Rukshan de Silva (BES ’14, MEDI ’17) received a top honour at the Planning Institute of Australia’s (PIA) National Awards for Planning Excellence.

The Waterloo alumnus was named Australian Young Planner of the Year, which recognizes emerging leaders for outstanding contributions to their field. Among Rukshan’s many achievements, PIA lauded his commitment to innovation in the workplace, his collaboration with communities and government planners, and his volunteer contributions including strategic land use planning in Peru and involvement with PIA’s National Settlement Strategy Team.  

Rukshan currently works as a principal planner at the New South Wales Department of Planning and Environment, where he’s leading the design of Australia’s largest ski town.

Rukshan de SilvaWhat inspired you to become an urban planner?

I’ve always been a community man — volunteering my time to give back to my community in any way I can — something that’s continued since my elementary school days. Growing up, I was also very creative and always had an interest in design. Put design and community together and that’s the sweet spot, so designing communities for a living was the perfect fit for me.

Why did you choose to study at Waterloo?

The University of Waterloo’s co-op program was a standout, and a strong influencer of my decision to choose Waterloo. It helped that my elder brother was also studying at Waterloo at the time, but co-op was why he chose Waterloo too.

Rukshan walking with students

What was your best co-op experience?

I had four co-op terms and cherished each of them very much – a mix of public sector and private sector, and one that I went on to work at full-time as soon as I finished my degree at Waterloo. That said, my first co-op was particularly special – I interned at a design firm called Hassell in Sydney, Australia, which was an exciting overseas experience for a second-year planning student. I wrote all my final exams early which allowed me to spend a month travelling across the country, in addition to four months of exciting urban design work. In fact, I loved Sydney so much that I decided to move back in 2017. It’s been two years now (and counting…), and I’m loving each day even more than the last.

What was your most rewarding volunteer experience?

I’ve been very fortunate to have had the exciting opportunity of volunteering as an urban planner in rural Peru on two missions over the past two years with the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, though their Sustainable and Inclusive Communities in Latin America program. The program aimed to empower and strengthen the capacity of four rural regions of Peru and Colombia that were influenced by mining activity. While mining had resulted in much foreign investment in these areas over time, economic benefits were unevenly distributed and communities near the mines experienced a range of social, environmental and political consequences. My role was to provide peer-to-peer technical assistance to municipal politicians and planners in these communities to assist with capacity building, knowledge sharing and experiential learning. For me, the experience was nothing short of rewarding and something that I’ll always cherish.

What does a community need in order to thrive?

I don’t think there’s a single answer to this question, and that’s because every community is different — they have different values, needs, and aspirations for how they want to grow in the future. As planners, we need to understand what makes each community unique instead of applying a cookie-cutter approach — the local character of a community and the story of its past are absolutely part of the story of its future.

That said, planning is about providing people with choices — choices for where they live, work, play and shop; choices for what types of homes they live in; choices for how they move. And by providing these choices as an urban planner, we’re really in a position to make a positive impact on peoples’ lives. We want the communities we plan to be liveable, accessible and socially inclusive places for everyone, regardless of their age or ability. We also want our communities to be healthy, environmentally sustainable and resilient to climate change and economic downturns. And we want our communities to be adaptable to a future that we’re not always able to predict.


Rukshan article

Rukshan presenting

What changes will your field see in the next 10 years?

We’re in a day and age where technology is advancing at an incredible rate, where populations around the world are more connected than ever before, where our societies are becoming more diverse, where large cohorts of our global population are ageing, where climate change is impacting the way we live — all of these megatrends have impacts on our communities. At the same time, urbanisation is driving people into our cities and out of rural areas, which means that many of our urban areas are growing — and growing quickly.

But with that growth comes demand for planners. It’s our job to manage that growth — not only how much we grow, but how we grow. We must consider how growth is sustainably distributed across our communities and how that growth is supported by investment in infrastructure, public transport, affordable housing, parklands, social infrastructure and the like, to make sure that our communities continue to be liveable places as they grow. I know I’m biased, but it’s an exciting future ahead of us, and planners are leading the way into a new frontier.