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The First Woman Planner in BC: An Interview With Mary Rawson

Recently, WTC had the opportunity to sit down with Mary Rawson, one of the first women planners to join the young Planning Institute of BC (PIBC) and the first woman to establish her own planning practice in BC.

Mary has an impressive and extensive history of work in the discipline of planning. Her gumption and passion for work regarding the Land Question, is an inspiration to us all.

Raised in Kamloops, BC, Mary attended rural elementary schools. Sheattributes living in the country as having had a significant influence on her planning career. Graduating from Kamloops High School towards the end of the war , she joined the army.

Mary says, “this fallowing time, of two years, plus war gratuities, gave me both zest and money for further learning.”

Using her veterans’ credits, she attended UBC where she majored in economics and Slavonic studies. Mary refers to herself as a natural-born student who loved studying. During her time at UBC, she was introduced to the Land Question and the ideas of Henry George. Later she also did her Masters in Slavonic Studies at UBC.

Afterwards, she worked in Ottawa for a few years and had the opportunity to travel and study in Europe. This overall period deepened her interest in land. As planners were involved in decisions pertaining to land, she decided to become a planner.

Mary started out at UBC’s School of Community and Regional Planning where she received her Master’s in Urban Planning. At the time, UBC had only six planning students, a very small planning school compared to the 80+ students in the program today.

She spent her second year at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in their planning school. Much of her master’s thesis was published by the Urban Land Institute and titled, “Property Taxation and Urban Development.”

It centred on clarifying the role of the property tax as a tool to “raise revenue” and to “[promote] sound urban development.” Specifically, Mary argued for distinguishing land and capital (buildings) when applying taxation and described improved development, urban renewal, and added value to home buyers as the benefits for doing so.

Upon finishing Planning School at Chapel Hill in 1960, Mary returned to BC and wasted no time by immediately launching her own planning practice. At the time, planning work was tough to find and people didn’t quite know what planners did. People assumed that planning was zoning which they had negative connotations of.

Mary’s first job was a part-time planning consultant for the City of New Westminster. She was the first planner that they had ever hired. Through the year that she consulted for the city, Mary learned a lot about municipal “politics.”

For the next ten years, Mary did consulting, mainly for smaller communities across the province as well as for Indian bands.

Her work with Indigenous bands came to be as she had approached the Indian agent for the Federal Department of Indian Affairs and pitched the idea of the need for planning for several bands. Out of this meeting, Mary had the opportunity to work for the Kamloops Bands for whom she prepared an industrial subdivision plan. Mary believes that this was the first planning job done for any band in Canada.

After 10 years of this work as a consultant, Mary realized she wasn’t often doing the fundamental work that she had set out to do. Therefore, she closed down her business and set out on a new journey.

Twice she was given short assignments in Jamaica through the UN as a land policy advisor. She also conducted research for the PEI Royal Commission on Land Use and Land Ownership.

When asked about her lengthy and impressive work experience and what sticks out to her, Mary believes her most useful effort was as one of five members of the original BC Land Commission from 1973-1976.

As a planner from the 1960’s, Mary has seen it all. When asked for an opinion on the current state of planning, Mary is quite somber. She reflects specifically on the state of Lytton in BC, following the wildfire that the community experienced.

She was stunned with the announcement of Bill 2 that focused on “retrieving” the old zoning bylaw. She argues that legal boundaries are not a priority in Lytton amidst an emergency and that planners should focus on the physical conditions of the site and the people.

With this in mind, Mary offers some advice for young planners. Specifically, she encourages them to:

  1. Keep an eye on the essentials, that is the land and the people

  2. Keep an eye on the purpose of planners – that is the public good

  3. To find the best planner (teacher) to work for, in contrast to looking for a good salary

  4. To read, specifically she recommends the books that influenced her: A New View of Society (1813) by Robert Owens, Progress of Poverty (1879) by Henry George, and Garden Cities of Tomorrow (1898) by Ebenezer Howard

  5. While Mary didn’t explicitly say this, it was evident in her recount that planners and everyone alike need to show up with gumption and courage in the same way she has done.


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