I have quickly understood that the planning profession is more high profile in Vancouver compared to other cities I have lived and worked in. But the sacking last week of Director of Planning Brent Toderian really emphasized the point. The news that Mayor Gregor Robertson had sacked Toderian was just that – it was news. Lead story on the CBC radio news. Front page of the Vancouver Sun. What would it take for the Director of Planning in London to make the front page of the Evening Standard? More to the point, who is the Director of Planning in London?
Partly this situation stems from the differing governance structures, where in the UK the head of planning is less visible in articulating a vision for the city and it is normally the lowly ‘case officer’ who presents development schemes to Council. In a discretionary system I would argue the UK planner has less influence on proactively setting policy compared to the US and Canada where land is actively zoned and rezoned.
The other reason Toderian’s firing got such extended media coverage was the emphasis placed on city planning in Vancouver. The city likes to take planning very serious, as shown by the premium placed on urban design reviews, substantial amenity contributions and the development of a ‘Vancouverism’ model. Because the city lacks a longstanding urban form (especially compared to European cities), Vancouver has seen significant change over the last 25 years. This has allowed the planning department to masterplan large tracts of brownfield land, including Coal Harbour and South East False Creek. It should also be remembered that Toderian has followed in the footsteps of Larry Beasley who raised the profile of planning both locally and internationally through a sustained branding of what Vancouver urbanism entails. This has meant that real estate and development are highly visible to locals on a day to day basis and, by association, the Director of Planning is hard to escape from.