From U of T to New York and back again: PhD graduate Eleanor Rae explores Toronto's changing skyline

June 17, 2021 by A&S News

Eleanor Rae came to U of T to earn her honours bachelor of arts in peace and conflict studies, specialist, in 2006 as a member of University College. Growing up with dad Bob Rae, former Premier of Ontario, may have influenced her direction more than she understood in her teens, she now says. Her bus trips from New York — where she earned her master’s degree at the John W. Draper Program in humanities and social thought at New York University — to Toronto inspired her to return to U of T to explore the city’s skyline as part of her PhD in geography. She now looks forward to focusing on teaching, working again with Maximum City, finding new ways to reconnect students with the city and taking her almost three-year-old son out to explore  Toronto. 

Why did you choose U of T to begin your studies  — and return here after NYU?

I chose U of T as an undergrad because I was really interested in the unique peace and conflict studies program. I wanted to stay in Toronto but also explore the world. My parents and my grandfather went to U of T and I was honoured and excited to continue a family tradition. By the time I was doing my master’s degree in New York, my studies in geography and placemaking were already focused back on my home, Toronto, so I knew it would be natural to return to the city I grew up in and continue pursuing my academic interests at U of T.   

Your first degree at U of T was an honours bachelor of arts in peace and conflict studies. How did growing up amid your father’s political career influence this pursuit?

You know, it’s an interesting question to think about in retrospect, 20 years later, because I don’t know if at the time, as a 17-year-old heading off to university, I gave the connection much thought. As I’ve gotten older, though, I’d like to think I’m much more aware and grateful for the impacts and inspirations of my dad’s work. I feel immensely lucky to have grown up in a house full of books and ideas and interesting conversations, with an incredibly supportive immediate and extended family that instilled in me a true love of learning from an early age.

Tell me about your work, CityPlace and City Space: An Investigation into Toronto’s Changing Skyline. What were some of your more powerful learnings about Toronto?

From left, Rae’s partner Graig Uens, Eleanor Rae and son Malcolm.

My dissertation on CityPlace actually came out of living in New York and traveling home on the overnight bus to Toronto to see family and friends. I would look out the window each visit and drive across a waterfront that felt increasingly unrecognizable. I was watching the skyline transform so dramatically. My already developing interests in placemaking, gentrification and neighbourhood change led me to focus my studies on CityPlace, this massive master-planned condominium development that was changing the landscape of Toronto.

For me, one of the most interesting things I found during my PhD was how CityPlace was changing even while I was studying it. I knew it was a challenge to study an “unfinished” neighbourhood, but what I wanted to capture in my work was the fact that fluidity and change are part of all neighbourhoods, that communities are dynamic and can’t be fixed in time or even in place. And leading from that, what I found most powerful and then also strangely relevant in the current climate was my study of the online CityPlace community and the possibilities for digital connection linked to and intersecting with local life.

What would you tell your first-year self if you could?

I’d tell her to always try to connect what she’s studying to the world around her. I think it took me a while to really join what I was studying in the classroom to what I was watching and experiencing in the city. I really believe the insights we can bring from our own lives into our education, and vice versa — that mix of theory and practice — is the place where interesting things happen. And I guess I’d tell her the nice thing about finally finishing your PhD is that no one asks how long it took. Done is done!

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