The Van Mag Q&A: Brent Toderian

Former chief planner Brent Toderian talks about the art of building a new neighbourhood, the value of failure, and what qualities the next city planner needs to have

April 14, 2016

By Max Fawcett / Photo: Stuart McEvoy

The City of Vancouver is looking for a new chief planner. What’s the hardest part of the job from your perspective?

If you’d asked me what the easy parts of the job were I would have had an easy answer: none. I think the hardest part of the job is the overwhelming expectations that come with it, combined with being often set up for failure. It’s a job that completely takes over your life. It’s a job that in many ways is a no-win scenario. But it’s also possibly the most gratifying job you can have in city making.

So much of the truth of that job will be in how it’s positioned, who it reports to, and who the city manager is. I spent six years as chief planner, and something I say is that the first three years of that job was the best job of my life and the last three years of that job was the worst job of my life.

What’s the most important challenge that the next chief planner, whoever that ends up being, will have to face?

I think the next chief planner has to do some rebuilding. They have to do some rebuilding of trust, some rebuilding of pathways of communication, some rebuilding of credibility, and that’s going to take some work. At the same time the chief planner has to be a visionary, has to be a passionate champion for great city making, has to be an excellent communicator, and also has to deeply understand the complexity of cities. It’s a tall order.

By the way, not everyone who meets that description will want the job. It’s not easy. But a politician said to me recently that with things being so challenging right now, it might be hard to find the right person. And my response was that I took the job because it looked challenging. The right person won’t be afraid of a challenge. The right person will embrace it and thrive in it.

You know a few things about creating a new neighbourhood, given the central role you played in the development of the Olympic Village. What was the biggest takeaway that you had from that experience?

I see the Olympic Village as an example of the power of aspiration, at both the leading edge and the bleeding edge. The neighbourhood has many examples of leading-edge thinking, but it also has some bleeding edge examples. One example is the green technologies—that struggled. But that’s the nature of being willing to think on the bleeding edge and to want to be an international leader. Add to that the pressure that we wanted to be on the bleeding edge with the Olympic timeframe—it’s tough enough to be bleeding edge without having a stopwatch on you that doesn’t get reset.

I’m sure, throughout the course of putting the plans in place and moving through the bureaucratic process, you had a lot of pushback from people who said it was too ambitious and that it was too far out on the bleeding edge. How did you stay the course—and how can others do it now?

To a certain extent, it’s about culture. If you’ve got a risk-averse culture where you see failure as only that—failure—instead of a learning opportunity, then there’s only so far your municipality is going to be able to advance. I’ve always believed, as many innovators believe, that you learn a lot from competent failure. The worst-case scenario is a risk-averse approach where learning is never possible. I think the Olympic Village taught us a lot with its successes, and let’s be clear—its successes far outweigh its struggles. But it also taught us with its struggles. And by the way, when I’m talking about struggles, I’m talking about some of the learnings around the green technologies, especially the ones that were built quickly. I’m not talking about the financial issues, which I continue to believe were highly politicized—to the detriment of the village’s ability to paly a role as an international model, and even to the detriment of the city’s ability to recoup public money. The political football that it became was, in many ways, irresponsible.

I think it gets attention for a few things, but let’s make a list. The U.S. Green Building Council proclaimed it the greenest community in North America. It still has the highest LEED ND points ever given to a community. Not only passive design, but District Energy, which is a game-changer for green city building. Fantastic public spaces that have gotten better every day and every year. People told me, when it first was completed, that it seemed a bit cold. I would say: give it time. And as each new retailer—particularly around the square—has come in, the life of that space has gotten better and better. And not just retailers, of course, but the restaurants and pubs. Now, the Olympic Plaza and the architecture around it represent something that is virtually unique in the world—a new town centre that’s also a retail heart.

When I give international urbanists tours, they always put it into the same category with the best new waterfront developments anywhere in the world. It’s one of the reasons why the neighbourhood gets studied so much. It has mid-rise architecture, which shows we aren’t just a tall-tower city and that we can do every scale of architecture and community-building well. It has affordable housing—20 percent social housing, and 11 percent rental housing, which gets it up to almost a third on some of the most expensive land ever developed in North America. There are a lot of different innovations that were part of the aspiration, but a big underlying factor is that it had to be a great neighbourhood to live in. I live right around the corner in the International Village, and my wife and I and our little nine-month old go to the village all the time. We see families, we see baby strollers, we see bikes, we see dogs, we see people and children, and it’s gotten more and more vital every day. Which is, of course, what you hope a community will have. No community springs to life with perfect vitality—communities evolve. But because we built that community very fast, it’s actually evolved very fast.

Is it the extension of the tradition that was established further to the west in the False Creek lands that were developed back in the 1970s?

It’s not just a descendent of that. It’s a descendent of every stage of Vancouver city making. When you go along the water you can see every era, starting with the 1970s midrise designed around Christopher Alexander’s pattern language theory—green space and midrise housing on the water—at a time when housing on the water was not seen as a viable thing. Then, jumping across the water, you can see various eras of high-rise building. I like to take people to the first part of that high-rise thinking, which is just west of the Burrard Street bridge, and I like to point out all the design flaws there. Those would never be approved now, but they were part of the learning curve. Then you go all the way along the north side of False Creek with the high rises, then back to the south side again, where the idea of high rises was deliberately rejected. A lot of people thought that the Olympic Village should be high rises, but we showed that we could do the next generation of Vancouver city making in a midrise form. To me, it’s not just about southeast False Creek. It’s about the entire continuum of generations on the waterfront, with each one getting better regardless of the height or scale.

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