— Feature —

Chief Concerns: Edmonton Hasn’t Had a Chief Planner for 50 Years

Edmonton has a lot of big plans, but is it time to appoint a Chief Planner to carry out the visions and advocate for good urban form?

Toronto's chief planner Jennifer Keesmaat. (Courtesy: Toronto Centre for Active Transportation/Flickr)

Toronto’s chief planner Jennifer Keesmaat. (Courtesy: Toronto Centre for Active Transportation/Flickr)

(Editor’s note: Since the reporting of this story, Peter Ohm was officially named Edmonton’s Chief Planner.)

Edmonton has a lot of plans. Big ones. Blatchford, the Ice District, the Quarters—to say nothing of the constant outward growth,
 the inward growth alone means the city will look very different in less than a generation. Other major urban centres that’ve implemented projects far smaller in scale have relied on urban advocates in the form of a “chief planner” to communicate and maintain overall vision. The city’s been without one since Noel Dant in the 1950s and ’60s. Recent changes within Edmonton’s civil service structure may include creating a position of this type, but will it be an advocate for good urban form?

Like a chief medical officer is to our provincial leaders, explains Bill Freeman, author of The New Urban Agenda, “[a chief planner] has a responsibility to give their best professional advice to the public and the politicians.”

“Many politicians don’t want this because they think it’s a competition for the attention of the public.” —Brent Toderian, former City of Vancouver chief planner

Municipal planners overly consider developers’ plans, says Freeman, often leading to poor alignment with larger neighbourhood plans or affordable housing needs. A chief urban planner, however, considers the broadest view with all the components of city-making, from how people move to how neighbourhoods form. A chief planner’s primarily accountable to the expertise and ethics of their field, rather than the politics of an environment.

“Many politicians don’t want this because they think it’s a competition for the attention of the public,” says Brent Toderian, the City of Vancouver’s former chief planner. Now a national consultant, he says the position is critical to overcoming the fractured thinking of individual departments within a city governance structure. For instance, sustainable development and transportation are, obviously, intertwined, yet until a recent shakeup in Edmonton these departments were overseen separately.

Calgary’s chief urban planner Rollin Stanley, Toronto’s Jennifer Keesmaat and Toderian himself are often held up as Canadian examples of what 
a strong chief planner can accomplish. Toderian took on the task of defining and implementing
an “EcoDensity” plan, which, after hundreds of meetings, created a dramatic change to Vancouver’s planning process by prioritizing the environmental benefits of densification. This achievement is not viewed favourably by all, and many believe 
it contributed to Toderian being fired when the political climate changed. Toderian’s adherence to the planning philosophy behind EcoDensity over political climate is an example of what can make a chief planner controversial.

Or take Keesmaat. Her social media following is massive and she regularly blogs or pens op-eds because she has public outreach responsibilities. But her adherence to urban form over political expediency created conflict with Toronto mayor John Tory over the Gardiner Expressway. While he advocated an expansion of the expressway, Keesmaat advocated demolishing it. Her position wasn’t popular with Torontonians, but that is often the case with chief planners; they exist to shoulder the blame for tough but necessary decisions.

The expressway fallout was so great it led to speculation Tory would replace her. “Keesmaat has been more cautious since,” says Freeman. “That
 is unfortunate.” Freeman believes that despite controversy, Keesmaat’s interpretation of the
 role as an advocate is the correct one. “She speaks directly to the public. … This is a welcome development that has helped the public understand the issues before them.”

Considering the natural resistance the general public has to change, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Keesmaat and her counterparts have all been labelled troublemakers. But imagine a similar apolitical advocate for Edmonton. Would 104 Ave. comprise so many suburban power centres? Would the Metro LRT have been better planned?

“The success of a chief planner depends less
 on the position and more on the person,” says Toderian. While he’s often asked to describe the best city structure to support a chief planner, he says it’s more about that person’s ability to navigate the internal structure and collate the various departments’ ideas into action.

Who will advocate best planning practices to the public or our elected officials? Klassen, Ohm or the top urban designer?

Their positions as defined on an organizational chart are not markedly different from the position of top planners in other municipalities. Peter Ohm, who as branch manager of urban planning and environment, is Edmonton’s most senior planner. However, Ohm reports not to the city manager but to Gary Klassen, the GM of Sustainable Development, where issues of zoning, housing, land-use and environment are managed, who in turn is hiring a new “lead urban designer” that will report to Ohm. Who will advocate best planning practices to the public or our elected officials? Klassen, Ohm or the top urban designer?

Klassen says Ohm is in a position similar to 
the chief urban planner and “[the designer] will translate the policy and frameworks into what we see on the street.” Ohm has had a low public profile up to this point, with no social media presence and a quiet voice in the news, but stronger internal and public communication is part of his re-envisioned job. With this renewed focus and all of the major upcoming projects, Ohm’s public profile and accountability will have to strengthen in order to achieve the clout of his counterparts. It’s not just about having another senior manager; someone should be the face of urbanism, infill, density and walkability across Edmonton. But most of all, says Toderian, “the follow through is the key.”

(Editor’s note: Since the reporting of this story, Peter Ohm was officially named Edmonton’s Chief Planner.)


This entry was posted in 2016 Spring, Feature.