Meet An Alumna Who s Changing Cities Across Canada: Kate Whitfield

Author: Engineering Alumni Office

Posted on Jul 25, 2017

Category: Alumni Spotlight

Given that Kate Whitfield (BScGGE’03) is a professional engineer and registered professional planner, you might think that she planned out her career meticulously. Not so. She maintains that remaining malleable and open to opportunities and suggestions has led her down the right path.

Kate came to UNB in 1997 because her father saw a MacLeans magazine article reporting the merits of the Forest Engineering program and suggested she consider it. Since she had to pick something to study and she had an interest in the environment, Kate took the suggestion. She had practically grown up on the Queen’s campus, and was accepted to Queen’s for her undergrad, but chose UNB because of the positive impression she got from the registrar’s office, and perhaps the desire for an adventure away from home. She fell in love with UNB at first sight and had an amazing first-year experience, a significant part of that being her residence in Maggie Jean Chestnut’s huge top-floor room (now prime office and boardroom real estate at UNB’s Renaissance College).  She found that Forest Engineering wasn’t for her though, and switched to Engineering, choosing a geotechnical concentration.

One of her peer students, Charles Goguen, suggested joining student politics, and so she did, first as VP (twice), and then President of the Student Union. It was at this point that her path crossed with Mike Ircha, a civil engineering professor, urban planner, and at that time VP Academic for UNB. They worked together on the UNB campus plan and Mike urged Kate to go into urban planning, which she did. After graduating from UNB she took a Masters in Regional and Urban Planning at Queen’s, and then migrated to Ottawa to work for the next decade as an engineer and planner, focusing more and more on building walkable, bikeable, livable communities. Now, she’s taken on a new role: building Alta Planning + Design’s Ottawa office from scratch. When the firm came calling, she jumped at the chance to work with a company focused solely on multi-modal transportation systems. Her work is a combination of planning, policy, and changing behaviours, which requires technical skills for good road design and optimal land use, and also presentation and persuasion skills. Although she’s on her own for now in Ottawa (and with help from a colleague in Vancouver), working both from home and a rented office space, she’s pumping out proposals to clients and excited at the prospect of building a team to make a big impact in cities near and far.

Kate says that the skills she developed at UNB have been instrumental in her career.  “A big part of planning and client work is business development, building relationships, collaborating and being able to explain complex ideas to make them compelling and accessible to the people they will affect. These are things I learned from being in student politics, along with the ability to be comfortable with public speaking.” She feels bicycle and pedestrian engineering is sometimes seen as the “soft side” of engineering, but she learned through her degrees and in practice that it can be one of the most difficult and rewarding of specialties. “You need to be on the leading edge of research, apply that to your project, and then tackle the hardest piece of all – relate it to people in a way that doesn’t feel like you’re making judgments on current behaviours. You need to learn to balance between pushing for change and not turning people off. But as the momentum builds and things begin to happen, the positive impact on communities and people is tangible and amazing to witness.” Kate declares proudly that Fredericton and UNB were the right places for her with the right people. In fact, she’s maintained a strong connection with both, completing her masters’ internship with the City of Fredericton, and then working with the City again recently to help them update their active transportation plan.  She’s returned to UNB to give a lecture in the Transportation Seminar Series, and is currently conferring with Dr. Trevor Hansen to recruit fellow UNB grads to build her team.

Today, Kate remains open to possibilities as she cultivates an active life in a walkable neighborhood with her husband and two young children, learning as a family to bike to many of their activities. The latest suggestion to come her way? It was once again from Mike Ircha, now UNB Professor Emeritus living in Ottawa, who asked her to co-teach an engineering class in urban planning with him at Carlton University this fall. No doubt, she’ll impress upon her students the importance of malleability, in science and in life.