City of Vancouver Urban Design Studio: R.I.P 2004 – 2014

CPR Right-of-Way Concept Study drawing done by Vancouver's Urban Design Studio.

It is with great sadness that Spacing Vancouver must report the unofficial “death” of the City of Vancouver’s highly respected Urban Design Studio. While the UDS label remains on the current organizational chart for the Planning Department (for now, at least), it has for all practical purposes been shut down with the unfortunate departures of former Senior Urban Designer Scot Hein (his position has curiously remained vacant for almost 6 months) and the talented Matthew Roddis who recently accepted a position at the Vancouver Parks Board. Recent postings for each position have omitted all reference to the Studio and the important work it performs.

For those who don’t know the Urban Design Studio, it was founded by former Director of Planning Larry Beasley, and had been regarded as one of his important legacies towards the creation of a nimble, effective civic resource within the often sluggish bureaucracy. I often described it succinctly to others it as a covert design intelligence office within the City that was created to provoke meaningful questions around urban design, separated from the leanings and pressures of the Planning Department and City Council. It offered special creative problem-solving, visualization and strategic thinking across the corporation, assisting with a diverse number of projects including housing as well as cultural and public realm initiatives.

The Urban Design Studio enjoyed great success in its early and middle years. It was even recognized by many other cities – including New York, Dallas, Los Angeles and Abu Dhabi – as the “gold standard” for how such a special resource could motivate economic value creation, while achieving urbanism excellence. The studio’s effectiveness was primarily due to the varied and sharp skills of Hein and Roddis, as well as its unique position in the City that allowed a direct reporting relationship to the Director of Planning – under Larry Beasley and Brent Toderian – who extended the necessary creative latitude for the Studio to participate on high profile, strategic files which needed special assistance. Under Beasley and Toderian, the Studio was often brought in to bolster floundering development files or to bring a creative lens to a challenging community process.

The Studio was highly regarded by staff for a commitment to neighbourhoods and those who lived within them, as illustrated through their high degree of professional rigour and championing best practices. Similarly, it was known for using critical design thought and analyses to help shape conversations on appropriate city building.

Outside of City Hall, the Studio actively fostered meaningful partnerships with schools on issues surrounding Vancouver’s urban design and planning, including the University of British Columbia’s School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture and School of Community and Regional Planning. The well-received Marpole Studio by the UBC’s Environmental Design Students of 2011 was one of many classes that enjoyed the support of the UDS, with Hein and Roddis frequently visiting to give the students feedback and guest lectures, as well as facilitating access to key information on local neighbourhoods through City colleagues.

In all, the Urban Design Studio was a unique and valuable corporate entity. As such, it is truly shocking that the current administration has extinguished it without any regard for – or perhaps any understanding of – its immeasurable worth. Without it, successfully addressing complex urban design challenges in the future will certainly be more difficult.

Many significant contributions to our city can be directly attributed back to the Studio’s existence for a brief 10 year period, and it goes without saying that it will be greatly missed by everybody involved in the process of shaping our city.

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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. You can see more of his artwork on his Visual Thoughts Tumblr.

3 comments

  1. Dear Mr. Villagomez,

    We were somewhat surprised to read your recent commentary on the Urban Design Studio, as it does not acknowledge the majority of urban design work in the Planning Department that has been, and will continue to be provided by many staff contributing their expertise and creative abilities.

    The City of Vancouver Planning Department has an extraordinary history of urban design leadership over the past 30 years, delivered by many talented staff including the Urban Design and Development Planning Centre, a 15 person staff group consisting of architects and urban designers.

    The’ urban design studio’ was created by Larry Beasley 10 years ago, and carried on by Brent Toderian, former Director(s) of Planning. During this 10 year period the ‘Urban Design Studio’, was comprised of only two employees, Scot Hein and Matthew Roddis, who joined five years ago. While some great urban design work came out of the studio, the majority of creative and hard urban design work achieved, including innovative problem solving, visualization and strategic thinking for the past 30 years was led by the Urban Design and Development Planning Centre group of staff.

    Under the leadership of Brian Jackson who joined the City in 2011 as General Manager of Planning & Development Services, the relevance of urban design was critical to the current restructuring of the Planning Department. For the first time, the City has a management level Assistant Director of Urban Design to ensure that urban design has a high profile within the management structure of the entire City. The Planning Department also now has an Urban Design Division that consolidated all the urban design resources that had existed previously across four separate divisions, including the urban design studio (2 staff), the urban design and the development planning staff (15 staff), and is also joined by landscape architects (7 staff) and heritage planners(4 staff). The actual number of urban designers, architects, landscape architects, and heritage staff has actually increased in the last year, not decreased. The studio staff were incorporated in this new structure to provide mentoring and training opportunities for all of the city urban designers, architects and planners also allowing for workload to be distributed in a fair and equitable manner and to ensure that there was accountability for actions, decisions and advice that was provided to the development community and the public. In addition, the Urban Design Division has expanded the Vancouver-wide dialogue on the importance of urban design by launching the inaugural Vancouver Urban Design Awards this past September.

    The Urban Design Division of the City of Vancouver’s Planning & Development Department is a unique and valuable corporate entity, and is committed to all aspects of urban design in the delivery of high quality city building. All of the staff team within the Urban Design Division are creative, thoughtful, and professional and we are proud of all of their accomplishments.

    Regards,

    Anita Molaro – Assistant Director of Planning – Urban Design Division – Planning and Development Services
    Pat. St. Michel – Senior Planner – Urban Designer – Urban Design Division – Planning and Development Services
    Paul Cheng – Senior Planner – Urban Designer – Urban Design Division – Planning and Development Services
    Ann Mclean – Senior Planner – Urban Designer – Urban Design Division – Planning and Development Services

  2. Thank you for your articulate email Anita, Patricia, Paul and Ann….it is very much appreciated.

    I certainly agree with the fact that the CoV Planning Department has an extraordinary history of urban design and that many talented staff have been through – and currently remain – at the City. In fact, I have many great friends and acquaintances that work in the Planning Department: all creative, thoughtful and professional. Furthermore, I consider Patricia’s 2002 Exploration of New House Types report – among others – as one of the most interesting and significant documents to come out of the City in the relatively recent past. Many of you justly deserve accolades for your work and accomplishments.

    With this in mind, the article was intending to speak specifically to the unfortunate fate of the Urban Design Studio, and what Hein and Roddis brought to the City of Vancouver Planning Team. The intention was neither to praise nor condemn the contributions of the UD&DPC group of staff. Doing so, in my opinion, would have steered the piece in a different direction. The focus was to highlight the fact that the City has lost two people who were bright, skilled and – as you mention, yourself – have done some great urban design work.

    I think we can all agree, then, that although talent, creativity and passion remain, the Urban Design Team at the City would be stronger with the inclusion of the Urban Design Studio duo. This was the very purpose of the article and I’m sorry to hear that this important point seems to have somehow been lost in translation.

    Thanks again…and all the best,

    E

  3. Both sets of comments are true in their own way. However, what is missed is the question why. Why did Larry Beasley feel it was necessary to have a dedicated urban design line function in the first place? As the first Senior Urban Designer to fill this role, my take is that the existing Development Planning Division/Urban Design Centre was/is too demand-driven – by development applications – to provide dedicated time on large and/or significant projects.

    Further, both Larry and Brent likely felt having a close and direct relationship to this function so der to their own aspirations for the city allowed them timely access for special studies that the very busy – and, yes, very talented – development planning staff could not undertake. (BTW, Ms. St. Michel’s important work regarding alternate housing types was done while in the CityPlans Division, prior to the creation of the studio.)

    Having said all this, the loss of talents like Hein and Roddis is a sad thing for the City. But I’m very happy that they have seen fit to continue to provide their services to our community, albeit in different positions. I also want to sincerely wish Anita and her staff, many of whom are my friends and colleagues, all the best for continuing the very long and noble tradition of urban design leadership by Vancouver planning staff.

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