September 10, 2019

Brent Toderian: It Was the Best of Jobs, It Was the Worst of Jobs

A tale of two city-makers — one, a son of the working poor, who showed an early knack for creation and collaboration, in part through the use of polyhedral dice; the other, a world-renowned urban planner, with a Twitter following as large as the populations of some of the cities he now calls clients.

The two are, of course, the same man. Brent Toderian arrived in Vancouver in 2006 as the new Director of Planning for the City of Vancouver, stepping into the role jointly held by Larry Beasley and Ann McAfee. In addition to being part of the team of “mad geniuses” at 12th & Cambie, Beasley and McAfee were already legends in the planning community for having presided over the era which introduced Vancouverism to North America.

In explaining the trajectory that brought him here — an early passion for law, a degree in environmental science from University of Waterloo (major in urban and regional planning, natch), and early success managing city centre planning and design in Calgary — Toderian plots and connects a few new dots in his life story.

That’s the opening flourish, however, to a more fascinating and controversial narrative, one which to this day still casts a shadow on the political makeover initiated by Vision Vancouver in the early days of their first majority on council (2008-2011). An administrative shake-up of epic proportions placed Toderian — halfway through what might have otherwise been a legendary tenure of his own at City Hall — in a very, very difficult position, one which ultimately became untenable.

If you know anything about Toderian, whether personally, by reputation, or by Twitter feed, you agree with his self-assessment: he has zero tolerance for boredom, he believes planners aren’t (or perhaps shouldn’t be) neutral, and he’s unafraid of speaking truth to power (both the act, and its potential consequences). All of which might explain why he only lasted three years into the reign of then-City Manager Penny Ballem, who replaced her much-venerated predecessor Judy Rogers in 2008 to the chagrin of, …well… almost everyone. It’s an act of political interference still bemoaned for both its immediate and long-term consequences.

But in case that’s still not enough of an explanation, Toderian speaks for himself — perhaps more candidly than you might have expected — as to the impact of that personnel change, and why he couldn’t stay at CoV. Whether due to the mellowing effects of time, fatherhood, or his subsequent success as an urbanist consultant and celebrity with Toderian UrbanWorks, Toderian opens up about this exciting, fraught time of his career, in a fast-moving discussion with Gord.

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Brent Toderian is doing occasional columns for the Huffington Post Canada. Here’s his  first: “Want Families Downtown? Design for Them!”

My good friend Peter Rees, the chief planner for London, England, once proclaimed to a New York audience we were jointly presenting to, that “kids kill downtowns,” referring to the NIMBY that can result when families complain about noise from nightlife and such.

Although his point is valid, the success we’ve had in our Vancouver downtown in mixing families, nightlife and urban energy by artful design says otherwise. Is it perfect? Far from it, and there are indeed tensions, but what it is, is urban, vital, and diverse – what downtowns should be.

 

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