Exit Interview: Brent Toderian, Vancouver's Ousted Planning Director

February 13, 2012
Examining his impact on a city after being let go.

For a guy whose name has lately been splashed all over the local media after being fired from his role as planning director of the city of Vancouver, Brent Toderian is eager to talk up his city. We met to talk and tour the city about a week after the news became official that Toderian’s contract had been ended “without cause,” a high profile change in city administration that has left some urbanist-types worried about the city’s future (and some developers in a state of relief or even celebration). Toderian had been a controversial figure for the past six years, but now, as we walk through the city and see some of its hallmark projects, it’s clear that the weight of municipal government is one he’s happy to have off his shoulders.

“I was shocked but not surprised, if that makes sense,” says Toderian. “The management-style challenges have been here for a while. Many of the people who I highly respected at the Hall had already left or had been pushed out.”

Toderian’s termination has been at least partly attributed to the preferences of City Manager Penny Ballem, who has lately been exerting more power over the internal operations of City Hall. Another story line is that the city wanted a different leader to help sell its push for affordable housing and an "end" to homelessness. At the same time, much of the local press coverage around Toderian’s departure cites his own personality and working style as being contentious. One article notes that there were “problems with how the planning department has been working with various groups in the community since Toderian was hired,” and another article cites colleagues referring to him as “brash, intelligent and at times difficult to work with.”

“It’s been interesting to watch the debates about why this happened,” Toderian says. He’s been very diplomatic in recent days, and remains so, with a detectable amount of effort. And yet he’s clearly on message. That may be just because he’s endured a week of press badgering at this point, but he’s also just clearly used to extolling the urban virtues of Vancouver.

Unlike many cities where the planning director is far down a list of decreasingly known (or even known about) bureaucrats, the position has a relatively high profile in Vancouver. It was front page news when Toderian’s contract was officially terminated by the city council, as it was six years ago when he was selected to take over the planning directorship at the notably youngish age of 36. The attention paid to the planning director – and urban planning, in general – is part of Vancouver’s growing identity as one of the most livable cities in the world.