Definitely not SIMCITY

How Brent Toderian helped transform Vancouver into the world’s most livable city

an illustration of Brent at a computerFrom 2006 to 2012, Vancouver’s chief planner, Waterloo alumnus Brent Toderian (BES ’92), guided the city through a period of challenging change and densification, emphasizing sustainability, urban health, better mobility choices, more diverse architecture and “complete communities.” Now he advises ambitious cities and best-practice developers across Canada and all over the world.

We asked Brent to share some observations about the state of global city-making and how cities can be more successful by changing the conversation, challenging the status quo and moving past an often reactionary debate. 

Challenge the status-quo

Conversations about change in our cities can get pretty rough at times, because change isn’t easy. Studies have actually shown that as humans, we have a bias for the status quo, and we tend to fear loss more than we value gain. Plus, where we live is personal — our relationship with our street, community and city is one of the most important relationships in our lives.

Change the conversation

I’ve worked across the world, and the cities that are doing the most interesting things are often the ones with the most active, engaging, informed conversations about how the city is changing, and how it needs to change. In some cities, I joke you can’t swing a stick without hitting an event on any given night where an element of city-making is being discussed and debated. It’s just constant. Even if people are occasionally getting salty, they’re engaged and learning, by talking with and listening to their neighbours as well as experts, and hopefully by rethinking what’s possible. Having an increasingly more educated conversation about better, smarter city-making that includes all kinds of people, not just the “usual suspects,” is often a first step to better city-making outcomes.

Move beyond NIMBYs vs YIMBYs

It can feel like much of our discourse and debate about change in cities lately reflect an overly simplistic battle between “not in my back yard” (NIMBY) perspectives, battling with the more recent advent of “yes in my back yard” (YIMBY) perspectives.

I often champion the slightly different concept of QIMBY — “QUALITY in my back yard,” to try to evolve the conversation, not because I’m hoping to create yet another buzz word, but rather to make the point that if we could change the conversation from a blunt “yes or no” about density to a conversation about HOW to do density successfully, we will ultimately achieve more density. 

Make density livable and lovable

If density in cities is treated as just a mathematical exercise, whether to respond to a “housing crisis” or to prove that a particular government is “open for business,” it can easily become an exercise in “urban cramming.”

To make density livable and lovable, as well as sustainable, resilient, equitable, healthy and just, it needs to be the result of an engaging process of design.

Density done well, as I call it, is density that’s designed to successfully reflect our many public goals and values. Yes, that includes aesthetics, but it goes well beyond that, to how smart design implements our shared values and integrates the kinds of amenities and elements that support individual, family and community life, like parks and people-places, daycare and schools, community and cultural facilities, heritage, trees and nature, and public art. And don’t forget obvious things like shopping and restaurants that you can walk to.

Make active transport your city’s first, second and third choice. Few city-making ideas would truly transform a city like prioritizing walking, biking and public transit. That’s what Vancouver did in the 1990s with a game-changing transportation plan, and I’ve called that the most important urban design decision Vancouver ever made. Lately I’ve worked with many cities around the world inspired by Vancouver’s prioritization, and helped them do the same thing — but writing it down and making it policy, important as that is, that’s the easy part. Making it TRUE, in every decision, budget, rule, standard, policy, design — that's the hard part.