Winnipeg Architecture Foundation

People

Planners

Earl Levin

  • 1919 - 2014
  • MRAIC, MCIP

Biography

Earl Levin’s contributions to Winnipeg and Canada’s urban landscape are profuse. In the 1960s and 70s, Levin served as Winnipeg’s planning director; he later served as the head of the Department of City Planning at the University of Manitoba Faculty of Architecture. In the meanwhile, among Levin's other accomplishments, was a role establishing Vancouver’s first planning department, guiding the formation of Saskatchewan’s Association of Professional Community Planners and served as that province’s planning director, and launching his own urban planning firm in Toronto.

Earl Aaron Levin was born in Winnipeg on 8 July 1919 to Sam and Sonja Levin. He grew up on Magnus Avenue in the city’s North End. Levin was the child of Jewish-Belorussian immigrants who instilled in him the value of education. In the early 1940s he enrolled at the University of Manitoba in the Faculty of Arts and Science, though he left soon thereafter in order to join the war effort in 1942. While working in the Canadian Forces Levin achieved the rank of captain and

The devastating scenes of war imbued in Levin a wish to help create better cities and homes. (It was also in Europe, specifically in London, that he met his  wife, Helen Bernard.) After the war, Levin returned to Winnipeg to recommence his studies at the University of Manitoba, switching his focus to pursue a degree in architecture. Like School of Architecture graduates from this period, Levin followed his bachelor’s degree by pursuing graduate-level education elsewhere. Levin's first completed a diploma at the School of Planning and Research for Regional Development in London. While in Britain, he worked in such urban planning venues the London County Council in Britain and with the Basildon New Town Corporation in Essex. In 1952, he then returned to Canada, where he earned a Master’s of Science from the University of British Columbia School of Community and Regional Planning. This phase of study was supported by a 1952-53 Central Mortgage and Housing Corporation Graduate Fellowship. Levin also received support during this time through the Transportation and Customs Bureau of Vancouver Board of Trade Prize, earned in 1953.

Following graduation, Levin worked as part of the core team that established Vancouver’s first planning department. By the early 1960s Levin was working in Saskatchewan in a number of urban planning capacities. In 1963 he chaired the formation of the Association of Professional Community Planners of Saskatchewan. He likewise served as that province’s Director of Planning. The following year, and in 1965, Levin was elected president of the Town Planning Institute of Canada.

In the 1960s and 70s, Levin assumed the role of Metro Winnipeg’s Director of Planning. Levin was an advocate of a rich urban community and urged the densification of Winnipeg’s downtown core. An indicative quote is his 1968 statement to the Downtown Business Association: “Our downtown should be full of people of every type and station, of every shape and description, rich and poor, young and old, smart and dowdy, because only people can endow any enterprise with life and with value.”

Later practice by Levin included working as was vice-president of Murray V. Jones and Associates, a Toronto urban planning firm, and leading his own urban design consultancy. In these positions Levin drafted plans, studies and recommendations for aboriginal groups, provincial governments, the federal government and for a large number of Canadian cities. 

Levin also worked diversely within the realm of academia, serving as the head of the Department of City Planning at the University of Manitoba, as well as teaching at the School of Community and Regional Planning at the University of British Columbia; he was later named a senior fellow of the Institute of Urban Studies at the University of Winnipeg. And in 1993, after decades of work in the field, Levin, at the age of 74, completed his doctorate; his thesis was focused on the history of the city planning in the Canadian Prairies.

During his years of practice and teaching Levin was a tireless advocate for quality and sensitive urban design. Levin argued for a practice that “externalizes in material form the inner spirit of the society and to do so with pervasive nobility and beauty.” He expressed his concern that modern city planning too often had had “no common understanding of the nature of a city.” This frustration also led to conflict between Levin and political partners, including Stephen Juba, mayor of the amalgamated municipality Levin helped create, Metro Winnipeg; Levin worried that the “best plans come second to who can make the most money and how quickly.” Among his activism, Levin in the 1980s advocated against the creation of Winnipeg’s Portage Place Shopping Centre, and, alongside partner Gustavo da Roza, proposed that the land where this mall now sits be transformed into a park placed atop underground parking, an area envisioned as surrounded by high-density residential facilities. He was involved in some of Winnipeg's most important planning processes, including Neeginan and the Core Area Initiative.

In 2011, Levin was awarded the Distinguished Career Award in Planning. He was the first person to receive such an award from the Canadian Institute of Planners. Levin and his wife, who lived in a beautiful home on Machray Avenue, were both patrons of the arts. Levin served beyond the world of architecture in his volunteer efforts with the Manitoba Opera Company, Winnipeg Art Gallery and the Manitoba Theatre Centre, having been a member of the board for each.

Earl A. Levin died in Winnipeg on 28 March 2014 of systemic organ failure resulting from advanced age.