on staff, or at least a planning administrator!” she says with a laugh. “And now the public expects at least some kind of degree of control in planning.”

Sweet’s career has seen her work in a number of different capacities - as head of policy and infrastructure planning with the Region of Ottawa-Carleton, as well as in land use planning and transportation. Since joining FoTenn in 2001, she’s worked with communities in Nunavut, Yellowknife and in Northern Quebec, as well as Eastern Ontario. She admits that working in northern communities can be challenging, but satisfying. “You have to adapt,” she explains, “and you have to be sensitive to the issues (in a community).”

In fact, Sweet says being a good planner means more than merely thinking about urban design and planning policy. “I think a good planner also needs some basic skills that makes them more adaptable to the environment (they’re working in),” she explains, “like good presentation skills, good writing skills, the ability to be flexible and to think on your feet.” She says that good planners are adept at drawing the public into the consultation process, and interpreting data. “It takes a fairly confident person,” she says. “You have to be able to come up with good ideas. And you have to be brave, because you’re going out to communities, and you’re often travelling on your own.”

While Sweet acknowledges that planning is a far more competitive industry now than it was when she first got her start, she says there are many interesting career options new graduates can consider. Besides government work, she says many planners today work as consultants, entrepreneurs and project managers within the private sector. “A lot of my colleagues and friends have migrated into senior management roles, as city managers, or as heads or major city organizations or corporations,” she says. “Communication and consultation and community engagement -- they are skills that you can apply to a lot of different areas.”

Sweet, who has been back to campus as a guest lecturer, still remembers her time at Queen’s with fondness. “There were some great people,” she says warmly. “I remember coming out of school and that at the time, there were a lot of new, young planners. But I always felt I had a leg up. We had really good, rigorous training that give us the opportunity to step into a lot of jobs.”

She says that the Queen’s name is a recognized one in the planning industry today. “Queen’s maintains good alumni relations across Canada and is accredited by the Canadian Institute of Planners,” she says, “and that goes a long way in terms of networking, and providing people with best practices across the country. It’s a great school, and Kingston is a great place.”