Greening Vancouver

The city's new chief engineer, Peter Judd, is carrying out Vision Vancouver's green revolution, one separated bike lane and load of recycled asphalt at a time

January 7, 2011

By Frances Bula

The cold wind whips the Fraser River in the industrial no-man’s-land behind the Real Canadian Superstore on Southeast Marine, but the sound is drowned out by the rumble of heavy trucks. When Peter Judd putters in on his electric scooter at 6:55 a.m., the sky is just starting to lighten.

Judd parks next to scaffolding and conveyor belts, amid small mountains of gravel and ground-up pavement. At City Hall he’s known as a stylish dresser, complete with dazzling cufflinks. Today he arrives at the city-run asphalt plant in bright-orange construction-worker coveralls over a thick fleece vest. Heavy steel-toe boots and grey work gloves complete the outfit. Vancouver’s new chief engineer has come here to do whatever his employees tell him to: clean up garbage, sweep under the bins, wash the trucks.

Up in the control room, Judd urges them to “put me to work doing something dirty.” Everyone laughs but makes no move, so he settles on a stool. Bruce Davidson, plant supervisor, and Renato Corbo, an equipment operator, monitor three screens, watching the temperature of the gravel as it’s being dried, taking calls from road crews ordering asphalt or aggregate for the day, and punching buttons to mix up batches of asphalt. Judd asks what they’re mixing and a conversation erupts: test batches and RAP percentage, blue smoke, and the difference between a load of 32 and a load of 52.

They’re soon onto bigger problems. Why, Corbo wants to know, is the city paying for ground-up used shingles when they’re having trouble using all the recycled asphalt they have already? Davidson mentions that street crews keep asking for No. 9, an aggregate of virgin rock which is shipped here, instead of No. 30, which is produced locally and uses recycled material.

The shingles are an experiment, Judd explains. “Sure it costs now, but it’ll be free later. Just hang on.” He speaks in slow, measured sentences, a kind of urban, asphalt-loving Gary Cooper. “It’s just like any new thing-people are cautious. They want to do what works. Part of it is just habit, and part is education. We just don’t spend the time to bring people in and explain things.”

Judd, 52, was named top engineer last July, and he’s been explaining his methodology ever since. That’s because he’s now-in addition to overseeing garbage pickup, road maintanance, water systems, and sewer systems-charged with driving forward many of the city’s ambitious environmental goals. Judd, who’s been riding his bike to work since the mid 1990s and talking about recycling and sustainability just as long, was once seen as something of a radical. That revolutionary spirit has been tempered by more than a decade of management experience. He’s the ideal game-changing leader.

The planners, architects, and sustainability experts are already converts, but it’s Vancouver’s 1,800 engineers who have the real power to change the city-one curbside composting program, trash incinerator, load of recycled asphalt shingles, and controversial separated bike lane at a time. By choosing this man to lead the department, the city is halfway there.

“Engineers have tended to focus on one solution, not a range of solutions,” Judd says. In Vancouver, the most famous example was when the engineering department proposed a freeway across the city in the 1960s. (The project was defeated by a new city council after an uprising in Chinatown.) Today, Judd’s challenge is to inspire his staff to be more creative. “I want us to be perceived as the most progressive, forward-thinking public works department in the world,” he says. More recycling of material that gets taken to the Vancouver South Transfer Station, he’s thinking. More experiments with permeable pavement (which allows water to soak into the earth rather than run off). More local energy production. More electric cars (Judd himself drives one on rare occasions), and fewer company cars (he took away the ones his department’s 69 managers used to drive home at night). And more social media to tell Vancouverites all about it.

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When colleagues describe Peter Judd, they throw around adjectives like brilliant and innovative, demanding and action-oriented. And different. “He’s one of the new-age group, for sure,” says former assistant city transportation engineer Ian Adam, who retired in 2008. Adam himself was considered radical when he started in the 1970s; he introduced then-unorthodox practices, like keeping residents informed about what road crews were up to or finding ways to work around trees. “Before that, the city would go in at night and take down every tree if we needed to,” he says. But the old guard still thought their primary job in transportation was to help gas-guzzling trucks and cars move around Vancouver as easily as possible; bikes and pedestrians were accommodated as long as they didn’t interrupt the flow of automobile traffic.

As a newbie, Judd worked under Bill Curtis, the last engineer to build a bridge (Cambie) or a freeway (the Cassiar Connector) in Vancouver. Even then, as a top grad plucked out of UBC’s School of Engineering, Judd didn’t play to type. As a teen in a Cowichan Bay subdivision, he built boats in the garage of the family home. After university, he tinkered on a small airplane. When the project got too big for his apartment, he moved to a house and finished it in the backyard. He and a friend developed a do-it-yourself paper-recycling kit for kids in the late 1980s that they thought would make them rich. (It got glowing media coverage, but never went anywhere.) Judd attributes this hands-on approach to his mother. One year, she built her own kitchen cabinets; another, she dug a foundation for a garage using only a shovel and a pneumatic jackhammer. “I learned from her that if you need to do something, you just do it.”

His bosses took notice. “In an area that was stagnating or resisting change, Peter would go in and critically examine what was going on,” says Dave Rudberg, who became the chief city engineer in 1992 and started giving Judd challenging projects in different parts of the department. In sewer and water, Judd looked at how to lower the injury rate and devised a system for shoring excavations that didn’t involve heavy wooden beams. In electrical, he sorted out long-standing labour issues. In the works yard, he came up with a system to help mechanics-who were becoming redundant thanks to new computerized vehicles-learn new skills. When Rudberg decided the city needed a new transportation plan in 1995, partly to deal with growing neighbourhood frustration with traffic, he brought in Judd to head it up.

Judd and his team said that Vancouver had no more room for new roads, so everyone would have to start using the streets differently. His group wanted to increase alternative forms of transit to the downtown core. Their target: 44 percent of trips by public transit, 14 by foot and bicycle, only 42 by car. (In the 1990s, about 55 per cent of trips downtown were by car.) They also wanted to tear down the loops from the Granville Bridge and turn the centre lanes of Knight Street into truck-only traffic. “There was some far-out thinking,” remembers deputy engineer Brent MacGregor, who nevertheless supported Judd in a fight to prevent new roads across False Creek Flats.

Judd’s experience on the transportation plan changed him profoundly, he says. Working with city planner Chris DeMarco (who now works for the Metro Vancouver planning department) helped turn him into a committed environmentalist and changed his approach to engineering. This was one of the first times Judd had worked with people from other departments. “Prior to that, I was stereotypical: find a solution and move on. But the process of planning is very different. It’s about getting all the ideas out and letting many people respond to them.”

Some recommendations went ahead (the targets), while others didn’t (the loops, the truck plan). Judd felt so passionately about the transportation plan that he got into a public fight with Rudberg over whether there should be left-turn bays on Burrard between the south end of the bridge and First. Judd argued that the $2 million to do this could be better spent on alternatives to car travel. “You don’t just ignore the automobile,” Rudberg shot back.

After the final plan was adopted, in 1997, Judd was assigned to the sewer and water department. Many at city hall considered it a sign that he’d gone too far. Judd dismisses the idea and says it was common practice to move people around. In any case, it didn’t hurt him: he developed a reputation as a kind of fixer. He got into the habit of spending a shift every couple of weeks doing grunt work with engineering crews. In 2005, to no one’s surprise, he became deputy city engineer.

When Vision Vancouver swept into power in 2008 and senior staff left in droves, Judd turned out to be exactly the person new city manager Penny Ballem was looking for. She put him in charge of Olympic operations when Rudberg, who had worked on the project for six years, abruptly left. (Judd told Ballem that he wouldn’t let VANOC walk all over him, which suited her just fine.) When city engineer Tom Timm announced post-Olympics that he, too, was retiring, Ballem, after conducting an international search, picked Judd. “He stood out for me as someone who hoed his own row, who wasn’t falling totally in line with the status quo,” says Ballem. “The Olympics was a high-risk event, and I didn’t want someone who was going to tell me everything was fine when it wasn’t.” Engineering, so key to the city, had also been “a little bit of a fortress,” she says. “They didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about the rest of the organization, so it was really important that council had someone they could do business with and who would respect them.”

So far, Judd has found approval on all sides. Both the city’s labour unions and business communities have good things to say about the man who’s overseeing the controversial bike lanes and driving significant changes in how public works is organized. The lane behind the Georgian Court Hotel is a mess? We’ll fix it. Pedestrian corridors for the Olympics aren’t working? We’ll adjust them.

Ballem and Judd talk several times a day, harkening back to a time when engineers ruled City Hall. In the early days there was no such thing as a planning department: When City Hall was built, in 1931, architects added an elevator connecting the mayor’s office on the third floor to the chief engineer’s office on the sixth. Over the decades planners took over, but the centre of gravity at the hall has shifted slightly again. Planning, once ruled by visionaries like Ray Spaxman and Larry Beasley, is now mired in messy fights, as community groups oppose the new council’s drive to achieve housing goals by giving developers the right to builder bigger and higher. No one is sure who’s in control-the planning department or council-and the city doesn’t have a Vision councillor with a passion for land use, like a Jim Green or a Gordon Price of yore. But this eco-minded council does care about cycling, composting, recycling, and green buildings. Judd, who pushes his entire department to work faster and think more creatively, is perfectly aligned with their goals.

His ability to execute will depend on how well he manages risk. Engineers are prone to be conservative. “We always say what engineers create lasts for 100 years, so you have to be careful not to do the flavour of the day,” says Rudberg. “There are always young engineers who want to make change for change’s sake. But everything has to be grounded in science. Investments are for the longterm.” Judd is “still a bit out there,” he says. “But I don’t think that’s bad. He reflects the traditions of the department and he also reflects the tone of the times.”

Judd himself is careful not to push too hard, but he has lots he’d like to do. Like change the garbage system. When food scraps can be added to the yard trimmings bin, the pickup should be weekly. Regular garbage pickup could be reduced to once every two weeks, if decomposing food is no longer there. And recycling, he says, should be combined in one bin so it can be lifted mechanically. (Judd took on a recycling shift recently; it was a brutal experience that left him sore for days and convinced him that the city needs to change the system so there are fewer injuries.) All these ideas, however, will cost millions. “That’s not something we want to mess up,” he says. “It’s worth taking more time. We’re not throwing out due diligence.”

It’s this attention to detail, this cautiousness, that drives him to do manual work with the crews. Back at the asphalt plant, staff finally found some grunt work for him: he spent the shift pouring concrete manholes and catch basins. Judd noted, with satisfaction, that they-creatively, efficiently-were using leftover concrete to make decorative sidewalk stones, with a mould that was originally intended for manhole covers.

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