The Urbanarium held an event last night at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre playhouse where Gil Kelley, the new General Manager of Planning, Urban Design and Sustainability spoke about himself, his new role, and his perception  of the new directions for the City of Vancouver.

Vancouver has always had an intense familial  relationship with planning and the Director of Planning for the city. We all want to know what is going on, and what mettle that person has for city making, kind of like keeping an eye on an obscure relative you want to like but want to assure yourself that they are truly related to you. I would say as a City we take this position very seriously, and embrace the process of city planning as a tacit expression of our own exuberance, hopes, dreams, and futurism.

Gil may have said it correctly when he alluded to the fact that both Portland Oregon and Vancouver have  passionate focus upon “urban planning substituting for major league sports”. We want to watch, participate, and if our team is losing, we sure want that Planning Department to know.

Describing himself as an active listener that likes to ask “why are we doing this?” Gil perceives his role as part planning director, and part doctor, diagnosing challenges and creating capacity building opportunities with his staff.

Gil worked for the City of Berkeley California for 14 years, was Director of Planning in Portland Oregon for 9 years, and worked and consulted for the City of San Francisco lastly as the Director of Citywide Planning. He also has an abiding passion for educational advancement of planning and was a Loeb Scholar at Harvard University. He has the unique experience of working in the four big cities in Cascadia “where land and sea converges” and described the issues facing San Francisco in terms of housing affordability and access as the harbinger of what could occur in Vancouver.

Describing the years of  Director of Planning Ray Spaxman’s leadership and that of  Co-Directors of Planning Larry Beasley and Ann McAfee as the decades of “big thinking” in the planning department, Gil noted that Vancouver’s big picture may seem fuzzy, but it is a moment in time to talk about the global impacts of climate change and the transformative global economy. Foresight and imagination are needed to avoid a two class society. Gil described the City of San Francisco where millennials and baby boomers are drawn to the inner core of the city while lower-income people and families left the city. While 70,000 people come to San Francisco annually, 60,000 leave, resulting in a 10,000 annual population increase in a city of 850,000 people.


A new diverse economy supportive of inclusivity and equitable for all people is needed. In the past, traditional city planning and the civic tradition was popular, but now a new alignment is needed to bolster livability, and address the need for social equity. Add to this mix the need to bolster our waterside city against earthquakes and floods, and Gil points out the need for a “four city compact” where San Francisco, Portland, Seattle and Vancouver can discuss and compare urban issues and solutions to common challenges, and the paradigm of inequity.

To create affordable housing, community engagement is needed and trust created with the community. Gil notes in his review Vancouver has the zoned capacity to take growth up to the year 2041, and stresses the importance of dealing with housing as a regional issue. He also mentioned the importance of good city planning for public health, but did not elaborate.

The rapid pace of development in Vancouver means that there needs to be staff empowerment and mentoring for planning staff to problem solve. Gil proposes revisiting the area plans to assess what worked, and what didn’t work. He identifies the need to be proactive, re-evaluate the effectiveness of layered by-laws, and bridge the generational gap, where there are new attitudes about density, development, lifestyle and transit. Couple this with a look at whether community amenity contributions from development are going to their best use, and how sustainability goals can be best achieved.

This Urbanarium event had three men on the stage-one the guest, two other prominent local architects with Urbanarium, all older males, all dressed the same, not reflecting the diversity of the audience and certainly not Vancouver. Gil took aim at the architectural profession, noting that it was time for architectural design to do a better job on the street, with much of False Creek’s older design “looking tired”. He expressed the importance of urban design of public space between buildings, thinking about the “missing middle” a housing form in between single family and apartment living, and stressed the importance of thinking as a region to create livability and equity.

Gil has a thoughtful reasoned approach to city building that will incorporate and bolster the strong skills of planning staff. With his emphasis on strengthening the relationship regionally and building the trust of citizens we may indeed be entering the next phase of “Big Thinking” in Vancouver’s Planning Department.


Director of Citywide Planning

City and County of San Francisco

April 2014 – Present (2 years 6 months)San Francisco, CA

Practitoner in Residence

Toulan School of Urban Studies and Planning, Portland State University

December 2011 – Present (4 years 10 months)


Gil Kelley & Associates, Urban and Strategic Planning

2009 – Present (7 years)

Senior Vice President, Director of Development

Harsch Investment Properties

April 2013 – April 2014 (1 year 1 month)Portland Area, Oregon

Senior Research Fellow, Institute for Portland Metropolitan Studies

Portland State University

April 2009 – March 2014 (5 years)Portland, Oregon

Loeb Fellow, Graduate School of Design

Harvard University

August 2009 – 2010 (1 year)


Lincoln Institute of Land Policy

2009 – 2010 (1 year)

Director of Planning

City of Portland, OR

2000 – 2009 (9 years)

Director of Planning & Development

City of Berkeley, CA

1985 – 1999 (14 years)

Urban Planning Consultant, San Francisco, California

Gil Kelley & Associates

1981 – 1985 (4 years)

Senior Planner

Town of North Bonneville, WA

1974 – 1978 (4 years)