On Leonie Sandercock, who redefined planning forever

This June, SCARP Professor Leonie Sandercock published her extraordinary new book, “Mapping Possibility: Finding Purpose and Hope in Community Planning”. Like her previous works, it unravels the field of community and regional planning from a critical framework, but it also invites us into an intimate journey to process for ourselves what she’s taught all along.  

When speaking at her recent book Launch, Leonie contextualised why exactly the poster for the event was her walking out to sea with a surfboard. She had repeatedly been asked the question of what her next great project is, what’s next for her. The image of her walking out to the peace, bliss, and adventure she finds atop a wave at sea is her great and ultimate answer to this question.

Leonie Sandercock, cherished friend to many and (we dare say) juggernaut of community and regional planning to the world, now retires to the waves that carried her from the beginning, as she helped carry us all. 

Community and regional planning has, for some time now, been a field undergoing a transformative reckoning. Planning, once a tool of stratification along hierarchies, is now slowly and imperfectly reasserting itself as a matrix of partnerships, stretching outward not in expansion but in invitation to share healing congress and rebuild together, with consent and respect.  

It cannot be understated how crucial a part of this transformation Leonie Sandercock has represented.  

Leonie redefined the field in more progressive, culturally fluent directions, and it's never going back. Dr. Libby Porter, Professor in Urban Policy at RMIT University, Melbourne, calls Leonie "one of community planning's leading thinkers". Her remarkable career spanned nearly half a century as an educator, researcher, and artist. Leonie's dedication and gift to us was her pursuit of social, cultural, and environmental justice. 

In large part, Leonie shares this wisdom not as something she owns or has created, but as “the dance of the spiraling generations”, a mentorship through the ages, as though those who came before us are still in partnership with us. Sandercock contextualises, crucially, that this mentorship is not unidirectional, and there are gifts of wisdom each new generation gives us.  

With this framework, this story, of who we are and why we exist, we can think of no better description of what SCARP is; what we promise to always be.  

There is no objective voice with which to tell any history, and attempts to tell any amount of Leonie’s story will be a series of choices from a certain lens. The best choice, then, is to show these voices, who have joined Leonie through her life and have described their experiences with her through their own lenses. What Leonie calls the classic ‘authoritative academic voice’ of alleged omniscience, which she consciously and proudly unlearnt throughout her early career, fades away into individuals, each gifted a part in Leonie’s story. In this spirit, the ‘SCARP collective voice’ also fades away: speaking now has been Kyle Mallinson, who writes for SCARP and its people sometimes, and I’ve known Leonie Sandercock for a disappointingly short time. And so, while I already could go on and on about Leonie, I defer now to them: 

Jessica, among trees

Jessica Hallenbeck, SCARP alum, former sessional instructor, and former student of Leonie’s:

From Jessica's essay on Leonie 

Leonie Sandercock was born in 1949 in Adelaide, Australia. Raised as an only child in a poor, working class family,

Leonie held a deep intellectual curiosity for the world she found herself in: a world filled with questions about belonging, difference, and disconnection.

She spent her childhood dreaming of escape and teachers encouraged her to take up a university scholarship, which became a turning point. At the University of Adelaide, Leonie studied under Professor Hugh Stretton, who became her most important mentor and encouraged her to pursue a PhD in Urban Research at the Australian National University, which became her first book, Cities for Sale (Sandercock 1975). 

Heather, among trees

Heather Campbell, Director, SCARP:

From Heather's letter in support of Leonie for an award 

She [completed] her doctorate at the age of 24 at the Australian National University,

being promoted to full professor at 31, the youngest person to achieve that rank in Australian academic history, and at the time (1981) one of only four women professors in Australia. 
Jessica, among trees


Leonie [became] a member of Australia’s Commission to UNESCO, and served on several federal bodies. She also became a serious bodysurfer, fell in love, experienced profound grief, and established herself as a leading urban political economy scholar. Leonie would later reflect on this period (Sandercock, 2023), suggesting that

while she found success and recognition in writing through the strong, positivist detached voice typical of academic writing at the time, it came at the erasure of her own. The drive for connection and belonging remained. There had to be another way. 

In 1981, Leonie became Professor and Head of Graduate Urban Studies at Macquarie University, in Sydney, Australia. Five years later, following love and a desire to leave academia, she moved to Los Angeles (LA) where she completed an MFA in scriptwriting at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) while also teaching in UCLA’s Graduate School of Architecture and Urban Planning, and marrying planning theorist John Friedmann. 

Heather, among trees


She had periods working in the United States (University of California, Los Angeles) and back to Australia (Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology), before moving to the University of British Columbia in 2001. 

Her publications have had a profound impact on the discipline of planning, as well as being highly influential within the humanities and social sciences more generally. 

I would highlight in particular her two books Towards Cosmopolis: Planning for Multicultural Cities (1998) and Cosmopolis 2: Mongrel Cities of the 21st Century (2003) for their significance in reframing planning thought to engage with matters of marginalisation, including issues of gender, race, class and sexuality.  Cosmopolis 2 received the Davidoff Award from the (American) Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning (ACSP).  The award annually recognises an outstanding book focused on “participatory planning and positive social change, opposing poverty and racism as factors in society and seeking ways to address social and place-based inequalities”.  

Alongside Professor Sandercock’s visionary work as an educator, her work as a film maker stands out.  She recognised before the arrival of social media, that media such as film, could act as a catalyst for change in ways that the simple written word can not.  She is a community-based film maker.  She has secured funding that has facilitated the production of three award winning films: Where Strangers Become Neighbours (2006) a 50-minute documentary showcasing the work of the Collingwood Neighbourhood House (CNH) in Vancouver in successfully integrating immigrants and addressing racism. The film won the international BMW Award for Intercultural Learning in 2007; Finding Our Way (2010) a 90-minute documentary made collaboratively with two First Nations in north central BC, about the ongoing challenges of racism in the small town of Burns Lake;  and Edge of the Knife (2018) the first feature film in the Haida language produced in partnership with the Council of the Haida Nation and the Inuit film collective, Isuma and has won Best Canadian Film at the Vancouver International Film Festival and the ImagiNative Film Festival; Best Film at the BC Film and TV Awards; and Best Film at the American Indian Film Institute annual awards.  

Jessica, among trees


Immersed in writing screenplays, Leonie’s voice shifts. She decides to return to academia but makes herself a promise that she will concentrate “on the power of story” (Sandercock and Attili 2010; preface). Leonie’s work moves toward feminist theory and a critical examination of the official story that planning tells about itself. 

In 2001 Leonie moves again, this time to British Columbia, Canada, where she takes up a professorial appointment at SCARP at UBC.1 Soon after, Leonie meets Giovanni Attili, a PhD student whose own work combines biography and multimedia to capture the everyday lives of migrants in Rome’s Esquilino district. For Attili, multimedia is a catalyst for analysis and interactive problem solving (Attili 2010, 204). Leonie describes their encounter as serendipitous; this is the moment where she understands the expansive possibilities of story and planning (Sandercock and Attili 2010). Leonie then found the Cosmopolis lab, a place where multimedia projects create and present alternatives to the modernist planning paradigm. The first project completed is Where Strangers become Neighbors (Attili and Sandercock 2007), a fifty-minute documentary. 

Heather, among trees


While Professor Sandercock’s scholarship is internationally recognised for its focus on marginalised and vulnerable communities, what further marks out her contribution is her commitment to change and action through her work as a teacher and film maker. 

Professor Sandercock is a renowned scholar.  She challenged planners and policy makers to take seriously diversity and difference, long before such matters had become intellectually fashionable or gained prominence.   

Since her move to Canada, Professor Sandercock’s work has become particularly concerned with the practical lessons and intellectual enrichment to be gained from partnering with Indigenous communities in British Columbia, and more locally the Musqueam First Nation, on whose lands UBC is located.  

Man in glasses and earring, speaking into microphone

Giovanni Attili, long-lasting collaborator with Leonie 

From Giovanni's paper "Where strangers become neighbours"

[My] encounter with Leonie has been radically life changing for me. Not only because she provided me with tremendous insights regarding the planning field, but mostly because she embraced me with her experimental and thoughtful approach to life/work. The research projects I had the honour to share with Leonie, have been enchanting and powerful playgrounds nurtured by her groundbreaking creativity.

I treasure each luminous and transformative epiphany she magically offered to me with her self-reflective gaze. No other person I met has ever had the ability of looking back at one’s own footsteps and moving forward with such unbelievable heightened awareness.

That’s why Leonie has been and still represents such a vital learning source for me. A lighthouse, where beauty and poetry have always been dialoguing with political commitment and a search for social justice. A true friend and an incredible teacher. 

Jessica, among trees


Leonie’s contributions to planning history, theory, and practice are multiple and have been formally recognized both internationally and nationally. She has earned an honorary doctorate from Roskilde University, Denmark, and been inducted as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. Throughout her life, Leonie has sought to question the official story and think about planning as a catalyst for change.

Belonging and connection through community-building, have threaded through her life’s work and, in so doing, she has enabled generations of scholars to narrate planning’s histories and help shape planning’s futures.

Her much-anticipated book Mapping Possibility: Finding Purpose and Hope in Community Planning (Sandercock, 2023) shares more of her own perspective on the ideas and relationships that have shaped her work. 

Heather, among trees


While Professor Sandercock’s scholarship is internationally recognised for its focus on marginalised and vulnerable communities, what further marks out her contribution is her commitment to change and action through her work as a teacher and film maker. 

Professor Sandercock is a renowned scholar.  She challenged planners and policy makers to take seriously diversity and difference, long before such matters had become intellectually fashionable or gained prominence.   

Professor Sandercock’s body of scholarship is remarkable in itself.  However, her vision and commitment to finding ways to turn research insights into effective change extends beyond this and is seen in her work as a teacher and a film maker.  I know of no other academic of a similar scholarly reputation who has devoted so much energy to reshaping graduate professional planning education as Professor Sandercock.  Her leadership of the Indigenous Community Planning (ICP) Program within the School of Community and Regional Planning at UBC, demonstrates her vision and dogged determination to ensure that the next generation of planning professionals has both the values and capabilities to plan differently than has been the norm.  The ICP Program, founded on a partnership with the Musqueam First nation... is the first of its kind, and is not just a national exemplar, but of international significance.   

Professor Sandercock is a distinguished scholar and visionary. She is committed to the achievement of greater social justice and her partnerships with Indigenous communities seek to embrace and advance reconciliation. 

She is an inspiration.
Jessica, among trees


I arrived as a Master’s student at the University of British Columbia’s (UBC) School of Community and Regional Planning (SCARP) in 2005, already in admiration of Leonie Sandercock’s scholarship and full of curiosity about the school’s new Cosmopolis media lab. Little did I know that Leonie’s work would substantially alter the arc of my own life, inspiring me to combine my love of filmmaking with my enduring interest in community planning. Leonie has been a PhD committee member, mentor, and friend for nearly twenty years.

The trajectory of her work demonstrates a deep commitment to learning and change through a constant questioning of positionality, beliefs, and ways of seeing the world. It is this openness to personal transformation, often catalyzed through students, collaborators, and larger political contexts, that has enabled Leonie to continue to shift and significantly contribute to planning theory and practice for over three decades. 
Aftab, among trees

Aftab Erfan, SCARP alum, adjunct professor, and former student of Leonie’s:

 From an email quoted in Jessica's essay

It’s hard to imagine in 2022—post Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission report and 1900+ unmarked graves of children identified—that watching the rough cuts of Leonie and Giovanni’s film, Finding Our Way, was the first time I saw survivors of Indian Residential School tell their stories. So many of us were in the same boat, bright-eyed planning students with big visions for the world, finding ourselves grappling with the darkness of Canadian history, then immediately with the role of the planning profession in it.

Over the years some of us got to watch Leonie as she worked through her version of what it looks like for a planning scholar trying to make things right—the humbling experience of building and working in relationship with Indigenous communities.

I am lucky to be touched by her example, in all of its imperfection, and by her generosity and sharing, as I walk my own path on lands waiting to be returned, amongst human relationships waiting to be repaired. 

You can purchase Leonie's newest book now!

Mapping Possibility:
Finding Purpose & Hope In Community Planning

Author: Sandercock Leonie

Publisher: Routledge

In celebration of launching Mapping Possibilities, some dear colleagues and keen minds gathered and spoke on the future of planning as well as what Leonie has contributed to the field, up to and including this latest work. It goes without saying that people’s spirits came alive in the presence of each other in the space Leonie created. 

This book launch took place on the eve of Professor Sandercock’s retirement from teaching, which caused all who gathered to reflect on a triumphant career and the gift of her life’s work.  

When speaking at her recent book Launch, Leonie contextualised why exactly the poster for the event was her walking out to sea with a surfboard. She had repeatedly been asked the question of what her next great project is, what’s next for her. The image of her walking out to the peace, bliss, and adventure she finds atop a wave at sea is her great and ultimate answer to this question. 

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