Brent Toderian, Founder, TODERIAN UrbanWORKS

Brent Toderian, TODERIAN UrbanWORKS | BCBusiness

After his controversial contract termination as the City of Vancouver’s planning director in 2012, the jet-setting urbanist founded his own firm as a consulting city planner rather than diving into another public-sector gig

What originally drew you to city planning and urban design as a young man in Ontario?
I’d say it was partially by design, partially by accident. I spent my childhood travelling around cities and towns in Ontario with my father, who was a country music singer. I got very used to the idea of exploring a new city and figuring out where the things were that I needed. That became part of my DNA. I stumbled into city planning as a profession on my way to law school. I found an undergraduate city-planning program that was described as an excellent pre-law program. But I ended up falling in love with it.

What made you take the leap from working as a planner in Ontario and Calgary to taking on the role of Canada’s youngest city planning director at the City of Vancouver?
I had always assumed that I would stay in Ontario and in the private sector. Then I saw people like Larry Beasley in Vancouver and Paul Bedford, who was chief planner of Toronto at the time, and these people made me realize that the best weren’t necessarily in the private sector. I left the province to head to Calgary, which was really the big move of my career. I thought I would do it for a couple of years and would head back to the private sector, but I ended up falling in love with it. I love civil service and the concept is very important to me. And even now that I’m back in the private sector, I still consider myself a civil servant, which is why many of my clients are cities. My work in Calgary put me on the radar for people like Larry Beasley. He and I became friends and he became a mentor to me. At a certain time in our relationship, he said to me, “You’re going to get a call someday. Be ready.” The call came when I was 36 years old, and my first reaction was to not be interested. The work I was doing in Calgary was too important and I didn’t feel ready. Larry convinced me to put my name in and as the process went along, I became more and more interested and confident that I might be the right fit for what Vancouver was becoming.

What are some of the accomplishments you’re most proud of from your six-year tenure working for the city?
My predecessors had built something special and a culture of a city by design and great urbanism, and I didn’t want to lose that. The challenge was to take it to the next level, whether that meant greener, more socially inclusive or more architecturally interesting. Both eco-density and the Greenest City initiative did that and I’m proud of my role in both of those. I’m very proud of our work with the Olympic Village, and I constantly hear from external reviewers what a world-class project it is. I’m disappointed it became such a political football for reasons that had nothing to do with greener city-making.

In a controversial move in 2012, city council terminated your contract with the city without cause. What went through your mind at that assumedly chaotic time? 
I think it was initiated by the city manager and put council in an interesting position. My first thought was to be concerned for my staff and to make sure they were protected.

Since leaving the city in 2012, you’ve founded your own consulting firm, Toderian UrbanWorks. What made you dive into the prospect of working for yourself rather than taking on a similar city planning director role?
I don’t think there’s any municipal planning job in the world that would’ve been as hard as the job I already had. When I got that job at 36, I knew I wouldn’t retire in it. So I had always assumed that when the time was up, that I would start my own firm. That had always been the plan.

What made you stay in Vancouver?
I got many interesting feelers from many different cities. But my wife and I didn’t want to move from Vancouver. We had decided this was our home. And once you’ve had the position of chief planner of Vancouver, there aren’t many chief planning jobs out there that are tempting.

What sort of projects have you been working on as head of UrbanWorks?
I’m working with a team on a study for the suburbs of Ottawa, doing a new citywide plan for Regina and I’ve done work here with North Vancouver and Surrey. But I have other cities contacting me asking me to play a more ongoing, embedded role with them. It’s based not only on my experience with city-making, but also on the fact that I understand how city halls work. Cities as close as London, Ontario, have established this relationship to [and cities abroad] as far away as Medellin, Colombia; Helsinki, Finland; Sydney, Australia; and next week I’m headed for my first trip to Auckland, New Zealand.

What direction do you see Vancouver taking from an urban-design perspective? What sort of trends can people expect?
We’ve always been a city by design, but now there is more pressure to just build more and more. Now there’s pressure to generate this many rental units or this number of social-housing units. It’s more urbanism by math or urbanism by checklist rather than urbanism by design.