International urban planning guru Brent Toderian fed more than 100 London residents a bitter pill of truth Wednesday evening (Dec. 12).
London is falling behind in key areas related to land use planning, development and transportation, the CEO of Toderian UrbanWORKS told the captive audience during more than two hours of speaking and answering questions at the London Convention Centre.
“To my eye, seeing the rest of Canada and internationally London has fallen behind but it has an opportunity,” he said.
That opportunity is ReThink London, the city’s vehicle for public consultation and input as it writes a new Master Plan. He said it has the potential to drive the Forest City into a leading role in this country.
“London, given its position, its size, the Forest City (moniker), is well positioned to be a leader in smart city building,” he said. “But if it’s too focused on the minutia, or continuing to debate these false choices, like good planning versus speed (of development approval) then it’s going to be hard to make progress.”
One of his many points was that shortsightedness is the bane of great planning and development.
“In 100 years no one is going to care this grey-slab apartment tower was approved 15-percent faster,” he said.
His talk, attended by city councillors Judy Bryant, Sandy White and Harold Usher, was sometimes painfully honest, often soberingly frank and ultimately inspiring.
“I believe in the importance of what I call ‘constructive candor’,” he said. “If you’re not willing to acknowledge where you are, you can’t improve. So when I say ‘you’re behind on some of these key things,’ that candor is necessary if you’re going to change. I don’t like cynicism (or) negativity. You do it with a positive tone about the possibilities but if you’re not honest about where you are, why would people feel the need to change?”
Toderian is a noted speaker and author on municipal planning new-speak. The self-described “urbanist” has worked as a chief planner for the cities of Calgary and Vancouver. He steered that city of 600,000, the most expensive place to live in Canada, through the massive developments precipitated by the Olympics and helped design the uber-green, off-the-grid Olympic Village. He was contracted by the city to assist with ReThink London for the duration of last week.
Toderian calls Vancouver home now, but the University of Waterloo alumnus spent almost a decade in southwestern Ontario, and has worked before with London’s chief planner, John Fleming.
He said London is his favourite city in the region, a place he has “a lot of affection for.” He called on members of Downtown London sitting in the audience to stand as he said this collective is a “mid-sized Canadian success story” that he praises around the world.
He said there is a thirst to do better in London.
“A lot of cities don’t perceive a problem,” he said. “It would be a problem if London didn’t perceive a problem.
“I don’t know how council feels (but) I know how (city) staff feels and my sense is the community feels this is a key moment for the city. I think ReThink is a perfect title. That’s what it’s going to take. It’s going to take a different kind of thinking.”
He said there is a “really, really energetic and powerful discourse” taking place in London right now.
“I’m optimistic because of the quality of the discourse I think staff (members) have created,” he explained. “What they do with that is the next step. You can squander that once you’ve created it … but it doesn’t take just (city) staff. It takes the community, (city) council, the land development industry, stakeholders, everyone being engaged and buying into the fact that a re-think is necessary.”