Good Planning Is Illegal

Community planning expert Patrick Condon has smart, practical ways to make cities better. Peter Ladner, president of the Business in Vancouver Media Group, examines how.

by Peter Ladner

It is always nice to discover there is a better way to do things that is not just better, but also cheaper. For years, we build our cities and housing developments according to certain rules, then one day we realize that the rules are all wrong and spend the rest of our days amazed that we ever could have been so stupid.

Stupid comes to mind, hinting scorn and derision, because paying more and getting more is not stupid; nor is paying less and getting less. But paying more and getting less is.

The words “stupid” and “evil” and “wicked” are sprinkled in Patrick Condon’s dissertations on his frustration with the way we build our cities. Condon is the James Taylor Chair in Landscape and Liveable Environments in the Faculty of Agricultural Sciences at UBC.

“Curbs are evil” is one of his dictums, along with “Development cost charges punish the virtuous and reward the wicked.”

Condon has taken on the task of helping communities develop in tune with all the policies so earnestly adopted by governments to save the environment; reduce traffic; make neighbourhoods lively, affordable and safe; allow salmon to live; and make transit viable. In spite of all those widely supported policies, he and other architects, developers, planners, engineers and politicians still can’t walk through a community that embodies all the principles that prove quality of life can come at less expense. But they’re getting closer.

Condon’s specialty is the punishing practice of “charettes". These are closed-door design binges bringing together people with power to make policy changes and practical experts, and forcing them to come up with a community plan before they go home. A few days later, a plan emerges. “It basically comes down to I’ll forget my law if you’ll forget your law,” explains Condon.

Speaking at a conference on sustainable cities in Vancouver earlier this month, he laid out six simple principles for sustainable communities. (

They all seem basic and benign, the very thing we all want in neighbourhoods. There’s just one problem: “These principles are all illegal, in some way or another, when you try to put them into practice.”