Students, Urban Studies

Graduate Student Profile: Alex Thumm, Urban Studies

April 04, 2017

When Alex Thumm declares himself a “proud generalist,” the Urban Studies student is only half-joking. Thumm has a background in Political Science and Philosophy from the University of Ottawa and spent an undergraduate exchange year in Germany at Albert Ludwigs University of Freiburg. His interests include music, slam poetry, gardening, food, languages, theatre, and travelling. In his words, “I’m interested in everything!” But, he also points out, “most things out there tie back to towns and cities and local politics, so it’s all relevant. Cities, planning, and transport really are my passions.”

Thumm’s interest in Urban Studies grew out of his desire to make a tangible difference regarding the issues that preoccupy him, such as climate change, pollution, social justice, quality of life and economic concerns. “Cities,” he says, “are where most people live, where people make the decisions that determine the things I care about. It’s the policies and built environment of cities that directly impact how many emissions are produced and whether there’ll be affordable housing or not. It’s at the urban level—how urbanites live, travel, work, consume—that society will make it or break it.”

The opportunity to explore connections between issues, infrastructure, and people also interests him: “Planning involves such a mix of work. You’re not always sitting at a computer; you’re talking with the public, visiting neighbourhoods, working with maps, etc. It’s perhaps the perfect career for someone who is truly interested in everything … it’s hard to do good planning if you aren’t motivated to take all aspects of cities into serious consideration.”

Thumm's thesis examines parking regulations for laneway housing in Vancouver. For him, mobility and land use form “the most obvious pair of interdependent, symbiotic urban issues.” Yet, he says, they continue to be planned independently, “by different people in different departments, in different bills and bylaws. And that’s a problem.”

Alex Thumm (L), discusses short-term housing regulation with Nelson city council. Photo: Greg Nesteroff

Cities, he clarifies, are all about movement from one type of land use to another, and then to another: “how we get around influences land use: from how far apart things are, how big parking lots are, to how walkable an area is.” And those characteristics influence how we want to get around: “It’s not fun to walk to a tiny store in a sea of parking lots, and it’s not fun to try to park a car in the medieval old cities of Europe, full of small shops in buildings tightly adjacent to the next ones.”

Thumm has seen success making connections between what he calls “the why and how of planning”: he is a consultant with OfCity Consulting, and spent part of last summer (2016) working for the City of Nelson, B.C. where he was tasked with surveying residents about short-term rental housing. His research and resulting policy recommendations influenced the development of new municipal bylaws and was considered one of the area’s top news stories.

With a “lifelong interest in making connections between issues,” Thumm says that the interdisciplinary nature of urban studies drives him, since, in planning, “everything (from transport to politics to culture to commerce) comes together and must be considered holistically.” But “the biggest highlight is how tangible urban planning is; the opportunity to consider all the theory we study in class in real-world contexts; and the ability to actually get things done. It’s very rewarding, and in turn very motivating!”

Thumm works with Streets for Everyone, an organization advocating for bike lanes and a complete street on Commercial Drive.

Thumm’s devotion to urban studies extends beyond his studies. He is involved with Streets For Everyone, a community group in East Vancouver that advocates for bike lanes and a complete street on Commercial Drive. He also serves on the SFU Senate committee on Disciplinary Appeals. He’s helping launch a new organisation focussed on systems change in B.C. politics, called Evoke B.C. And, he is a member of the new Place + Space collective, a student-led group composed of SFU graduate students in Urban Studies and Geography who engage with writing, research, and publishing and professional opportunities in a collective environment. They will present their first paper at the conference, “Bridging Gaps: Making Connections through Social Research,” held at the University of British Columbia on April 27, 2017.

But all of that, Thumm says, is technically “work.” In his free time, he plays the fiddle, reads, plays with his cat, bakes sourdough bread and cooks, and sometimes goes hiking and travelling. “I’m often on my bike,” he notes, “it’s my favourite way to get around (and usually the quickest), and it’s simply my happy place in all weather.”  In addition, he is trying to learn Italian, and “keep up the French, German, and Mandarin.”

As for his future, Thumm says he is open-minded: “I’m interested in both municipal government work as a planner and as a private consultant. I don’t intend on staying in one city for my entire life; there are many more places out there that I dream of living in for a few years. Planning can be a static career if you want it to be, but the exciting thing for me is the opportunity to specialise while still dabbling in all other aspects of cities, policy, and design. Planning can be a very international career, or a very local one.”