Sustainable Cities™

Brent Toderian: New technology and EcoDensity

Brent Toderian is Vancouver's former Chief Planner (2006-12) and President of the Council for Canadian Urbanism. He takes a critical stand on new technologies ability to solve the urban problems and discusses the EcoDensity.


Vancouver's EcoDensity Charter has been an important green city initiative emphasizing compact, mixed-use, and walkable communities, over high tech solutions. However, companies such as IBM, Siemens and CISCO are hard-pitching their smart cities solutions to our planning problems. In this interview we speak with the authorr of the EcoDensity principles, Brent Toderian, on the pros and cons of turning our cities into laboratories and the relationship with the fundamental green and resilient city planning principles.

Do we need new technologies to fix our cities?

Well, I think cities can benefit from new technologies and new tools, and I certainly think it can add value to the way cities are run, but they do not replace the need to do city planning or city building properly in the first place. I think there are many cities that are trying to retroactively apply technology to solve problems that were caused by the pattern of the city itself, and that won't work. The best technology for running transit will not work in a city that is low density, separated, and sprawled. I am a little worried that the technology discussions will distract us from the tough choices of fundamental city building that we need to make.

Can technology save cities ?

I've been asked to speak on SmartCities at conferences and I remember one in particular, where I was asked this question and on either side of me was a technology company talking about their products, trying to sell them to international cities, many of which have very small budgets, and are struggling with what to do. And I think I disappointed my friends on either side of me, because I said that the real technology for city building is the understanding the technology of compact, walkable, mixed used communities, using what I call the power of nearness, where everything is proximate.

Is there a need for planers to relearn the fundamentals of city design ?

I think there has been over the last few decades, a relearning of civic design, yet it's not ubiquitous not every planner understands it and there are still many city planners, architects, and landscape architects, who are part of the problem, still separating things, still planning for the car, and not the people. There is a learning curve, but I also find it a matter of what I call will and skill, many of us know the right answers, and we've seen the best practices, what works and what fails in others , and yet we continue to replicate the failures, and not implement the successes.

How does EcoDensity absorb disturbances to economic, political and environmental issues…?

Well EcoDensity was an initiative about how density was the bedrock for many of the solutions to problems we face in cities. It was a fundamental to make EcoDensity non political and to engage politicians from every party about the very tough discussion of density. It has reached a point where density is still controversial, but we have gotten pass the threshold and is not a conversation about if we do EcoDensity and it is resilient in that sense, because it is contextual and under the scrutiny of how to do it well.

Will the compromise between economic, political, and technological issues plague cities indefinitely?

It worries me that there is a discussion that economics is more important than social or environmental needs, because there is no separation between them in my mind. Everything is interconnected in cities, and the cost of not taking any action on the environment is staggering.

What are your current favorite examples of new provocative way or methods of looking at cities?

I was very excited by the grand visioning of the future of the Paris metropolitan area, it is very progressive to think of the region as a city instead of vice versa. I think Copenhagen wanting to be a city of 50% cyclists and the innovation on district energy is also inspiring. The truth is that every city is doing something inspirational, in particular Bogota and Curitiba, because they do not have a lot of money, and how are proving to be innovative with a low budget. Every city can learn from each other in this global dialogue we now have.

About Brent Toderian

Brent_Toderian Brent Toderian is President of TODERIAN UrbanWORKs in Vancouver, Vancouver's former Chief Planner (2006-12) and President of the Council for Canadian Urbanism. He is a nationally and internationally known practitioner and leader with over 20 years of experience in advanced urbanism, city planning and design. Brent Toderian also played a peer advisor role, and established strong mutual-learning relationships with many global cities, from Copenhagen and Rotterdam, to Singapore and Shanghai.

Last updated Tuesday, January 21, 2014