Vancouver welcomes new general manager of urban design

Residents come together to hear Gil Kelley's vision for Vancouver

Eagerly awaiting their new chief planner, there was an air of excitement amongst the residents of Vancouver who sat in the audience of the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre on the night of September 28.

“Most of my friends in the US suspect that my wife and I actually came here and took this job in advance of the election,” he joked as the crowd laughed and eased into their seats. “And in this case, I don’t mind if I prove them right.” This is Gil Kelley. He started just a few weeks ago as Vancouver’s new general manager of planning, urban design, and sustainability.

Having lived in the United States all his life, Kelley has worked in planning for Berkeley, San Francisco, and Portland. The City of Vancouver mentions that he has been revered for his accomplishments and ingenuity in the planning realm. With his long list of credentials, Kelley now plans to take on the daunting task of spearheading Vancouver’s current urban issues.

The theme of West Coast Cities ran throughout the evening. As a newcomer, Kelley was quick to draw on his experiences from our geographical siblings to the south at the event hosted by the Vancouver Urbanarium Society. He emphasized how much these cities can learn from each other, as they have mutual concerns over issues such as housing and affordability. They also share a similar civic energy, new city optimism, and environmental and social ethics in politics.

“I sense that there is a moment of time here to really take a big leap forward.”

– Gil Kelley, General manager of urban design

For a city that focuses so much on livability, Kelley pointed out that some of the processes can often add to the problem instead of take away from it, and how the old paradigm for how cities are formed isn’t sufficient for the 21st century.

“I think our four cities have the best chance of cracking that and developing a new paradigm,” he said. “I sense that there is a moment of time here to really take a big leap forward.”

He offered many different areas around the city where he would like to see development. His ideas include taking advantage of the Broadway corridor metro potential, bringing back the waterfront at the base of Granville and Cordova, and reimagining the Millennium Line.

With all his praise, Kelley also wasn’t short of highlighting the ways in which Vancouver’s incremental planning has lost its way over the years.

He found strengths in its leadership as an iconic city, a global model, and as a place where citizens hold the community responsible. However, the future of planning for Vancouver had no larger narrative, he said.

He explained how the planning function had shrunk, and that layering bylaws over the years has led to internal conflict and misdirection on where the city is going in the future. It’s also been affecting Vancouver’s ability to view itself as a whole community.

During the Q&A, Kelley talked about the important role of affordability for the youth of Vancouver. Two of the biggest concerns were the change in the economy and millennials being driven out of the city. These are priorities in his new role as chief planner.

And while the housing crisis isn’t an easy topic to grapple with, he knew one thing for sure: “We can’t just have the people who look like you and I age in place.”

Kelley managed to address nearly all the sticking points for the residents of Vancouver, many of whom congratulated him on it. He was thankful for the opportunity to address everyone, and reiterated how all of his hypotheticals would start to become real problem-solving initiatives as he eased into his job.

Vancouver’s new chief city planner is hopeful, and he wants to challenge the City of Vancouver to strive for the excellence he knows it’s capable of. “Can we continue on the path of livability, can we ramp up the path of sustainability, and can we really take on the question of social equity and inclusiveness? Because that’s the sweet spot.”