What should the city be looking for in a new director of planning?
What is the culture of planning that we aim for?
Gord Price: Back to transitions, and what a remarkable panel we have. We’ve been able to bring together these past Vancouver planners to discuss the city’s future. They led as directors of planning for half a century, providing continuity; a remarkable achievement by any stretch. They will speak for five minutes, on this question of what we should be looking for in a new director of planning, and more importantly, on what should the city be looking for. What is the culture of planning that we aim for? We’ll do this in reverse chronological order, beginning with Brent Toderian, then Ann McAfee and Larry Beasley who were co-directors of planning, and then Ray Spaxman.
I suspect we may come at this question from different perspectives, and I might be the only past chief planner who was the subject of an event like this when I was hired. I remember following this conversation from afar while I was going through the hiring process, and how impressed I was about what it said about Vancouver as a city where you could gather a crowd and get media attention for what kind of person the chief planner should be. I remember thinking that the public felt that if we could just hire another good chief planner, everything will be all right. I don’t feel that way now. I have concerns that go well beyond this particular HR question of who the next chief planner should be.
I look at the context of Metro Vancouver as a region, and see planning stripped out of TransLink for austerity purposes after two rounds of cuts. I can no longer name the strong regional voice for planning – the new Ken Cameron at the regional level. I’m lucky to work across the region now and know there are many chief planners in municipalities who are doing very good work in very challenging circumstances with different political positioning, often working quietly because their councils would rather their chief planner be seen but not heard. But they are getting good and creative work done and that gives me some hope. A lot of the city-making and region-making going on right now is being done by provincial ministers or by the premier, it seems, when you look at impacts of issues like the transit referendum, or decisions about the future of the ALR, that are fundamentally affecting the nature and future of our region, and not just our city. I think it’s a legitimate question to ask whether we still care about strong, smart planning in this region, and whether it’s still part of our identity in the way that it felt like it was when I first came here almost 10 years ago.
When I think about the HR question at City Hall, I wonder if they even want a chief planner who is going to be the kind that we all aspire to be – principled, provocative, outspoken. None of us on this panel are shy about saying what we feel needs to be said; speaking truth to power, so to speak. I’m not sure that is what the powers to be at City Hall want anymore. The jury is still out on what the new City Hall will be – they are hiring not only a new chief planner but a new city manager, and filling several other leadership positions. So if I were a planner now looking at this job, I don’t know what I would think about whether this is a good moment to be a chief planning in Vancouver.
I’m an inherently optimistic person, so I don’t say any of that to depress you. I say it because it’s a challenge for all of us to think that this isn’t just a matter of needing to hire the right person this time. I think we need to look fundamentally at the nature of the kinds of messages we are sending as a city and as a region about whether planning and design still matter.
When I first started the job in 2007, I spoke at an event in another city. And at the end of it in the Q&A, someone asked, ‘how do we get a planner like you in our city?’ I don’t think they meant that I was particularly intelligent. But I was passionate. I cared. And I was talking about the city. My response was, you need to ask yourself, and the city needs to ask itself, if you want a planner like me, because many city halls want their planners to be quiet, to go along with the political will, to play the game of credit and blame, instead of being politically independent. I think our Vancouver City Hall has to ask itself that question now, what kind of planner do we want?
I’m asking a question which is somewhat like Brent’s: do all good things need to come to an end? I’m not negative, and I answer, “no they don’t need to come to an end.” Gord asked us to talk a bit about vision and how that linked to the new planning director.
A moment of background. Most of you will recall that the first World Urban Forum was here in 1976, and I remember people saying that Vancouver is a kind of unspectacular city in a spectacular setting. 30 years later in 2006, the World Urban Forum was here again. And people were holding Vancouver up as a showcase for new types of urban innovation – in a vibrant inner city with families, in financing growth, in public engagement.
The question that came up just after that time, is” what else is there to do?” There were many outstanding initiatives. We had CityPlan, and while I think a lot of the directions are still relevant, the whole process stalled. The community identified 19 neighbourhood centres but only two actually went through rezoning and I’m not sure that any are underway now. While we are still internationally recognized for public engagement, I’ve had visitors come recently and say this looks like the ‘same old, same old,’ what people did elsewhere – the planners do the plans and the public responds and says, ‘where did this plan come from?’
And there is the question of research, which is seldom raised because most of these folks are more interested in doing and designing than researching. My focus was more the research side. I think it’s often forgotten that most of the policies that we came up with had very good intellectual foundations. The policy for families at high density which brought children into the downtown wasn’t haphazard; there was a lot of research, including by people like Penny Gurstein interviewing people who were living in family housing at the time, asking what works and what doesn’t. The policy has stood the test of time.
When we did DCLs and CACs, we had to balance community needs with market viability. A lot of fiscal impact analysis was done. I don’t see a lot of that happening now, and I’m hoping that when a new planner comes in, and with a new government that may restore the long form census, that indeed there will be again some analysis of needs in the city as baby boomers age and more people come to the community while resources continue to be very tight.
So I think there is a lot of work to be done to set new directions, new ways of doing things.
I’d like to comment on the new planning director position. It’s now a general manager for planning and development services. This is quite different from what Larry and I were. General manager means that you sit at the corporate management table. Now that sounds pretty good, but I sat in that place for six months covering for Jacquie Forbes-Roberts, and the amount of time spent worrying about the latest service improvement fad and next year’s budget cuts meant that planning didn’t get done. So I’m concerned about the general manager having time taken away from planning. Then there is the question of development services. We were lucky that a lot of development services, such as the chief building official and his area, actually happened in other departments. I believe there are about 300 people in the expanded planning and development department, about double what we had, requiring a greater amount of management for the larger and more diverse set of responsibilities.
And that brings me to planning. I echo what Brent said, but I would notice that while we were in the planning department, the really interesting Council priorities were by and large being led by planning, or by planning co-managing with engineering or finance.
Today, those exciting projects, what I call the fun projects, are being managed out of the City Manager’s office. Housing, the green city initiative, a lot of the inter-government relations where planning might in the past have written documents like the ‘new deal for cities,’ are all happening in the City Manager’s office.
There is a question about what the planning department has left on its plate that Council is interested in. I’ve been listening, and there is a lot of interest in a new city plan or similar initiative. For those calling for a new plan, let me finish with my experience. When in the late 1980s the planning department thought we needed a new plan and Council had no interest in it at all, we tabled the Vancouver Plan and it still sits on a shelf. A few years later, when Council was coping with NIMBY and they wanted to hear from the community, suddenly planning ramped up. Over a few years, some 100,000 people under the inspiration of Council, and with planning managing the process, started talking about the future of Vancouver. CityPlan was the result. Now you may be calling for a new plan, but if that’s not Council’s priority, I would suggest the challenge is to look at how you adjust Council priorities and not bash the director of planning for not delivering a new city plan.
I would say timing is everything. If Council is willing to tackle some of these issues, then let’s hope the new planner is there and ready to roll. But I think most importantly, let’s hope that all of those new initiatives aren’t short-term projects in the City Manager’s office but are really part of a broader ongoing initiative. So I don’t think good things need to end, but I certainly think the new planner needs to learn about Vancouver and the current directions – some that work, some that need to be changed. And listen particularly to the community, who are very knowledgeable. And then lead in some of the new directions to try and make sure Vancouver stays one of the most liveable and sustainable cities in the world.
I’d like to start by noticing that there were two other events before this event. And I was very happy to see those events because they involve young people and the public to start talking about the planning issues of the day. And if you haven’t seen some of the material that came out of there, I refer you to the website, to look at that because I think it should be informative for anyone that has to deal with the questions that we are dealing with tonight; it’s advice that comes from people who are the recipients of the services of planning.
I’m a little different than my colleagues who have spoken before me. I believe profoundly that the planning that a city does is determined in large measure by the audacity and the aggressiveness and the intelligence of the planners who do the planning. One thing about being a has-been in one city is that you make your living in other cities. There are innovative, amazing, aggressive planners at work in cities all over the world, who started when the planning was at bottom ebb. In Auckland, New Zealand, an extraordinary planning team is at work; in Toronto, Jen Keesmaat has brought planning back from the edge to the centre.
No single planner does the job of chief planner; it’s the entire planning organization. It’s done by hundreds of smart intelligent people. Rhonda Howard is in this audience. She should be the director of planning because she was the director of planning on many issues that we dealt with, because we worked as a team of intelligent people. But the leader, the chief planner, has to be a person who inspires, who goes out and fights for planning, who establishes that it’s necessary. The chief planner is a leader who does not wait for a politician to tell you they want it – they are never going to tell you they want it – you have to go and convince them it’s the right thing. The chief planner could be a good administrator and all that, but I want a planner in this town who has a vision for this place, who has a vision for great cities, who knows what good cities are about, and who will push all that forward and inspire all the planners in the organization to do the best possible work that they can do.
We haven’t in my opinion had proactive planning in this city in the last few years. We are still dealing with plans that are obsolete, and become more obsolete every day. The reason we have such affordability problems is that we are 10 years behind planning the city to address the supply of housing, among other things, and the new methods that we need bring to affordable housing. These things are not being done in the city and they need to be done by an innovative, forward-thinking, visionary planner. That’s the first important thing that has to happen.
Second, the chief planner has to be a great communicator’ a person you listen to because you believe in what that person is going to say, and because you know you are going to learn something. And you know that person is going to listen to you, as well.
Finally, I want that planner to have a hell of a lot of passion in what they believe in, so they stand up to politicians; and they build a huge constituency of people in support of whatever needs to be done, so that when they talk to Council, Council knows they are speaking for hundreds or thousands of people.
You have to remember that the chief planner in this organization is leading one of the most transactional development management processes in the world today. We decide what developers can do according to a negotiation, a discussion. And you know what? It’s proven to be one of the most effective systems in the world. Except that in the last few years, we’ve forgotten how to use it. We don’t take advantage of the benefits of it. People have forgotten the basic intentions of it. The planner has to be a great negotiator; a great political actor. They have to be a person that has a natural gravitas that brings with it a sense of truth of what they are saying, and a sense of pulling people together and getting things done; and be able to negotiate with those powerful people who would prefer to control the city rather than the planners that represent you. You’ve got to have a planner in this town who believes in this town, and who believes in these people.
That brings me to the planning culture that that planner has to sponsor with all of their colleagues. I can tell you from my experience all over the world, that we have a great planning culture. We have great technical skills. We have great insights. We have great principles. But what we have lost in the last few years is demolishing all of that: we have forgotten how to talk to our citizens. We don’t know how to do public engagement anymore. It frightens me when I’m invited to a neighbourhood as an old has-been from the past because no one in the planning department or the director of planning will come and talk to them. No one will tell them how the process might work. No one will listen to them. And then you have processes where everyone dances around, and then the planners decide to do something else.
We have to bring back a commitment to real public engagement in the planning of this city and we have to let the city be the result of that public engagement -not just a bit of window dressing on the side which I think it has become. If we can bring back that involvement and all those tens of thousands of citizens into this discussion about the city of the future, you can have faith that it will be a great city. And then your planner becomes the agent for that. That’s what I’m looking for in the next regime of planning here in Vancouver.
It’s interesting to see all the characters sitting here who played a part as director of planning from 1973 to 2012. We are all so different and were all relatively successful, and made lots of mistakes and screwed up, and we’re human.
One of the things about the new director of planning is that he or she is going to be human, so they’ll have a difficult time rising to the standard of a man on a charger with a flag driving everybody in a direction. There is a subtlety about the relationships that a human being has to have, recognizing their own strengths and weaknesses, and gathering experts around them. And most of the experts are the people who live in the city and experience the city. When I was an area planner in Toronto, I learned very quickly that it was the little old ladies who came into the office who knew how that place worked, and not the incoming planner, in my case from England with a strange accent, trying to tell them how to do planning. That was a learning period for me, when I first formed the thought that it was the people that mattered. Every organization, and every part of any organization, that denies that fact is harming the place. I agree with the speakers that this been harmed in recent years.
If the next director of planning comes in too strong with this Council, there could be some difficulty because you know who leads planning at the present time. But fortunately for us, the Vision Council have some very good principles – sustainability, greenest city – and they need to be supported and encouraged in what they are doing. But they also need to be guided delicately, carefully. We have to deal with them with as much respect as we have for all of you. So that same respect means kindness, love and one big element is truth. If the next director of planning doesn’t want to tell the truth or is afraid to tell the truth, they are no use to us.
So even if they last six months and have told the truth, they will have a better impact than if they last 15 years. Now was I telling the truth? Or is it something more subtle than that? There could be something subtle going on because I was accused all the time of being extremely naive, a director of planning. I’m still a very naive guy. Now how do you interview for truth, love, care? You can interview for many other things. If they are going to be the planner, they must first of all have to a planning degree. They aren’t easily earned these days, and most educational systems are pretty good in teaching people that ethics are important as well as statistics.
So how do you get that balance is what we hope a wise council will look for? Council doesn’t just have to hire a director of planning. They have to hire a City Manager, too. With both of those people gone, they have an opportunity to do something very profound, and that is bring in a planner in who is a planner. There is a lot of discussion here about management. I like what Covey says. The important thing in a position like this is to lean the ladder on the right wall – that’s leadership. The person who gets you to the top of the ladder and then finds it’s not in the right place may be a good manager. But the leader has to have the combination of leadership skills, human skills, communication skills, and an ability to handle a council, which is very tricky business.
But things are changing. I think federal, provincial, regional, and city political systems are changing. The people have had enough. I think the last election proves there is a wind of change and we can catch that wind. And maybe this council has enough subtlety in its understanding of human beings and what goes on to recognize that they need to shift in order to represent the population properly.
If we believe what I believe, there are a lot of people here with a lot of empathy for what we are saying, collectively, although if we had a debate you’d find a lot of disagreement here this evening. One of the things I enjoyed so much about being the director was that my staff disagreed with me and we had debates about that. And they tackled me on the fact that I was wrong. And that was enjoyable because when you have a disagreement or another point of view, then it’s good to have the discussion.
These transcripts have been edited for clarity and conciseness. Please refer to the videos for complete remarks.