Ray Spaxman: Regarding Vancouver's next director of planning and the pursuit of truth

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      The role of the director of planning

      A planner’s role in the city is, unsurprisingly, about planning. Planning is about finding out what we need to do as a community in order to ensure the best possible future for the city and its citizens.

      The process of "finding out” is a complex one. The planners who do that work well for us are appropriately well qualified and significantly experienced in city planning. They need to be sensitive and informed about environmental, social, cultural and economic factors. They need to be confident and enthusiastic about all aspects of city building. They need to be able to discover and describe the pros and cons of different policy directions, and develop that understanding by engaging (a popular verb these days!) the people of the city in that search, accommodating their concerns and ideas and working with the elected representatives to effectively devise and implement the resultant policies.

      I know this is putting it briefly and you will recognize the myriad of issues that the planner has to deal with. (I have attached at the end of this note two quotes from previous communications with you that relate to this subject.) 

      Some context 

      Some people have asked me to explain the significance of the change in name of the director of planning to "general manager, planning and development". The new title first appeared in the terms of reference for the job when the vacant position was being advertised in 2012. It stated that the position of general manager "also encompasses the statutory responsibilities of the Director of Planning."

      While the director does have a number of significant responsibilities, the Vancouver Charter simply states, in Section 560: "The Council may appoint a Director of Planning, who shall have such duties and powers as the Council may from time to time prescribe.” 

      Council has prescribed that one of the duties of the director of planning is to carry out and enforce the provisions of the zoning bylaw. 

      The person who leads the planning work in cities may be titled “chief planner", "commissioner of planning", "director of planning”, "manager of planning”, “director of planning and development”, “city planner”, and so on. Whatever the title is, it is the terms of reference and listing of responsibilities for the position that count. 

      Through the 1970s and 80s the director of planning, the city engineer, and the city’s chief financial officer, were members of the city manager’s advisory committee, known as “MAC”. MAC was the city's senior management group. As times and people changed over the last 20 years the position of director of planning was sinking lower and lower in the bureaucratic hierarchy as the city manager accumulated deputies and senior general managers around him or her.

      So when the current city manager, Penny Ballem, arranged for the position of director of planning to be included in the new position of manager of planning and development, it could be seen as a strengthening of the role of planning in the city organisation.  

      However, reviewing the actual terms of reference for the search for a new director of planning—now renamed general manager, planning and development—reveals some nuancing around the new position. 

      After describing Vancouver’s "extraordinary achievements in urban planning and design” and noting that the new manager will be "a member of the City’s executive team", it also states, as noted above, “The role also encompasses the statutory responsibilities of the Director of Planning.”

      This next paragraph in the terms of reference is an especially informative one. 

      Advancing bold objectives for sustainability, liveability and affordability, and working within the regional context,the ideal candidate will have the proven capacity to lead high-profile, complex projects. Collaboration, both within the City organisation and with a wide range of external stakeholders, will be fundamental to your success. You also bring strong business acumen and change management capabilities to deliver on a mandate of transformation of the processes and technologies supporting the City’s primary revenue-generating business.” (My emphasis added.) 

      The city also needs to ensure that applicants for the job are judged on their creative and constructive abilities in urban design, citizen involvement, neighbourhood planning, communications, and even, perhaps, to manage the change and uncertainty that is an inevitable part of city planning. It is also important to ensure a thoughtful and knowledgeable process of selection. 

      There is always some tension between elected councils and their planners. One reason for this is because councils have a mandate to implement the policies and directions they promoted in seeking election, while planners are also paying attention to the long term advantages and disadvantages of a variety of policies and directions, and monitoring change.

      One of their roles is to bring those matters to the attention of council. Respected planners are able to advise councils in a way that councillors value. Obviously a planner who cannot agree with council's general directions should work somewhere else. Similarly, councils must be careful to ensure that a new director of planning is the person who will serve them best.

      This is where the tension arises in the current search for the next general manager, planning and development. Should that person have the training, aptitude and experience to perform the role I described at the start of this note?  As well as having good management skills, should that person have a wide range of skills and experience in city planning? Which are the most important skills? Is it to make money for the city, to implement existing and emerging city policies without question, or to be informed about the impact of change, to seek policies to improve the livability of the city and to creatively engage council and the community in advancing those policies? 


      One of the reasons that Vancouver became a city that is widely admired across the world is because of its good planning and its enviable livability. It has been able to identify and address major emerging issues in the city and find new ways of dealing with them. The city invented new ways of connecting community values to the review and approval of ongoing urban change, it discovered new ways of achieving balance between emerging economic, social, cultural and environmental conditions in what became known as Vancouverism, and it found a way to finance needed public amenities along with ongoing private development. 

      But times are changing. The world is undergoing major global shifts that are having new, poorly understood impacts on our city and our lives, especially the lives of future generations. Our next planner must be able to work creatively with council, Metro Vancouver, the development industry, and our rapidly diversifying community and participate in helping them all in balancing efficiency, affordability, accessibility, and communications while handling immediate, medium-term, and long-term needs. 

      Pursuing truth 

      Most importantly, we need a director of planning who will always pursue and present the truth as he or she sees it. The community should expect that from a highly experienced planning professional.  We need a person who is able to assess the pros and cons of wide ranges of alternatives and present them openly and persuasively to all those who seek that advice.

      The director must be able to contend with those who, sometimes at variance with the truth that she or he sees, insist that their point of view will prevail. Clearly that must be done diplomatically and creatively, not a small task but an essential one to ensure the trust of the community in the city’s planning work. Obviously, council must also value this objective for the new person to have any chance of success. 

      My objective is to help the discussion about this important selection process. 



      The City Planner is not God or in Control

      Sep 11, 2015 at 1:43pm

      The City Planner never has been in control of much in fact City planners are simply servants to the Corporate interests of the Developer Lobby & Politicians beholden to that Corporate Lobby.

      Lets not get carried away here with the City Planner is a benevolent God like creature lol.

      The City Planner has about as much control over the Economics / Cost of living in a City such as Vancouver as most people have control over their bodily functions for the excretion of waste.

      The tone, the plan and where and by whom buildings get built is driven by Developers & the Politicians (of all stripes of all parties) who are beholden to these Corporate interests.

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      Sep 11, 2015 at 2:18pm

      Ray Spaxman's article is thoughtful and interesting but I will inject a little reality. Under Vision we don't have a "Planning Department." We have a "Condo Developer Facilitation Office." Under Vision, the new planner's role will be to disregard all previous planning and zoning, and cram every inch of Vancouver with cookie cutter one bedroom glass condo towers. The new planner must demonstrate a cutthroat willingness to sacrifice the city's heritage, character and culture to achieve this goal. He must be able to blindly repeat Vision's spin how each of the new towers is green and progressive without gagging. A particular quality Vision will seek in the new planner is to share Vision's viewpoint that the public is "enemy number one" to be completely disregard in all instances, and sometimes occasionally shown open contempt. Finally the new planner must understand that Vancouver's planning decisions are made by three or four large developers and Bob Rennie. Any attempt to get in their way and the new planner will find himself looking for a new gig, pronto.

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