From Chief Planner to “Urban Ronin”? Chatting about legacy, and the future, with Brent Toderian – Part 2

This is the second part of an interview between Spacing Vancouver Editor Erick Villagomez and former Vancouver Director of Planning Brent Toderian discussing recent events, his planning legacy, and what his plans are for the future. For those of you who missed the first part, you can read it here.


Spacing: The rise of publications like Spacing—that has quite a young and engaged readership—seems to speak to the possibility that urbanism has gone “mainstream.” The rise of urbanism-oriented product and fashions—everything from nerdy information graphics on t-shirts and poster to plates with urban grids on them—seem to validate this claim. Have you seen the level of engagement from the younger generation increase since you entered the professional world of planning/urbanism? What do you make of this seeming shift in interest from the younger generation.

Brent Toderian: Absolutely. Processes like our Greenest City engagement show that there is an incredible and often untapped passion for city building amongst the younger creatives. But I would debate the thought that interest in urbanism has only grown in the younger generations. What we see here is that urbanism is increasingly ageless.

It isn’t just about the young people and seniors embracing urbanism, with the theory that middle-aged folks with families are still suburban thinkers. I think our own downtown has proven that it doesn’t have to be that way. 7,000 children live in the downtown peninsula—that means families choosing urbanism over the suburbs for quality-of-life reasons. I’m seeing everyone embracing — to varying degrees — the ideas of urbanism for all of the advantages it has. It’s similar to the metaphor for biking of “8 to 80.” Urbanism is ageless. I think that is one of the most interesting—and powerful—trends I’m seeing.

Spacing: The most recent media coverage has focused on the choices for the Mayor’s Affordability Task Force. As someone with first-hand experience trying to deal with affordability locally, I’d love to hear your honest thoughts and insights about how to go about tackling this really complex issue?

Brent Toderian: First of all, I was very pleased to see the quality of people on the Task Force, many of whom I know well. Nathan Edelson and I worked very closely together on planning staff, and he’s a good friend. Mark Guslits is a friend as well, and a colleague in the Council for Canadian Urbanism. I introduced him to the city, so I was thrilled to see him appointed. I think there is quality, intelligence and diversity on the Task Force, so am very intrigued to see what they come up with.

I think that there will need to be an acknowledgement that more strategically-smart supply of housing is critical to the affordability question — as critical as it is for making us a greener city. Although more supply doesn’t guarantee affordability, it is a necessary pre-condition for affordability, and without enough supply relative to demand, prices will only go up faster. Some people have challenged that, but it’s a fundamental that must resist being politicized.

Supply isn’t nearly enough though. We’ll have to get really creative around the nature of the supply, with new models and older proven models that Canada seems to have forgotten how to do. I expect there will be innovative ideas around a sustainable approach to incentives for new purpose-built rental housing, flowing out of the STIR program. We, on staff, had many observations as to what worked and didn’t during the 2-year STIR program, and those observations have great value. We need a lot more secured rental housing, because rented condos are inherently unstable, and more expensive. The Feds and the Province will have to help more with the rental housing challenge, as well — it’s too much for the City to do alone.

I expect the “Whistler Model” and other models of below-market ownership will be investigated, as will new co-housing models, other shared housing models, and social housing developments on City-owned land. We should be trying housing pilots for things like container housing, and doing more with pre-fabricated and modular construction techniques.

Secondary suites can be allowed in all other housing types, including row-houses and duplexes, and the City and the Province has to fix the legal issue around fee-simple row-houses that has frustrated me and others for too long. The Province and the Feds have to be kept on the hook, given that housing is their constitutional responsibility and that they get over 90 cents of every tax dollar — even while the City shows leadership. And solutions must be developed and implemented at the regional level.

The key, I think, will also be to make this a real moment that matters, and that will only happen if everything is put on the table, discussed, analyzed and decided on honestly and intelligently. If there are things that are taboo because people don’t want to talk about them, then this won’t be the moment that it could be, or have the impact that it could have.

On one hand, there has been a reluctance at City Hall to talk about the effect of things like city development charges, public benefits and amenities on affordability. I still submit that the affordability effects suggested by the development industry of such charges are overplayed and strategic on their part, and cutting such fees would increase developer profit more than it would affect affordability — since demand determines price, not costs. Further, such charges often lead directly to affordable forms such as social or rental housing that augment diversity, or amenities that make the increase in density actually livable.

Having said that, I think they should be put on the table and vigorously analyzed, and a definitive answer provided. Up until now, it has been an issue of developer costs and profits, and more of a public relations battle waged by the land development industry against City Hall — rather than an accurate discussion on affordability.

Similarly though, I think everything from the HST to developer spending for things like marketing to international audiences, should also be put on the table and discussed. Rent control should be put on the table and discussed. Limitations on out-of-city ownership should be put on the table and discussed. I’m not saying that I would encourage the adoption of any of these ideas, because often there are foreseen or unforeseen consequences associated with them to our local economy, and I actually don’t support many of them — but regardless, they should be but on the table, discussed and throughly analyzed. If that all really happens — if nothing is taboo, and everything is put on the table — then this Task Force will have done something for the ages, instead of coming up with a convenient taboo-free short term list of actions for today. I wish them luck and urge them to seize the moment with boldness.

Spacing: Continuing on the topic of affordability, well-known urban economist and author Edward Glaeser often discusses the link between the supply of space and the cost of real estate. Simply put, he suggests that the places that are expensive don’t build a lot, and the places that build a lot aren’t expensive. What this means is that growth—not height restrictions and a fixed building stock, etc.—keeps space affordable and ensures that poorer populations and less profitable firms can stay and help a thriving city remain successful and diverse. This also points to a poignant message: that although height restrictions do increase light, and preservation does protect history, benefits like these come with a cost.

This argument really solidifies the point that there is a relationship between the regulations and restrictions placed on development, and affordability. What would you say to the possible irony that the very same planning processes and regulations that have put Vancouver at the forefront of urbanism —ones that focus on building better environments at the cost of development efficiency—are the very things that sustain and exacerbate the city’s lack of affordable housing? And if this is the case, how do you think we could ensure better urbanism while allowing growth to take place?

Brent Toderian: Well, I would say that building a quality city can make it an attractive city, and an attractive city — when the supply is finite — is often an expensive city. So there is some inherent truth to that. But the alternative is to build a city poorly and hope it will be correspondingly cheap. Or to deregulate it and hope the market unfettered will do the right things for the commonwealth. I don’t believe de-regulation will have the positives Glaeser suggests, and think it could lead to many negatives.

Having said that, I often note that there is a big difference between dumb regulation and smart, progressive regulation. There are always dumb rules and counter-productive policies we could and should get rid of. Ones that are actually standing in the way of density done well and positive supply to meet our many city goals, but the smart policies and regulations that have become the basis of the Vancouver model of city building are one of the great reasons for our success. Suggesting that things would be fine if we just got rid of city visions, policies and regulations kind of sounds like the line used around the American banking system these days — and we saw how that has turned out.

Progressive regulation, smart regulation, is a key to not only great city building, but also great economies. Our own market and economy that weathered the global downturn much better than other North American cities clearly illustrates that.

The corollary is that it’s expensive; yes, because people want to live in our great city, but also because of our beautiful natural setting and our perceived resilient economy. All of those are good “problems” to have, so how you achieve affordability in that context is probably the single greatest challenge in Vancouver, as it is in many successful cities. To suggest that we can achieve affordability by simply getting rid of the very city building tools that led to our success is counter-productive and short-sighted.

There are lots of opportunities for growth and supply that don’t block the strategic public views to our mountains that strengthen our beauty and sense-of-place; that don’t overbuild towers and block the sun from parks and public places; that don’t densify parts of the city at the expense of highly valued heritage buildings or character.

At the end of the day, “density done well” that supports our values, preserves and strengthens what is important to us, and adds to the beauty and livability of our city, is the key to providing our supply to an economically successful city, and a greener and more resilient city. Density without vision and smart regulation is likely just density done poorly, and that has been shown time and time again to be bad for the economy and for livability.

Spacing: This of course is a trick question since it is the crux of the problem, but how do you think we achieve that better urbanism and great city you describe through regulations and those tools you state are important, while allowing growth to take place and more affordability to come into play?

Brent Toderian: I think affordability is deeply embedded in all decision-making in Vancouver these days. The key is to do it well, and smartly, to achieve multiple successes, not just one goal. If you over-densify in order to feel that you are achieving greater affordability, you are likely hurting the affordability agenda because you’ll turn people against the very density needed to mitigate prices.

“Density done well” is density with great urban design, strong public realm, great livability and neighbourliness, green design, amenities and diversity of hosting types for social inclusiveness, as well as good active mobility support such as walk, bike and transit. If you don’t have those things, and you over-densify or over-build relative to context or other goals, then all you’re doing is over-building, and the public won’t  support that over time. And they will be right.

In my opinion, you can successfully challenge and expand the public’s tolerances for density with great design and show that — once things are built — many of the fears will be unfounded. But if you go too far, they will indeed be able to say “we told you so”, and your city-building will lose credibility.

The art of density done well is that it can be a platform to achieve all your goals, including affordability, a greener city, a healthier urban environment, greater demographic resiliency, and more energy resiliency. Density done well and great city-building are not barriers to achieving any one of those things; it is the platform to achieving those many things successfully over time.

The great pressure can be that you feel you have to solve a big problem like affordability in one or a few projects, immediately, or else you’ll have missed your chance — the city will be unaffordable and the polar ice caps will melt. The beauty of densifying properly and artfully over a pattern is that you achieve many goals over time in a way that works much better and gets you to where you need to go with the public’s support.

Spacing: I’d like to get back to the qualities required to hold your former position. As you know, some of your personality traits were deemed by some  to get in the way of doing your job optimally. Others praised your integrity, your team-building, and your vision. Arguably, however, these personality traits are the very traits that someone in such a demanding position needs to have to succeed as a Director of Planning for the City of Vancouver.

Bob Ransford recently released a  feature in the Vancouver Sun with what he believes the next planning director should have. Effective Communication, understanding land economics, and a focus on public engagement were a few attributes he listed. Needless to say, they were pretty general and broad. With your intimate knowledge of development and planning in Vancouver, what do you believe are the most important attributes your successor must have?

Brent Toderian: I believe in all of the [attributes listed by Bob Ransford]. I think they are all necessary for a successful director of planning and they are all things I strove to bring to the position.

It may not be surprising, given the approach I’ve taken to the position, but although I believe that a director has to work very hard on relationships, work well with people and be flexible where its warranted  – a significant part of the role is to ultimately be willing to make tough and sometimes unpopular decisions, and always be willing to speak truth to power, with vision, professionalism and principle.

I think integrity and passion are critical to the role, and I would hope that my successor has those, along with the diplomacy that always is needed. Being able to work well with others on your team, across departments, with Council and with the community and industry, and not think of yourself as ‘THE planner for the city”, as it is often characterized by others, is key. I always saw myself as a city planner, yes, but also as a collaborator and leader of a fantastic team.

Having the support and loyalty of your team is critical to the role, or else you will not succeed. I think that has been one of my key successes. I beleive in giving and sharing credit, and one of my favourite phrases is “it’s amazing what you can accomplish when nobody worries about who gets the credit!”

It will also be important to position my successor for success by making sure that the nature of the role and its many responsibilities are well understood, so my successor isn’t dogged with the kind of perception and positioning problems that I found myself dealing with very early in the role.

I believe a chief planner needs to be what my friend Charles Landry, author of the Creative City and the Art of City-Making, calls a “Civic Creative”, someone who skis on their creative edges so-to-speak. Some see creativity as a private sector or non-profit sector thing, but I certainly don’t – it can and must live in City Hall.

I don’t think Vancouver needs a bureaucrat or a yes-person. I’ve always said that we shouldn’t let a rule stand in the way of a better idea, but I’ve found that almost everyone thinks their idea IS better, and most are not.

At the end of the day, I don’t believe that anybody should be the director of planning for Vancouver without being a very sophisticated urbanist — somebody who loves and understands cities and thinks not just about the present, but always about the future in both a visionary and action-oriented way.

Spacing: You mentioned your team, and I’d like to touch upon this for a bit. Much has been said about the “5 minute standing ovation” your staff gave you during your final meeting with them. A lot of people have said, though, that there have been a lot of high profile people who have retired over time and there was some apprehension of the capabilities of the existing staff. What is your take on this?

Brent Toderian:  I want to say that I was very pleased that the people who retired left gradually over time, frequently saying that they stayed longer than they needed to because they were empowered and engaged, and enjoyed working in the culture I tried to create. I had the ability, thankfully, to replace them over five or six years instead of having them all leave at once. This was a important to the successes over the last 6 years. But it’s true that we had to manage a generational turn-over.

What I believe the planning department has now is a group with the talent and creativity to possibly be the best generation of urbanists the planning department has had – if that potential is fostered, trusted, and allowed to be realized. Some may be young, but they are very smart, passionate and sophisticated in their knowledge and urbanist thinking.

I would say there is great ability and even greater potential, and I’m very proud of the role I played in building that talent, and giving it a culture to grow and do great work. I’m going to miss working with them, but I believe I’ve left the planning department in a very good place with the next generation of urbanists.

I think it will be critical for the corporate culture and management approach to allow and encourage them to do great and principled work for the city’s future. If this doesn’t happen, I don’t believe it will be the fault of youth, or a lack of talent and potential.

Spacing: I’d like to continue of the theme of your experience as a planner to-date. Having now worked in both in the public and private sectors in the world of city-building, what would you say are the pros/cons of each?

Brent Toderian: I’ve definitely learned in the last 12 years that the public sector, and municipal leadership specifically, is a much harder challenge. Although the work is long and difficult in the private sector, the kinds of challenges, stresses and politics working as a municipal leader are definitely on another level. I’m always going to have tremendous respect for the municipal leaders that I work with, as I move through my career.

The beauty of the private sector is that you get to have influence and participate in the workings of multiple cities. The slightly odd metaphor I’ve been pondering lately is that of an “Urban Rōnin”, a masterless samurai with honour intact who lends his sword to various cities. Now as you can imagine, not everything in that metaphor is attractive to me, but it’s an intriguing and kind of fun piece of imagery. The idea that I can work with any city — nationally and internationally — helping with their big urban challenges, learning from them, advising and teaching, is the most intriguing aspect of the private sector for me.

I don’t anticipate that I will be doing a significant amount of work for private sector clients, although if there are development clients interested in doing projects exhibiting advanced urbanism that I could be passionate about, I would be interested in that. But I have a lot of respect for the challenges of cities and I’m very interested in working with cities to help with those challenges.

Spacing: This brings me to the future. With the retirement of Toronto’s Chief Planner & Executive Director, Gary Wright on the horizon, people in the field are buzzing about the possibility of you taking the helm around those parts. Calgary is also seeking a new chief planner, and the rumour is you’ve been approached by several American cities, as well. But based on what I’m hearing, it sounds like this may be your foray back into the private sector. With the experience of working for the City of Vancouver behind you, what does the future have in store for Brent Toderian?

Brent Toderian: I knew when I accepted this once-in-a-lifetime position at 36 years old—the youngest planning director in North America as far as I could tell, at least for major cities—that I certainly wasn’t going to retire in that position. It also occurred to me that the chief planner of Vancouver is a unique position in many ways, and probably something that would represent the final role of my municipal career when it was over. So I’ve anticipated for some time now that I would go back to the private sector afterwards.

Having said that, I’ve gotten some intriguing inquiries and offers and I’m keeping an open mind on those. Several discussions continue, and I’ve learned in my life to “never say never”.

But it’s true that my wife and I love Vancouver, and see it as our home. Also, the idea of my own urbanism consultancy—helping cities, towns and regions do their own advanced urbanism, helping them recognize that moment they are in, and have the skill and the will to be bold in that moment, is something that really excites me.

I would say that I’m strongly leaning towards the private sector and in fact have already initiated the launch of my new company, which I’ve named Toderian UrbanWORKS. I’m already having a lot of fun with it!  It won’t just be about teaching or transplanting the Vancouver model. Rather it will be about help and solutions to tough urban problems, and addressing those 8 challenging and frustrating words I often here when I travel and speak elsewhere – “we could never do that in our city!”

I’m very excited about the opportunities for collaboration that are already materializing, with some of the great urbanists in the world who inspire me. 

Spacing: Do you have any final thoughts?

Brent Toderian: I truly love my profession – planning, design and building cities and communities. I’ve always said it was what I was meant to do, that I would do it for free if it came to that. I believe in strong, progressive city planning and the power of great design, in the need for cities to have vision AND follow-through, and that the best way to predict the future, is to design it.

My experiences over the last few weeks, although challenging, have ironically been some of the best and most meaningful of my career. I’ve made sure to soak it all up, learn from it, and come away stronger and smarter.

Being Vancouver’s chief planner for the last 6 years has been both a dream job, and the biggest and most stressful challenge of my life – at least so far. I’ve enjoyed it immensely, and have been greatly humbled by the responsibility that came with it. I’ve been very proud of the work I’ve done, that we’ve done together, and the people I’ve worked with as a city-builder here in Vancouver.

I deeply love this city; it’s urbanism is in my blood. As I move into the future though, to new roles nationally and internationally, I think my greatest contributions in city-building are yet to come, as are the greatest achievements of the City of Vancouver.

The future looks very intriguing and exciting. I wish my friends and colleagues at the City of Vancouver very well and I will continue to watch their work with great admiration.


Another thanks to Brent Toderian for taking the time to speak with Erick over an omelette, and sharing his personal thoughts with the Spacing readers. As well as Yuri Artibise who took the time to transcribe this interview.


If you missed the first part of the interview, you can read it here.


Erick Villagomez is one of the founding editors at Spacing Vancouver. He is also an educator, independent researcher and designer with personal and professional interests in the urban landscapes. His private practice – Metis Design|Build – is an innovative practice dedicated to a collaborative and ecologically responsible approach to the design and construction of places.


Yuri Artibise is a public policy analyst and social media specialist. Through his Yurbanism brand, he explores the ‘Y’ of urbanism by sharing ways to make our cities more livable, community-oriented places one block at a time. He currently works with PlaceSpeak, an online location-based community consultation platform.


  1. Typical for Toderian.
    You throw him a question and he talks, he talks, and talks some more… the city got tired of his talking, that’s what happened.
    Now that he has become Private Citizen Brent, I didn’t think he’ll be talking the same gibberish as before… I was wrong! Ha, ha…

  2. Sez you, “Interim”. Its a long interview, but I really appreciate Toderian’s comments, and agree with most of them. He is already strongly missed at City Hall, now no-one is saying what needs to be said. I and many others hope he keeps speaking and saying what needs to be said.

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