Promoting “Density Done Well” to Cities of the World
After six years as Vancouver’s chief city planner and another seven since then consulting with major urban centres from around the world through his firm TODERIAN UrbanWORKS, the eight words Brent Toderian still finds the most frustrating are: we could never do THAT in OUR city.
“It’s remarkable how any city… even the most successful ones, can easily fall into that trap and the mindset of excuse instead of opportunity. Even in Medellin, Columbia which has been recognized by the Wall Street Journal as the world’s most innovative city, they told me when I started advising them that they couldn’t take on the car companies. And I said, you’re telling me the city that took on Pablo Escobar, guerilla warfare, intense poverty and urban violence can’t take on the car companies?”
Leveraging his extensive planning background, including leading the planning and design around Vancouver’s 2010 Winter Olympics, the “EcoDensity” and Greenest City initiative and several years working with cities ranging from Medellin to Auckland to Sydney and Oslo, Toderian says he is often brought in to conduct what he calls an Urban Diagnosis.
“It’s not just about planning and policy. It’s culture, it’s leadership, it’s communication, it’s confidence, it’s psychology… it’s all sorts of things that can really make the difference between success and failure.”
And that includes of course, what he calls helping cities create the “will and skill” to tackle the ‘we can’t do that in our city’ mindset head on.
As a simple conversation starter when working with any community, Toderian turns to what he describes as the Five Steps To Making Better Cities process he outlined in a recent article in Fast Company magazine:
- Doing the Wrong Things (such as building new freeways)
- Doing the Wrong Things “Better” (e.g. designing better cars… such as those that are electric powered or driverless… as opposed to designing for fewer cars)
- Trying to Have Your Cake and Eat it Too (e.g. building bike lanes while still building wider roads)
- Doing the Right Things Badly (e.g. bike lane or public transit experiments gone wrong)
- Doing the Right Things Well (including embracing a culture of experimenting, continuous learning and “nimble” improvement)
When it comes to growth management, Toderian’s guidance is tied to what he describes as Density Done Well. “It’s about how you grow, where you grow and where you don’t grow. And what elements are put in place to make sure you grow successfully as opposed to threatening your quality of life as you add more people.”
The Density Done Well approach includes emphasizing high quality urban design; ensuring amenities that help make density both livable and lovable, and ensuring multi-modal mobility that prioritizes
“making walking, biking and public transit not just possible, but enjoyable, while deprioritizing the car.”
Such an observation on mobility helps to explain one of Toderian’s favourite hashtags on his popular Twitter account @BrentToderian, which he created to challenge a high profile Elon Musk attack on transit riders – #greatthingshappenontransit. It also explains his recommendation (one of 25 he shares in yet another Fast Company article) that people take public transit as often as they can, encouraging those who do to “look around at and engage with the real, honest humanity on display that you’re usually blind to when you’re behind the windshield.”
From Toderian’s perspective, even cities with major challenges can benefit from short-term, temporary initiatives. So while cities engage in much needed long term planning, they should also embrace tactical or pop-up urbanism.
“You can transform your city quickly and temporarily, with great benefit and effect. As we’re building the city we’ll have for 100 years or more, we also need to build the city we have for the next six months in smarter and more creative ways, always learning from what works and doesn’t work” he says. “We need to think about both of those time frames and more. After all, the idea of a permanent city is a bit of an oxymoron. Nothing about a city is ever truly permanent.”
Even when the difference between better and worse are proven… some cities are still doubling down on the wrong path (more freeways anyone?)
Doing the right things badly… can easily set an idea back by years or even a generation.
Successful cities… are still working to outdo each other and get even better.
Having the right ideas… is the easy part. The hard part is persuading cities to change.
Those of us who understand how to build better cities… can’t afford to be boring, or unpersuasive, given all of the noise out there and difficulty in breaking through that noise.