From Chief Planner to “Urban Ronin”? Chatting about legacy, and the future, with Brent Toderian – Part 1

 

The early contract termination of Vancouver’s former director of planning Brent Toderian has been a hot topic in planning news, local and abroad. To some, he was the right mix of ambition, advocate and visionary for such a demanding position. Others have cited some of these same qualities as weaknesses. Others cite issues and challenges that can be attributed either to Toderian, or to the inherent nature of the Director position at today’s City Hall.

Spacing Vancouver Editor Erick Villagomez had the opportunity to meet up with Brent Toderian over breakfast on Commercial Drive for an honest discussion about recent events, his planning legacy, and what his plans are for the future. This is the first of a two-part series.

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Spacing: Obviously, the first place to start is the recent termination of your contract. Although some have said that there were rumblings for years, I think it’s fair to say that most people—including those in the planning department—were surprised by the news. The timing is even more surprising given the recent resource cuts to the planning department. Of course, this has sparked all sorts of rumours of plans to erode the role of planning department within the City. I’d love to hear your perspective on the events that led up to your termination and what do you think of the timing of this decision?

Brent Toderian: I think enough has probably been said about my leaving and why – essentially it came down to an issue of “fit” and perspective on management approach, and the role of the Director of Planning. I would emphasize that the City and I part ways on very good terms and with mutual respect. I have deep relationships across my former department and the many departments I’ve collaborating with over my six years at City Hall. I feel very good about the city-building work that we’ve accomplished over that busy time.

I have a great deal of confidence in the creativity and talents of the team I’ve rebuilt at city hall – I know they will continue to do outstanding and innovative work. I also have a very high regard for council and their stated intentions on green city building, affordability, active mobility etc. They are smart, visionary and committed. So I have no doubts that Vancouver is going to continue to do very progressive and interesting things. I’ll be doing my best to help in any way I can, even as I launch into my new chapter.

I’ve heard the  same rumours about the possible weakening of the planning function. I certainly hope and expect that those won’t come  true. I think the progressive and innovative city planning function in Vancouver has had a very deep and valued tradition. From Ray Spaxman to Co-Directors Larry Beasley and Anne McAfee, great planning and great city-building has been a real part of the success of this city. I think that there has long been a strong understanding of how smart physical design and planning contributes to our success. I would hope and expect that such an understanding would continue.

What’s most important to me is that I was able to leave City Hall with the same integrity, professionalism, principle and passion that I’ve brought to the job every moment that I’ve been at City Hall. I think that those are very important qualities for a good city planner, whether they are a Director of Planning or any member of the Planning Department.

I leave with those well intact and certainly feel that my former staff have those qualities in spades, as well. I’m very honoured to have been able to plan such a great city for 6 years — a city that I deeply admire and love. I’ve learned a lot and feel that I’ve contributed a lot to the very fine tradition of city planning here in Vancouver.

Spacing: Now, one of the constant comparisons heard in the popular media since the contract termination is that to Larry Beasley—a person who is often portrayed for better or worse as the hero—with you perhaps not living up to this lofty status in some peoples minds. For those who know the circumstances of your hiring, of course, the statement is somewhat unfair and flawed, considering your position took over the roles of both Larry Beasley and Ann McAfee. Big shoes to fill, no doubt, and Larry never had to do the whole job. Regardless, the comparison has been made numerous times.

On the other side, you have people like retired Assistant Director of Development Services — Rick Michaels — your  retired Assistant Directors of Planning, and many other prominent urbanists, who have commented publicly that your brightness, ability and passion put you unquestionably in the visionary class of those like Larry Beasley, Ann McAfee and Ray Spaxman who came before you. What do you think about all the hype around this comparison?

Brent Toderian: Larry has long been a professional hero to me as well, as have Ann and Ray. I knew that the comparisons would be one of the biggest challenges for me, and was ready for some of those comparisons to be unfair; particularly since I was coming from outside the city at 36 years old. I knew that I would be compared to Larry at the end of his city career, not at the beginning of his leadership tenure when he was reported to have had many struggles, himself. Larry has been gracious in sharing what he had learned with me, as have the assistant directors who worked with him for many years. I knew that there wouldn’t be much recognition of the fact that I was coming from the outside to replace two people who had been with the city essentially their whole careers. The learning curve for me would be substantial.

I also knew that we were going into a very different time in Vancouver’s history. As many people have put it: “the easy parts were over.” Although a significant part of my work has still been planning for the downtown, my responsibilities and focus has needed to be city-wide, where 50 percent of the land area was made up of single-detached housing in established neighbourhoods when I arrived. The challenges around Eco-density, the challenges around changing and densifying the rest of the city outside the downtown—and indeed the rest of the region—were going to be much tougher and more controversial, no matter how artful our planning and engagement was.

I’ve referred to the evolution and densification of the existing neighbourhoods in the inner city and suburbs as the greatest challenge of our planning generation, and I knew we would be on the “bleeding edge” of that here in Vancouver. It’s one of the challenges that actually drew me to the job!

The transformations of many North American downtowns have generally been a success, often through the redevelopment of former industrial lands outside of existing communities. This was led by Vancouver as one of the earliest success stories. But the transformation of the rest of the city—and indeed the rest of the region, where most of the growth is happening — is the fundamental challenge of urbanism over the next few decades.

At the same time, a generational shift was about to hit City Hall, with numerous retirements to inevitably follow. Add to that things we couldn’t anticipate — including significant budget troubles, a municipal strike, the 2008 global downturn,  a change in municipal party politics and a politicization at City Hall — and it’s clear that it hasn’t been easy, to be sure. That said, I’m someone who relishes challenges, and I knew that it wouldn’t be easy. I’ve grown and learned a huge amount through those challenges, through the successes and perhaps even more through the failures.

I think Larry knew that things were changing. He’s a smart man, and saw Ann’s retirement and the changing times as a good time for his next chapter. Larry has been a role model of mine since long before I met him. He’s become a good friend and mentor to me, and has always been extremely supportive — as have other mentors and friends like Ken Greenberg and Paul Bedford in Toronto, Jan Gehl in Copenhagen, and Allan Jacobs in San Francisco.

But I’ve never tried to compare myself to Larry or others; I’ve always tried to do my own thing, and plan for the new challenges of the city while learning from and standing on the shoulders of the giants who came before me. It’s true that others have frequently compared us, and I truly hope that such comparisons end with me, and don’t dog my successor.

I think the Toderian approach to urbanism, relative to my predecessors, has been about a greener approach — emphasizing more of a complete city, rather that just a livable city. Emphasizing urban design — yes, in the way the Beasley and Spaxman did — but layering on a holistic approach to sustainable urbanism and a much deeper green design expectation, while at the same time also emphasizing architectural variety and diversity.

I’m pleased to have brought something new to the mix, but it wasn’t about being compared favourably to my predecessors. It was about wanting to do something more and better because the city was ready to go further.

Spacing: Some of the local media initially seemed overly negative, but in the past few weeks that seems to have shifted, with significant support for you – with particular kudos for how you’ve been handling the last few weeks. The more professional urbanist media has been consistently supportive of your legacy, integrity and successes.  In fact, during your tenure you are credited with a lot of really interested projects and initiatives moving forward. One of the most significant, to me, being the Cambie Corridor Plan that set an interesting and different direction from the podium tower densification that most associate with Vancouver urbanism. Which project or projects are you the most proud of, and what ones do you feel weren’t as successful as they could have been?

Brent Toderian: First, a comment about the local press. I think your statement that some of local press has been negative perhaps refers to the fact that it’s tended to refer to the relationships with some key developers or certain community activists. It’s true that when you are working in new and controversial places and with new issues, controversy is inevitable no matter how hard you work at relationships.

Some community activists have objected to virtually everything we’ve done, but I’ve been grateful that many key community leaders have come to my “defense” in the last few weeks, telling about their own positive and respectful accounts and observations. And some developers are not going to be happy with a city planner who has strong and high expectations of them, while many other developers actually have complimented me — even now that I’ve left — for that high and consistent standard.

I think that some of the local media has focused on that controversy, but I’d say that there has also been a great support and recognition of my contribution to the city. I’ve been frankly overwhelmed by the support I’ve gotten around the city since the announcement, and certainly the support from colleagues at City Hall has been beyond anything I would have ever expected.

I’d say the support from the professionals of city building and urbanism has been consistent, with countless calls of support, and many telling stories of their own similar challenges. Some are even calling this a “badge of honour”, a comment I’m not sure i agree with, but I understand the sentiments behind.

I’ve always known that directors of planning don’t necessarily have long tenures, and 6 years has been a long, busy and very successful tenure. I had long heard from Allan Jacobs, who was former Director in San Francisco before he authored Great Streets, and from Paul Bedford who was Toronto’s Chief Planner, that every director of planning should keep “a small mortgage and their bags packed”. Having bought in Vancouver, I sure didn’t follow the first part of that advice!

I also heard that “you should never be so concerned about keeping your job, that you don’t do your job”. That is planning professionalism 101 and it’s certainly critically important for every director of planning. It takes an entire career to build integrity and credibility. Only you can give that away, no matter how much pressure there is to do so.

If anything, this seems to have strengthened the perceptions around the way I do city planning. It shows that every moment, good and less good, can be learning and teaching moments – for you, and for others.

In terms of projects, I’m very satisfied with and proud of  the legacy that I have in Vancouver city-building. Not just the obvious things like the Cambie Corridor Vision and Plan or the addition of four new public view corridors to our glorious mountains and the associated skyline sculpting that will result from 6 new proposed taller towers in-between view corridors that will redefine our downtown. Not just EcoDensity, and the Greenest City Action Plan, and my contributions to the housing, affordability, and rental portfolios. Not just Olympics-related planning and design, a creative and transformative new approach for the 4 new community plans we’ve initiated, an exciting new vision for the city’s two viaducts learning from the exciting “re:CONNECT” ideas competition, and my role on behalf of the City in the new Regional Growth Strategy.

I’m proud of those larger initiatives, but equally pleased with the many fine-grained initiatives as well. Strategic things like laneway housing, one of my favourite and most important initiatives. We’re about to reach our 500th approval, representing an unprecedented and remarkable transformation of the fine-grained city through what I nick-named “hidden density”.  New rules for basements have also significantly added to our secondary suite supply in the city.

I championed a much greater focus on green design through North America’s first LEED Gold policy for all rezoned buildings, and the first District Energy requirements for all larger sites like Arbutus Centre and Little Mountain, that we brought in under EcoDensity. In my partnership with my colleague and friend Jerry Dobrovolny, Vancouver’s Director of Transportation, on the new Transportation Plan update, I’ve championed the use of streets and sidewalks as public spaces, not just as places for people to move through, and I think that championing has had a significant influence in many of our recent initiatives to enliven our streets.

And I’m proud of my vocal and deliberate push for much more architectural diversity and design risk-taking, in a city where I often hear the phrase “we love the urban design, but why do all the buildings look the same?” I’ve lead the design review and negotiations for hundreds of buildings with my talented architectural team, stressing our traditionally strong urban design “at eye level”, artful mixing of uses, and great public realm design  — but increasingly with the new layers of consistently greener design and more architectural variety.

Projects like the Olympics Athletes Village, the new Telus building project, the Hotel Georgia renovation and new tower, the beautiful new Oxford and Credit Suisse office tower designs, and countless others, reflect that new approach to the Vancouver model of design, and I compliment and congratulate all the talented designers in the city for rising to the new challenges.

The recently leaked Bjarke Ingels tower design at the foot of Granville Street, really exemplifies the new approach – a result also of a bit of matchmaking by introducing and encouraging my friend Bjarke and innovative developer Ian Gillespie to work together. I understand they’re also working together now in Toronto. This is indicative of the enhanced role I think chief planners should play, that of change agent and instigator, rather than just plan creator or design reviewer.

In several years, when the many buildings we’ve negotiated have been built, I’m confident that people will start to speak of Vancouver architecture differently – but not at the expense of our traditions around urban design and our new requirements for green design. I am hopeful that my successor will continue this push.

I’ve always tried to take a very holistic and multi-disciplinary approach to city building. I think that’s part of my legacy. The phase I’ve constantly used is, “the complete city”, rather than focusing on partial successes like livability, green, economically successful and vibrant, healthy, and inclusive. I’ve also used “the city that works” instead of the livable city only, and I’m sure you understand the double-entendre relative to the need to grow and mix job-space and other active uses in a more complete city. This is so important in a city where the profitability of residential is so dramatically higher than that of other land uses.

We’re becoming a mature, multi-facetted and more cultured city, where being internationally respected for a few things won’t be good enough anymore. Vancouver always want to do more, be more!

Spacing: And where do you think more work could be done? Initiatives that maybe weren’t as successful as you had hoped and need strengthening perhaps in the future.

Brent Toderian: Well, there has always been much more work to be done, and our planning and development hasn’t been perfect, to be sure. Vancouver has many big challenges, and has a long way to go in addressing them. Certainly the challenges around affordability was one of the things I was very interested in tackling more vigorously. The challenges associated with planning in the Downtown Eastside are significant and I was looking forward to working on the Local Area Plan for the Downtown Eastside — no doubt it would have been some of the toughest and most important work of my career.

And I’m disappointed I wasn’t able to bring about the launch this year of a new, or perhaps more accurately the first, true city-wide plan, something I believe Vancouver very much needs. So, I think it’s been a matter of always being disappointed that the planning team and I weren’t able to get to other things that are critically important to our city. Our ‘to-do’ list was always longer—much longer—than our staffing levels and resources, unfortunately.  This ate at us constantly. What I didn’t get done in the 6 years, will likely continue to haunt my dreams.

Spacing: It is no surprise the holding the director of planning position in a City so well known for its urbanism comes with its fair share of travel. Which projects, developments, or public spaces in other Canadian cities do you look to as inspiration for Vancouver?

Brent Toderian: I’ve always said that Vancouver can learn something from every city, nationally and internationally. That’s what I truly love about every city—they all have something to learn and something to teach. I’ve always been intrigued about taking what’s best about the Vancouver model of city-building and marrying it with the best of global models and initiatives. I’ve had some significant opportunities to explore that through the peer work I’ve done with many international cities that have visited us and invited me to visit them – something I only did on my holidays, by the way, the sign of a true workaholic.

From Copenhagen, Rotterdam and Paris, to Shanghai and Singapore. We always learned as much or more than they did, and I always sought to merge that learning with our best thinking here in Vancouver. It’s so important not to get insulated here, drinking from our own bath-water as they say, and that can be easy, if we’re not careful. We’ve been very busy and my first priority has always been the local workload, but I’ve done as much of this peer learning as I could – often the only holidays I took each year, sadly.

In Canada, I’ve had the opportunity to watch and participate in planning thought across the country, through my presidency of the Council for Canadian Urbanism and other organizations. I’ve been so impressed with the public space transformations in Montréal around their Quartier des Spectaculaire and Quartier International, and along St. Catherine Street and other parts of the historic city and waterfront.

I believe that Toronto has made some very good decisions, building of their legacy of great city-building in St. Lawrence Market and other traditional areas. The planning and design of the new Regent Park is very strong; the new waterfront beaches and public spaces; and the impressive new civic architecture like the new Gehry AGO expansion, the Kuwabara-designed Ballet School and the Jack Diamond-designed performance centre – although I’m not a fan of some of the less urban architecture, like the ROM. Certainly the very recent change of direction around “Transit City” is a very positive step for the future of that city.

Canada is seeing strong and innovative city-building in recent years.  Winnipeg’s Forks District and the wonderful Esplanade Riel pedestrian bridge. Calgary’s Centre City Plan, “Plan-It” city-wide plan, Bow River river-edge redesign and the East Village Plan, and the incredibly bold and brave red Calatrava Peace Bridge.

Victoria’s uber-green Dockside Green. Halifax’s amazing new plan “HRM By Design”. Add to that the strong new confidence and attitudes around city-making and design in Ottawa, Regina, Saskatoon, Edmonton and Quebec City – it’s an important and positive time for Canadian urbanism. There are great examples  of creative city-building going on across the country that are inspirations to me.

Most of my study of best practices, though, have been around international models. Sustainable community building models in Copenhagen, Malmo, Amsterdam, Stockholm, Hamburg and Olso, for example. Bike infrastructure and deep cycling culture in Amsterdam and Copenhagen. So many progressive city-building moves in recent years in New York City, Curitiba, London and Melbourne.

I’ve had great opportunities to travel to many these cities, teach about Vancouver and learn about the best urban models they’ve envisioned and developed. This learning and observation is often the basis for my evolving thinking around an advanced urbanism.

I’ve never lost sight though, of the power of the Vancouver model, our success story, and how inspirational and valuable it can be to other cities. I saw its power, when helping plan the Mayors Climate Summit in Copenhagen with colleagues from key global cities, me representing the smallest city there, but a city that “punches above its weight” urbanistically.

I saw it when we crafted our city-building story for “Vancouver House” at the recent Shanghai Worlds Fair, one of the most visited city pavilions. I saw it in the countless discussions I’ve had with delegations from across the world who have come to learn about our evolving model.

Spacing: What do you think Vancouver can “export” to the rest of Canada in terms of good urbanism; beyond the cliche “Vancouverism” podium tower model?

Brent Toderian: Well, I don’t associate the Vancouver model just with the podium and point-tower model, or to any particular form for that matter. I think that’s a very lazy and simplistic association, that I always try to clarify and expand on, despite being a supporter of the “po-to” form in certain contexts as a very successful and effective design response.

What the Vancouver model is really about is an attitude around city-building where the city designs its future for the commonwealth and the success of the city as a whole. Larry always called it “a city by design” and I’ve always loved that term, as it connotes a deliberate city, planned and designed in keeping with the city’s values.

I’ve also used the term “city OF design”, to suggest that we also want a city with an exuberant and sometimes edgy design culture, from all directions and at the cellular level – this, I think, we are still working on.

The Vancouver model emphasizes that density should always be “done well” with great publically-minded design, amenities leveraged from projects to contribute to the commonwealth, a prioritization of walk/bike/transit in that order, and a series of methods, tools and practices, ranging from the urban design panel to discretionary zoning, to make those visions actually translate into a better city every day.

If I’ve worked on a “Vancouverism 2.0, its been about adding a deeper and deliberate sustainability, more variety in form (more mid-rise and low-rise density), greater architectural risk-taking, and a focus on a complete city, including a new emphasis on protecting and growing job-space, as the goal rather than focusing on ”living first” or just the livable city.

One of the things that I have often observed is that we may not have better visions in Vancouver, but we’ve been better at implementing them. I think it’s that connection between high-level vision, and the tools, practices, and—indeed yes—regulations to implement them. That alignment is very obvious here, and a critical piece of our success over generations.

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You can read the second part of the interview here.

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A special thanks to Yuri Artibise for transcribing the interview.

 

5 comments

  1. Very nice piece—I’ll look forward to the second part. This retrospective reads just a little bit like a pitch to Mr Todarian’s prospective future employers, but that merely speaks to the breadth of his achievements.

    He and I spoke briefly at a recent laneway open-house, and I was struck by his emphasis on policies that create multiple opportunities and multiple use scenarios. There’s still a lot of grandiosity in the world of property development and city planning—the Radiant City may be long-discredited, but people still want to build something huge and pure, and want people to buy into their One True Way in a very conforming fashion. Laneway housing is just the opposite: lots of small builders rather than one mega-developer, lots of different occupants for the homes, lots of financial and other motivations for building them, and a lot of fine-grained design judgement in fitting them into neighbourhoods in a helpful attractive way. In a way, laneway housing is the opposite of the podium-and-tower formula: you’d hardly notice them individually, and they’d never have the visual prominence of those green glass towers downtown, but they have a huge impact collectively.

    About the relative profitability of residential and commercial development in Vancouver: I wonder if there’s a ‘laneway business’ approach? Chinatown used to have alleys with dozens of tiny shops, and of course kiosks and food carts are conceptually similar. Jane Jacobs laid great emphasis on the economic importance of older, somewhat run-down properties in the mix, because they allowed local entrepreneurs to get started cheaply. I wonder if some alleyways full of 10 m² microbusinesses (or even 4 m²) would help? Lots of sustainability thinkers emphasize the need to re-use, re-purpose, upcycle, repair and maintain more, rather than manufacturing new stuff—and a lot of those functions call for small local businesses rather than big factories. I’d love a renewed Market Alley, myself. Might start a tiny tea-shop.

    Anyway, good luck to Mr Todarian, and thanks for this profile. Looking forward to Part 2.

    ps

    You mean “kudos” rather than “kudo’s” and “compliment” rather than “complement” in both cases. 

    db

  2. Hi Dominic Brown,

    Check out Market Lane, Caledonia Lane and Little Bourke Street in Melbourne to see what commercial lanes can be. Little Bourke Street is basically Melbourne’s Chinatown… It’s a street (former lane) narrower than the standard 6m lane in Vancouver. With sufficient rear setbacks, a similar result can be had in Vancouver.

    Cheers,
    Pat

  3. Great interview, well done Spacing and Erick (and Yuri too lots to transribe). The most thats been said so far, really appreciate hearing Toderian’s detailed thoughts and the comments will be important, we all hope, moving forward. Theres a great big hole at City Hall, nobody knows what Ballem’s plan is, or of she has one or cares about planning, and Brent is pretty universally strongly missed already. Conspiracy theories abound, and information sharing is lousy. Nobody speaks, everyone waits to be told what to do more and more – really sad 4 morale.

    Thanks for speaking out Brent, and keep up the great work Spacing.

  4. I’ll say it again, best coverage of Toderian’s legacy anywhere…from the source! Great work, Spacing!

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