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RTPI President Janet Askew reports on her official visits to America and Canada

01 May 2015

Go to Seattle and like it. Lap up the last of the west coast hippy era, take in the downtown regeneration, the seafront, the watery setting, the markets, the pubs and the new Amazon campus zone. 

But go to Vancouver and love it!


The American Planning Association Conference (APA) is huge – 6,400 planners – all of whom have reached consensus about one thing – sustainability and how to achieve it.  6,400 people gather together who are enthusiasts for planning and want to promote it, against all sorts of hideous opposition – the apocryphal story is that in some states planners are not allowed to say the word ‘climate’, let alone sustainability.  The massive conference takes several years to organise with the venue for 2022 already booked, rotating round American cities – one year a popular place (Seattle!), next year less popular (Phoenix – sorry Phil).  2017 will be New York – a very good reason to stand for president for that year! Consider your nomination now!

SeattleFinding a familiar face was difficult in the APA conference although finding a friendly face was very easy. The American delegates were very welcoming and accommodating of an English person, including in the vast exhibition hall, where people wanted to talk and engage. In the whole conference, the only person I knew was Colin Haylock, former RTPI president, and finding him amongst 6,400 was unlikely. Soon it became obvious that wherever I sat, or crouched, or kneeled (not enough chairs for the participants in most sessions), Americans are very interested and very pleased to meet an English person.  This was the case in the first session I attended on zoning – a few hundred planners moaning about how complex, bureaucratic and difficult zoning has become. “Who has NOT had a headache with new zoning plans?” boomed the chair of the session.  Just one person put up their hand – and that was me, of course, since we don’t have to deal with the confusing and inflexible zoning codes. Don’t forget this when you hear people banging on about zoning being easier than the discretionary system. They are wrong. And if you don’t believe me, read how to zone a university campus

Janet Seattle 3I attended lunches, dinners, lunches, and dinners – one thing that all the presidents agreed about - apart from climate change of course - was weight gain….

One highlight was the international presidents’ plenary session with the presidents of the RTPI, Planning Institute of Australia, Canadian Institute of Planners, and the American Planning Association, each of us giving a talk about national approaches to sustainability. There was no shortage of initiatives from each country, and some very special stories about the dust bowl in Canada from the president of CIP, while I wanted to present a realistic picture – in some things UK is ahead, but in others we are falling behind.  In a country like the USA that attracts all sorts of prejudice, it was enlightening to hear of the many policies and proposals that planners are pursuing, and not just in the states we know about such as Oregon and Washington. Seattle is a popular place with a hangover of 1960s liberal values, and it might be home to Bill Gates, Starbucks, Jimi Hendrix and Amazon, but it has a chronic homelessness problem. It is the worst I have encountered anywhere in the world and every public open space was home to large numbers of old, young, men, women, all races, many of whom were seriously disabled and mentally ill.  The issue is hardly hidden from the streets, but it is not discussed as openly as might be expected – over 9000 people were homeless on the streets of Seattle in 2014

Colin _profile _photoIt was standing room only for Colin Haylock’s (pictured, left) session on neighbourhood planning and we both answered questions for as long as we could afterwards (queues!). Neighbourhood planning is on the agenda in America and there were plenty of questions about how we do it and to compare methods. One thing is for sure – the RTPI is held in very high regard in USA and amongst our American colleagues.  And, along with the Canadians, they were not unhappy to be told that Thomas Adams had set up their institutes after he established ours, creating great interest in the President’s badge.

Vancouver Houses

In a country like the USA that attracts all sorts of prejudice, it was enlightening to hear of the many policies and proposals that planners are pursuing, and not just in the states we know about such as Oregon and Washington...One thing is for sure – the RTPI is held in very high regard in USA and amongst our American colleagues.

Upon leaving the USA and waiting in the perfectly clean and polished railway station at 0630 in the morning (no comparison with London Bridge first thing in the morning – but with only 100 people taking the 4 hour train journey to Vancouver, it is hardly surprising), I was accosted by the director of planning and a senior planner from Perth in Australia who said that they had enjoyed my speech more than the others.  Perth is also looking at creating an urban growth boundary in one of the most sprawling cities in the world – I was regularly reminded by delegates of the success of the green belt in England.  

Take the trundling Amtrak train from Seattle along the west coast into Canada, along with the guard’s commentary of matters of interest (to a town planner too!), whilst taking coffee in the leather lined dining car. Like passing from Belgium into the Netherlands on the train, you know immediately when you cross the border as the land is suddenly neater, houses painted, logs stacked high and ready for transportation or transit as the Americans say. This is the American-Canadian border. Canada beckoned those early settlers and it is easy to see why.


Vancouver KidsVancouver is undoubtedly one of the most liveable cities in the world – it consistently crops up in listings. It is walkable, easy to cycle, neat, clean, beautifully set with the snow capped mountains surrounding it, three town beaches, huge parks integrated into the city centre, marinas, boats, water, restaurants, coffee shops, independents, and some very historic Victorian style buildings sitting alongside the new high rise area. The photo below captures some of the city. They suggested that property prices were on a par with London, so it is expensive and living costs are high. But it has a very diverse population, and a big gay community and I attended a planners’ community consultation day for the creation of new public open space and LGBTQ community hub – simply by closing a road  (unfortunately the LGBTQ hub relocated to the hotel room adjacent to mine on Saturday night for a massive party…).

Vancouver Parks

I met a quarter of RTPI members from Vancouver City Council – a very nice Irish planner – did I say we have four members there?  I walked through six different neighbourhoods looking at planners’ achievements; and learnt about the distinctiveness of certain places. For example, one street, home to some of the 86 cannabis shops in Vancouver, and in need of regeneration, was being promoted as a street where there could be noise, bars, lit adverts and nightlife, which concentrated these activities away from residential neighbourhoods too. If a shop wanted a large advertisement, it had to be neon!

I gave a lecture to planning students and staff at the University of British Columbia on austerity in the UK and the effect on planning. John Friedman, honorary professor, arrived to hear the lecture, and his knowledge about public engagement, planning theory and China is acknowledged to make him one of the most important planners in the world.

The most impressive thing of all in Vancouver was community housing in a central area of the city, which included the renovation of historic houses, and the provision of gardens and allotments (See photo below). Grass verges are used for planting flowers, and play parks provided for children – and special areas for dogs too – popular in Vancouver. This scheme in Mole Hill was award-winning for its management, design, all the more so for it was located in an area where land prices are extortionate, but planners and residents managed to retain some of the area for social housing. The current President of the Canadian Institute of Planners works in Vancouver, so he was proud to be involved with initiatives like this one.

VancouverIn general the zoning system is very restrictive, but planners fight for value capture as they give way to height in return for some community gain – including historic regeneration, social housing or double rows of new trees. Each time an area is re-zoned, if the land value increases, the city takes some of the increase in value. In Britain, we need to learn what other cities are doing to tackle the rampant rise in developer greed from increasing land values. And Vancouver offers that opportunity.

And so it proves the value of visiting other cities in other countries. The president is privileged to do so and I thank you for the opportunity. I can assure you that I am promoting RTPI and doing as much as I can with my presentations and speeches to as many as possible to raise our international profile.

Coming up

Next month, I will report to you on my next international visits. Spring in Seattle, winter in Vancouver, autumn in Auckland and summer in Hong Kong – the president will have encountered all four seasons in one month. 

You can follow me on twitter @rtpipres