In early February, I had the pleasure of attending the Canadian Association of Planning Students conference in Vancouver. The conference was organized by SFU’s School of Resource and Environmental Management (REM) program. It was attended by a number of SCARP students, along with students from planning programs around the country including the University of Waterloo, the University of Saskatchewan and SFU’s REM program, to name a few. The conference’s timing could not have come at a better time.
For students finishing up their master’s like me, it provided a dose of optimism and a reassurance that this profession is indeed an important one. For students finishing up their bachelors, and for those in their first year of their master’s program, the conference was a real opportunity to introduce a number of different topics that planning researchers and practitioners engage in, including housing policy, public transportation, and sustainability education.
While there were several fascinating panels, keynote addresses and student presentations, the highlight of the conference for me was to hear directly from Brent Toderian. Toderian, who only a few days earlier received news that he was losing his post as City of Vancouver Planning Director, displayed a sense of integrity and confidence in his presentation. Toderian is known for saying that “good planning is not a popularity contest,” an approach he openly followed as director.
He opened up his speech by reassuring planning students that this is a critical profession and one that will shape the coming century. Naturally, he spoke of Vancouver’s major initiatives and accomplishments during his tenure as director, such as housing 7,000 children in the downtown, the construction of laneway housing and reducing car trips into the downtown while concomitantly increasing pedestrian, cycling and transit trips.
Toderian spoke with honesty and realism about the challenges of planning in a city like Vancouver and the multiple competing interests at play, including those of developers, preservationists and citizens. Ostensibly, it was Toderian’s general ambivalence about his vision for the city that bothered some developers and architects, and may have contributed to his termination as Planning Director. He shared a number of insights and planning mantras to capture his vision of planning and how we can make our cities more livable, interesting and exciting, one being architectural diversity through designing buildings that are green, dense and different in detail.
On transportation he exclaimed, “Walkability needs the power of nearness,” meaning that a lot of the trips we make in our urban environments can be walked, insofar as our communities are compact and dense enough. Beyond his speech at the CAPS conference, and the termination of his position as Planning Director, he was admirable for his honesty about change, and what needs to happen.
While perhaps minor, Toderian contributed to the popular planning aggregator “Planetizen,” writing about planning education and topics we ought to think about more seriously. His most recent article featured a discussion of congestion charging and its potential role in making our cities more manageable, efficient and environmentally friendly. Considering the controversial nature of congestion charging, it is encouraging to see progressive planners, like Toderian, recognize its value. While I do not know the full details of his job as Planning Director, I am more comfortable acknowledging his honesty concerning the planning profession and the politics that shape it. In the past Toderian has said that we as planners and urbanists are well suited to be a significant part of the solution to various challenges in society, including air pollution and environmental degradation. He has said that in our best moments we are effective, but in our worst, we are apologists or standing in the way of progress.
Wherever Toderian takes himself next, one can hope that he continues to contribute to the planning field, through online writing, public presentations and other venues. Sharing his wisdom about the achievements under his leadership, and the bitter realities of the political process, are equally as important to convey to the young generation of planners to better prepare us for what lies ahead as we travel the path of planning education and practice.