A city known for vision loses its planning chief

  • Brent Toderian

    Brent Toderian

    Brent Toderian, who has been pushed out of his post as director of planning in Vancouver, British Columbia.

    Photo: PNG Merlin Archive, via the Vancouver Sun

Better! Cities & Towns

Friday, February 3, was a day for dismay in Vancouver, British Columbia. That was Brent Toderian’s final day as the high-energy, hyper-articulate director of planning. 

Six years after Toderian arrived from Calgary to oversee planning in one of North America’s most successful modern cities, the 42-year-old urbanist is being eased out. City Manager Penny Ballem had what has been described as a conflict over “management style” with the outspoken Toderian, and of course the city manager won.

That’s a loss for a municipality that’s been doing extraordinary things to create good living conditions within the constraints of the global climate crisis.

In Vancouver, unlike some parts of the US, it seems to be widely accepted that human activity is dumping too much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere—thus helping to make the globe’s weather more and more extreme. On Toderian’s watch, the 651,000-population city found ways—some of them complex, some of them fairly simple—to allow more people to live in the city, to become less dependent on automobiles, and to enjoy the amenities that well-orchestrated density makes possible.

In a phone interview Thursday evening, Toderian sought to avoid saying anything derogatory about the officials who decided to push him out the door by offering him approximately $200,000 in severance. “I’ve had a good relationship with Council,” he told me.

Canadian press reports make clear that Toderian was let go at Ballem’s urging. Other high-level appointees had left the city in the past few years as decision-making was increasingly consolidated in the city manager’s office. 

It’s understandable that a top-down, command-and-control kind of city management would cause conflict with a strong-minded planning director. In Vancouver, the individuals who have run the city’s planning have generally wielded great influence—more than their colleagues in many US cities.

Dealing with developers

Larry Beasley, who served as co-director of planning before stepping down in 2006, conducted intensive negotiations with developers. (John Punter’s 2003 book, The Vancouver Achievement, documents the extraordinary level of detail that urban planners in Vancouver have been able to delve into when deciding what a developer will be allowed to build and what will be rejected.)

“We have had the most hands-on approach to architectural design and approvals of any city in North America,” Toderian told me. “It was true under Beasley [and under others before him]. All architectural approvals are at the discretion of the director of planning.”

Not every new urbanist likes the towers that have been built in Vancouver, but I’ve been impressed by how much the city has achieved over the past 20 or more years. Towers have been placed so that they avoid closing off desirable views. Tall buildings rise from podiums containing apartments or stores that address the street and make for a walkable setting. Parks and greenways are included in redeveloping areas. Schools are included as well, so that families will be comfortable living in the city center.

Some reports suggest that Toderian has had difficult relations with developers. (He didn’t do the project-by-project negotiation that Beasley did, but then Beasley had a co-director, Ann McAfee, who shared the department’s responsibilities. Besides, the staff under Toderian was smaller than it had once been.)

In a 2009 profile in Vancouver Magazine, journalist Frances Bula said that early in Toderian’s tenure, a group in the city’s Urban Development Institute—the developers’ association—considered asking that he be fired. Development consultant Bob Ransford told Bula, “Brent’s got some great planning ideas, but he’s too theoretical. And he’s rushing ahead on his agenda but often seems to lack the necessary political skills.”

Other developers spoke well of Toderian, saying he treated developers equally rather than favoring just a few. He “demonstrated constantly that urban design was a priority,” Bula reported in the Jan. 31 Globe and Mail.

At a site called Citycaucus.com, Mike Klassen expressed admiration “for his thoughtfulness and his love of city-making. While some perceived his stubbornness as arrogance, I never found him unwilling to discuss or debate anything—ever. ... Toderian was always approachable even when people were spitting mad at him.”

And as Toderian himself has said, “even with the best relationships in the world, a good planner is going to do unpopular things because it’s the right thing to do and it’s in the public interest.” (Straight)

Pushing urbanism

Over the past half-dozen years, I’ve heard from Toderian frequently, and I’ve continually been struck by his ardently he’s pursued an urbanism that is modern—open to contemporary styling and welcoming to high-rises—yet attentive to human scale. Vancouver is well known for its towers, but in the past couple of years Toderian has talked more and more about the need to achieve walkable, transit-supporting density closer to the ground—in mid-rise buildings (four to eight or ten stories) and low buildings.

In the Cambie corridor, where a new subway runs from downtown to Vancouver’s international airport, he has overseen a development plan that’s mostly mid-rise. With Toderian at the Planning Department’s helm, the city instituted new rules enabling development of laneway houses and authorized widespread installation of auxiliary units in single-family dwellings. Those initiatives have the potential to increase density without radically changing the character of neighborhoods.

The Vancouver press credits Toderian with taking then-Mayor Sam Sullivan’s idea of an EcoDensity Initiative and fleshing it out—finding strategies that the city could use to accommodate much of the region’s population growth (in transit corridors, for instance).

“It’s important to do all the forms of development with good design,” Toderian emphasized to me Thursday. “There should be great design at every scale.” The city center, where towers are most appropriate, has been filling up, and some developers wanted to continue building towers, but in other parts of the city, where they’re less appropriate.

“That did create tension,” Toderian acknowledged. “The future of Vancouver urbanism should be seen as predominantly mid-rise and low-rise, ground-oriented.” There are some places where towers might be inserted—discreetly—such as “in neighborhood centers and around Sky Train stations.” But, he said, “they shouldn’t be the prevailing pattern.”

In a city where demand for housing is intense and where housing is “hyperinflated in value,” he has sought to prevent housing from overrunning areas that could accommodate the city’s future business and employment growth. “We were in danger of getting to all living, no working,” he said.

Consequently, Toderian has insisted that the central business district be protected in its status as a job center. He has also argued for protecting former industrial land, which he thinks can become sites for “green enterprise zones, creative industries, urban agriculture, green manufacturing.” There is going to be a “relocalization of manufacturing” because of energy costs, he asserts, and “cities that have the land base for the new industries of the future will be the winners.”

Going global

Larry Beasley has gone on to do consulting in places like Abu Dhabi. Five others in the department also left for Abu Dhabi a few years ago. When I asked Toderian whether he, too, might take his planning skills to the growing cities of the Middle East or Asia, he said he has been “fielding some interesting inquiries from other cities. My strongest interest has always been about global urbanism, but I would like to do it from my home base in Vancouver.”

Meanwhile, Vancouver will be conducting an international search for his replacement.

NOTE: Minor corrections were made to this article at 2 PM Feb. 3.

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