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On March 20, the City of Vancouver announced that its new General Manager of Planning, Urban Design and Sustainability (PDS) would be Josh White, filling a role that had been vacant for six months after the City parted ways with Theresa O’Donnell — who also held the title of Director of Planning — in September. (She is now with the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure.)

White, who started his career as an Urban Planner with Urban Strategies, is coming from the City of Calgary, where he was the Director of City & Regional Planning for the last two years, after stints as the Director of Growth Strategies and Director of Approvals Coordination. Those roles made up his second time around with the City, after previously serving as a Senior Policy Advisor to Mayor Naheed Nenshi between 2010 and 2015. In between, he also spent some time in the development realm, with Dream Unlimited.

With the City of Calgary, White played a big role in developing the Home Is Here housing strategy the City approved in September and the city-wide rezoning effort that was approved shortly after his departure in April. Beginning his tenure with Vancouver on May 1, White arrives at a time when local governments are deeply entrenched in the work of implementing the various pieces of housing-focused legislation the Province introduced last fall.

As the GM of Planning, Urban Design, and Sustainability, White will lead the overall operation, administration, and policy aspects of the department, with Acting GM Doug Smith since returning to the role of Deputy GM of PDS and Matt Shillito continuing on as Acting Director of Planning, which has regulatory and discretionary responsibilities delegated by Council, including overseeing rezoning enquiries, applications, and development permits.

In an interview with STOREYS one month into the job, White discusses his move from Calgary to Vancouver, why he took the job, getting to know his new city, and the work his department is undertaking.

Responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Firstly, on a personal level, how has the move been for you from Calgary to Vancouver?

It’s been really good. It’s a very high-quality organization, very high-caliber group within PDS. I’ve been out here on my own because my family is in Calgary cause my two kids are finishing up the school year. It can be lonely at times, but the silver lining of that is it’s provided me a lot of time the past five weeks or so to really dive into the work and get to know the people within the City and outside in the community, including the development community. Also, because I’m not from Vancouver — I’ve only been here as a tourist — I’ve been spending a lot of time getting around the city and getting to know it better. All in all, it’s been a fantastic move. People have been very welcoming.

I’ve seen some of your tweets about exploring Vancouver and the different neighbourhoods. Have you seen anything that has intrigued you? Anything on a planning and urban design perspective that has stood out to you?

I’ve been to a lot of the more central parts of Vancouver as a visitor. I’ve been finding a lot of interesting things more further afield, more in the neighbourhood-scale of things — discovering a lot of great and interesting [Business Improvement Areas] where there’s a really good commercial hub within the heart of a community. Victoria Drive is a really good example of a really interesting area a little bit off the beaten track that you probably wouldn’t see as a visitor, but really culturally rich and really representative of the diversity of Vancouver. Seeing that first-hand and how important those places are to those communities has been very interesting.

It’s been interesting seeing some of the major developments that have started to unfold outside the downtown core, whether that’s Oakridge, or River District, or Renfrew-Collingwood and out that way. It’s been really interesting to see how those hubs of activity and transit-oriented development have started to play out. Same with Marine Drive and Marpole. Vancouver’s done a good job of starting to grow in more places like that, in a transit-supported way.

The last week I stayed out in the Dunbar area — I’ve been living in different spots in the city — and it was hard not to notice, for instance, West Point Grey and how some of the retailers are struggling a bit. Not a lot of change has occurred, or population growth, to keep the healthy vitality of that, and I think that shows the value of what change and growth and thoughtful development can bring. I think I’ve seen that there is more opportunity for facilitating growth in different parts of the city beyond some of the traditional hubs.

There’s been lots of data over the past few years about people in BC migrating to Alberta, seeking out housing affordability. You just did the reverse. How has the actual process of finding a home been for you? Have you noticed the change in affordability?

In Calgary, in the last 12 months, the metropolitan area [welcomed] 95,000 people. In the western world, that is pretty much unprecedented scale of growth in that short amount of time, so that is definitely putting pressure on the housing market.

Moving from a place that has that relative affordability to a place that’s more expensive — Yeah, I can see it. I’m in a good spot in my career, we’re dual income, we have two kids, and to find housing that is suitable for a family of four was, even for me, no easy task actually. You’re making a bunch of different trade-offs to be able to make that change. That’s okay, I knew what I was getting into it. But there’s nothing quite like the cold shower of being in the real estate market. It’s kind of been slim pickings in the kind of price range we were looking in, but we were fortunate to find a spot.

We’re quite close to City Hall. We bought a condo closeby. It’s a shift in lifestyle for us. I live in an inner-city neighbourhood in Calgary. It’s kind of like Mount Pleasant in terms of scale and type, and close to downtown. My house would be triple the cost in a similar area in Vancouver. We thought the kids would want something similar, but — not withstanding the fact that their two parents are both planners — they were really leaning in to living in a more urban lifestyle and what that could bring. We’re going to Vancouver, why would we want to live the same life that we did in Calgary? We’re really excited.

Did you have any pre-conceived perceptions of Vancouver and have any of them turned out to be different than what you were expecting now that you’re here?

Calgary is twice as big of a municipality so I came from a very big organization already. In the organization, I expected there to be structure and a lot of cultural similarities and that turned out to be even more true than I anticipated. It just felt very familiar in terms of how things operate. That was interesting to see.

What I have found to be a little surprising isn’t the City itself or the organization: I understood that there was a lot of interest in the field of planning and the position I have, the profile it has, but I didn’t quite grasp what the reaction would be. An overwhelming [number of] people have reached out, which is very appreciated.

It’s great to go to a place where people care so deeply and understand the impact of the work that city-building does. Development and planning is almost like a sport, in terms of how people follow it in Vancouver. I really enjoy it. I like that people care so deeply about what’s going on in these fields, because they understand how it can impact their quality of life, their well-being, the future of the city, so it’s been great to see how deeply engaged people are in the future of their city.

You mentioned the profile of the job. This position comes with a fair amount of public scrutiny, and you still took it, so I assume there were aspects of it that you found appealing, either professionally or personally?

Yeah, if you’ve looked at my resume at all, I’ve kind of bounced around. I have a diverse resume. I’m a planner by profession and education, started out in private sector consulting, then sort of accidentally ended up in politics with Mayor Nenshi’s office in Calgary, then ended up in private sector development, city administration.

My view has always been that this endeavour of city-building is multi-disciplinary. I don’t really even call myself a planner so much as a city-builder, because many different professions within specializations contribute to it. We all have different roles in it, but we are all in it together. So, with my career, I’ve wanted to be open to different types of opportunities, to have impact where I felt like I could apply my experience and skillset in the project of trying to make our cities better, because making our cities better has material impact on people’s quality of life and well-being.

At this point and time in my career, when the opportunity arose, I felt like there was a bit of a match between my experience and what the City of Vancouver was looking for. Some of that includes making the types of improvements in process and policy that I’ve been a part of and helped execute in Calgary and — adding on some of my other experiences — it seemed a good match, so that’s why I took a look at the opportunity.

Beyond the match on paper, just talking to the people in the organization, whether it’s Paul Mochrie or the rest of the City leadership team, the senior leaders within the planning department, it just confirmed that it was the right decision and that I’m able to contribute my skillset to this position. That was what was appealing to me, professionally. Vancouver is a very important city, it confronts some serious challenges, and feeling you can contribute to helping solve those problems and have impact in that city, there’s nothing that could be much more appealing than that professionally.

You’re arriving at a time when local governments are focused on implementing several big pieces of legislation from the Province. How has it been for you coming in kind of midway through this process?

The first thing to say about that is that I believe very strongly in the directions the Province is going. I think they were important and necessary actions to take across British Columbia to motivate more assertive action towards achieving housing outcomes. Again, that was part of the reason I was attracted [to the job], because it felt like there was those kinds of tailwinds in order to affect the types of changes that are required to solve problems that confront cities like Vancouver, but certainly across British Columbia.

I know that it’s not always comfortable to have things imposed upon a municipality by the Province, but I think these are good reforms, good directions. Applying them across the entire province, across different contexts is not an easy task, certainly, but I think they’ve done as good of a job as they can.

Receiving those reforms, in some instances the City was already there and had modelled some of the reforms — like multiplexes. But the other changes, the City has been working fast and furious to comply with those legislative directions, with some ambiguity. In some instances, we’re having to take the policy and the guides and try to apply it as best we can. I think with any legislation like this, nobody’s gonna get it 100% right from the start, but the planning department has really leaned in to making sure that we’re aligning to those mandates, because we believe in those.

There’s lots of yeoman’s work in a very short amount of time. There’s sort of a tidal wave of these reports coming, whether it’s for SSMUH, TOA, or other elements. Then there’s of course a whole suite of enabling legislation that is going to transform the planning system. It’s going to change the game in terms of different type of development regime, but I think that’s a good news. It’s a system that will have more predictability, will enable more speed, more production, and so they’re short-term exercises, but there’s also bigger longer-term transformations that will be induced by how the legislative framework is playing out.

I’m someone who has been saying that even if these were imposed through the legislation, these are the types of changes we would’ve wanted to make of our own volition.

Outside of the legislation implementation, what are some of the big items you and the planning team will be working on the rest of the year?

We have a pretty layered policy environment and that’s happened over a number of years, so one of the first steps is cleaning up that policy framework and improving it. Some of that is coming out of Council direction, such as looking at the view policies, and the shadow policies, floorplates, the development guide, trying to streamline literally a couple thousands of regulations that are here, there, and everywhere, and streamlining them into something that’s modernized and aligned with our current imperatives, but also simpler and easier to understand and execute. That’s the first step to create regulatory simplicity.

But also, we can’t wait for that project to complete in order to make improvements to our process, in service of getting to, for instance, more housing, and so that’s part of what I think I can bring to the table. Some of that will align with how the system will transform through provincial legislation, but some of it is just simple internal process improvement that we can make and learn from the successful experience of others. Things do move too slowly, and so we need to implement, quickly, some of those ways in which we can improve our process and create a better experience working with the City of Vancouver through a development process.

Planners in the City of Vancouver have been criticized by various parties for being part of the problem in holding up housing and development or having their own agendas. No judgment on whether that’s true or not, but how do you view your role and the role of staff?

I think there’s clearly a priority and a mandate on achieving more housing, more development, and more equitable distribution of how density and development occurs. The Vancouver Plan certainly lays out that vision. Now we need to get into the hard work of implementing that, which will include the TOA work, the villages work, the creation of an ODP as an implementing mechanism. It’s a good vision, but it requires implementation at different levels, whether it’s policy, or zoning reform, and things like that.

I think when we centre ourselves on an issue like housing, whether it’s staff or whether people in the community, sometimes they worry that they might lose something, but i’m a firm believer that more than one thing can be true at the same time.

If you think about our sustainability goals in relation to housing, there’s not much of a worse outcome if people can’t participate in the housing market here and have to take long commutes from Langley. That’s an environmental catastrophe in terms of outcomes, if this becomes too exclusive of a place for people to participate in housing. There’s nothing more inequitable, if you care about issues of equity, than exclusion.

If you’re somebody who cares about urban design and those outcomes, there’s no reason why we can’t achieve excellence in urban design while also facilitating more housing of all types and tenures. That auto-oriented strip mall that gets replaced by housing? That’s a good urban design outcome. Illuminating for our department and the community how these goals can be — and in fact are — congruent can enable us to align our priorities and how we apply our process and policies to get to those outcomes, and make sure that people understand that it’s not a detriment of other values they care about and can actually reinforce them.

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