Lunch with Brian Jackson

Brian Jackson has spent his life building up to his role as the City of Vancouver’s director of planning.

Brian Jackson, Vancouver Director of Planning | BCBusiness
“We have to help shape our urban environment to make it [work] for as many people who choose to live here.”

Brian Jackson has spent his life building up to his role as the City of Vancouver’s director of planning.

Urban visions came early to Brian Jackson. The City of Vancouver’s new director of planning relates his time as a young boy poring over the designs of Roman villas and the futuristic dome by U.S. architect Buckminster Fuller. While it was undoubtedly a bookish passion (reading and playing bridge, for that matter, are still major preoccupations), a highly practical element played out, too. “I’d recreate these designs as cities not just with drawings,” he explains, eyebrows raised above his tortoise glasses, “but as complete models out of balsa wood.”

The Vancouver-born, Richmond-raised Jackson would even pedal as a youngster into town, clocking the latest developments – including a fascination with the newly constructed Oak Street Bridge. “I was definitely attracted to the urban environment from an early age,” he states between bites of a California salad.

It was an attraction that’s never waned in the 58-year-old’s three decades in the private and public sectors. After taking his masters in community and regional planning at UBC, he landed a slew of national and international roles. In Toronto (in the 1990s) he worked on the city’s waterfront development, then as a planner with IBI Group, the architecture, engineering and planning firm that also sent him to projects in California and Nevada. In the mid-2000s, Jackson managed the Metro Gold Line Transit-Oriented Development project, connecting 11 Southern California communities from Pasadena to Montclair. B.C. beckoned in 2006, initially with IBI, later as Richmond’s director of development and then its acting general manager of planning and development.

Feeling he’s coming home wholly with his current job, Jackson is more than accustomed to the city, of course. But to the uncanny attention attached to his position? Not so much. Just like his predecessors, Brent Toderian and Larry Beasley, citizens often bestow urban planners with virtual rock-star status.

“It’s extraordinary and certainly not something I felt to the same degree in any other job,” he says during a tight lunch at a Milestones minutes from his offices at City Hall. (He’s in demand, with much time spent meeting developers.) “Of course, it represents just how passionately people in Vancouver care about their environment.”

Describing planning as a “very interactive, cooperative, consensus-building process,” he is happy to assume the broader title of general manager of planning and development services that seemingly dovetails his reputation for being consultative. (And diplomatic, too: on the firing of Toderian, he simply comments, “To be honest, it’s not something that I’ve gone into. The position became available; I applied.”)

However, have no doubt that he has a clear vision for Vancouver. The Yaletown resident stresses that there won’t be any hesitation from him in approving and moving a project forward if appropriate. His focus will be on the city building upon its “magnificent, beautiful, physical beauty.” But, as he sees it, “we can’t rest on the laurels of what the creator, or God, or whatever you want to believe in has given us. We have to help shape our urban environment to make it [work] for as many people who choose to live here.”

That potential growth in key spots such as the Cambie corridor, the West End, Grandview-Woodland and the Downtown Eastside has him talking innovation. “There still are opportunities to develop in clever ways,” he says, “where development fits in with the urban fabric and yet provides really excellent architecture and good urban design.”

Generally, he talks about a “thoughtful” approach to density; one concentrated on major arterials and at transportation nodes. For the West End, Jackson describes the need for a “surgical approach” involving not just one-off houses in the laneways, but perhaps two- or three-storey apartments.

They are all part of the nooks and crannies he still spies during his beloved city tours, albeit today they’re no longer by bicycle but on foot and accompanied by his Wheaten terrier, Parker (named for his equally quirky film idol, actress Parker Posey). As for the legacy of Jackson’s balsa-wood model cities, that’s long been promoted into full-scale reality.