June 16, 2020

Class of 2020: Planner envisions making cities more accessible and inclusive

Master of Planning grad Lilit Houlder aims to nurture positive change

When organizing groups for networking and learning, Lilit Houlder enjoys being a still point at the centre of the action, working as a facilitator who can bring out the best in everyone to achieve a common goal.

So when Houlder, who is graduating with a Master of Planning, had the opportunity to work and learn at the School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape’s City Building Design Lab in downtown Calgary, she thrived.

“My experience was amazing,” says Houlder, who graduates from the University of Calgary with a 3.85 GPA. “Learning in the centre of the city allows us to see what’s happening at the heart of Calgary. Spatially and symbolically, we’re in city hall’s backyard, making it easier for planners to come and see the work we’re doing.”

  • Photo above: Lilit Houlder at the main entrance of the new City Building Design Lab beside City Hall. 
Lilit Houlder, shown here at Vermilion Lakes, Alta., enjoys taking on new challenges.

Lilit Houlder, shown here at Vermilion Lakes, Alta., enjoys taking on new challenges.

Innovations explored in the heart of downtown

The School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape established the innovative research hub downtown in partnership with East Village master developer Calgary Municipal Land Corp., occupying the main floor and basement of the former Central Library building.

It gives students opportunities to connect with the building industry and community to explore innovations in design, construction and operational management.

Houlder believes in volunteering and she is a master networker, helping her peers since May 2019 as the president of the School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape’s Student Association (SAPLSA). Part of her role entails bringing students together with industry and the city to strengthen connections and promote relationships.

“It’s important for all of us to establish strong connections with the City of Calgary and our industry, and be a strong part of the community,” she says. “If we’re going to be entrepreneurial and think big, we really need to be part of the community and know what they need so that we can make a positive impact.”

Fellow grad student Dane Santos, who worked alongside Houlder as vice-president of SAPLSA, describes Houlder as “dedicated, approachable and diligent” in her aim to improve the student experience at UCalgary.

“Her optimism and positivity make her very approachable, whether you’re a student coming with concerns, or during meetings with faculty members,” says Santos.

Houlder says her personal values are a perfect fit with the Master of Planning degree, given her inclination toward volunteering and her desire to create spaces where people can live happily. Past volunteer work has included selling hats and mitts to raise awareness for the homeless.

“I want to be a planner because I want planning that is inclusive and accessible for everyone, including the homeless and others who might not normally fit in,” she says.

Students were 'resilient' in face of COVID-19

Houlder was working on a student project with the Montgomery Community Association, designing guidelines for development, when COVID-19 disrupted the work.

“The community and stakeholders, and faculty and students, really did a good job adapting to the pandemic,” she says. “We almost seamlessly moved to a video format and have delivered the project. As students, we were resilient.”

Houlder has demonstrated the ability to overcome challenges since she moved with her parents to Grimshaw, Alta., from Moscow in 2003.

It was a huge change in many ways. The biggest challenge was that the social norms were very different. In Russia, when you get good marks in school, you are the cool kid. But here it seemed to be the opposite. You had to be a bit of a rebel to be popular.

Volunteer ethos expressed in photography

Instead of focusing on fitting in, herself, she grew to enjoy helping others fit in, and that led to her doing volunteer work in Edmonton, helping international students adjust to Canadian life from the time they landed until they departed.

She came to UCalgary to earn her Master’s degree so that she could become an accredited planner, aiming to help others. Her vision is also expressed in her photography, a hobby that became a side hustle — as well as a way for her to do more volunteer work.

“I do portrait and wedding photography,” she says. “Last year, I took head shot photos for students at UCalgary to make them as employable as possible, and I notice a lot of them are using the photos now on their LinkedIn profiles.”

Her photography continues to be a way to be creative while networking and integrating her academic and professional work.

“The faculty really pushes us to think critically and creatively,” she says. “As planners, we are passionate and collaborative people. To get the job done, we are also facilitators. It forces you to learn new things and that’s something I’ve always loved to do, so I’m just going to keep learning so I can help to create vibrant communities.”