City Planner Rollin Stanley's Big Vision for Calgary

His hiring last spring garnered the kind of media attention this city normally reserves for franchise-building NHL acquisitions — an extra-firm handshake that both welcomes and warns: “We’re glad we got you … so long as you’re prepared to deliver.”

The team Rollin Stanley had been drafted to lead, however, isn’t the one headquartered in the saddle-roofed hockey arena, but the one in the shiny blue building just a couple blocks to the north. In June 2012, the new general manager for planning, development and assessment officially hung up his shingle in a sleek corner office in the new wing of City Hall, rolled up his sleeves, pushed his long-by-executive-standards hair off his forehead and got to work.

As with any newsworthy hire, Stanley’s reputation preceded him — both positively and negatively. The positive deemed him progressive, energetic, a risk-taker. The negative was that he was confrontational, controversial, a rogue. City manager Owen Tobert felt the need to issue a disclaimer in the official announcement of Stanley’s hiring. Having made comments that were “offensive to members of his stakeholder communities” in his previous role as director of planning in Montgomery County, Maryland, Stanley had “accepted accountability and took swift measures to address the controversy, make amends and move forward,” said Tobert.

Maybe he needn’t have bothered. After all, this city has a heightened tolerance for public officials making offensive comments (see Klein, Ralph). By hiring Stanley in light of and in spite of his tussles in the east, Calgary scored the planning equivalent of a franchise player at a key turning point in the city’s development. As this once free-range entity matures into a sentient city, the rubber-stamp planner is becoming as outdated as the car-centric suburbs this style of planning promoted. Stanley, on the other hand, represents the kind of planner every forward-thinking city wants and needs — one that looks at how we’re living, not just where we’re living, pinpoints the unsustainable and unaffordable practices and then has the gumption to say whoa.

Becoming a city planner

A passion for city planning doesn’t necessarily require an urban upbringing. Stanley, 54, was raised, for the most part, in northern Ontario. His dad was a mining engineer. His mom stayed home and raised the six Stanley siblings. Stanley's boundless energy would find an outlet in track and field. He reached elite status in high school in the long-distance events, competing all over Ontario, across Canada and even London, England.

He’s facetious when asked about how he became interested in his chosen field, stating that he wanted to make good money but wasn’t good in math, so that ruled out engineering. After graduating from high school, Stanley resisted going to University in Toronto (not interested in living in a concrete jungle), but, eventually, he capitulated and enrolled in Ryerson University’s civic planning program in 1977.

Following graduation in 1981, he was hired by the City of Toronto and, as he settled in, the city began to grow on him. He loved the diversity, the culture of the place. His job also freed him to travel, Europe being his favourite destination, as much as three times each year. Looking back on the 21 years he was there, Stanley sees Toronto as a place where planners are held in especially high regard. The department divided the city into areas, with a planner designated for each. “Nobody burped in land development or business development unless they came in and saw you first,” he says.

Why leave then?

“It was too easy,” Stanley says. “The challenge had ended.”

Anticipating that he might want to work in the United States at some point, Stanley had taken steps to acquire professional accreditation there while he was still working in Toronto. “The cities [in the U.S.A.] have greater funding opportunities,” he explains. “It was a much more creative environment.” In December 2001, he saw an ad for a job leading the planning department in a major urban area and applied without knowing which city. When he was contacted for an interview, the first thing he said was “You’re going to have to tell me where it is.” As it turned out, it was the city of St. Louis.

Bringing St. Louis back

If Stanley was looking for a challenge as an urban planner, a sharp 180 from soft-touch Toronto, he got it in St. Louis. The city’s downtown core was deserted, reeling from the loss of approximately 514,000 residents over the past 40 years. Detroit has since become the poster city for Midwest American municipalities in decline. However, Stanley points out, while Detroit has lost a greater total number of people, urban St. Louis actually lost a greater percentage of its population over the same period — an overwhelming 65 percent.

One of his last professional concerns in Toronto had been whether or not the balconies on a condo project were extending too far over a sidewalk. In St. Louis, his department was trying to rebuild an urban economy after years of suburban flight.

Developers wouldn’t touch many of the city’s heritage neighbourhoods since they couldn’t sell the homes for enough to cover the base cost of building them. His department’s work drawing investment to the city’s hardest-hit neighbourhoods was reflected in successes related to social welfare — reduction of underweight births to teenaged moms, reduction in STD infection rates and statistics of kids in the city successfully tested for lead poisoning. “The rewards were high there for the smallest things you achieve,” Stanley says.

Still, Stanley speaks glowingly about the city, its people and his time there. “I am who I am today, professionally, because of my six years in St. Louis,” he says. “I learned more in St. Louis in six years than I learned in Toronto in 21.”

Controversy strikes

 He made his next professional move in February 2008, taking on the position of director of planning in Montgomery County, Maryland, an urban municipality bordering Washington, D.C. The primary challenge there was dealing with both a foreclosure crisis in the affluent suburbs and with the shifting ethnic makeup of the population on account of the influx of Spanish-speaking minorities into the historically white, Anglo-Saxon county.

“The issue there is that the county wouldn’t be competitive in the job market if people couldn’t afford to live close enough to where they work to make a go of it,” Stanley says. “This made the case for the diversity agenda.”

It was here, however, that Stanley would experience a different kind of professional challenge — that of bad press. In charge of land conservancy, he was faced with a situation two years into his tenure in which an elite girls school had illegally cut down trees to expand their playing field. The issue was complicated further after hurricane damage made it difficult to determine exactly which trees had been felled. Stanley’s solution included a proposal for the school to offer kindergarten-to-graduation scholarships to two underprivileged students. For this, he claims, he was slammed in the Washington Post, accused of brokering a “sweetheart deal” for a religious institution since the school was Catholic. “It’s not about what you do in Washington in the eyes of the press; it’s about how you do it,” he says, his bitterness palpable. “It’s not about whether you’re doing the right thing; it’s about whether there is any crack they can open up and make you look bad.”

Welcome to Cal-burbia

By comparison, the “controversy” that first greeted Stanley in Calgary seems relatively tame. He was said to be in possession of a bumper sticker that declared: “I don’t do suburbs” — a bold statement foreshadowing trouble ahead between his department and the powerful lobby of developers of single-family homes on the city’s fringes. In fact, that bumper sticker doesn’t even exist. Stanley’s story, anyway, is that he once made the reference in passing and somehow ended up tagged with it.

While there’s no trace of the incriminating sticker in Stanley’s current office, there is, however, a new sticker gifted to him by council on his first day. This one reads: “I do suburbs, but I do them right.”

This conciliatory position is somewhat at odds with his reputation as a bureaucratic enfant terrible and a verbal brawler. Even in his mid-50s, Stanley exudes chomping-at-the-bit energy. He practically crackles. You can see why he might get into trouble from time to time, running his mouth when he should be holding his verbal horses. It’s hard to say whether the restraint he shows comes about honestly or whether it’s on account of the chaperoning member of the City’s communication team at his side, silently taking notes.

It also might be the wisdom of his professional years reminding him that coming out swinging on issues such as the need to curb suburban sprawl isn’t necessarily the best approach here. “This is the first place I’ve worked where the development industry is so partitioned,” he says. “While there is an umbrella organization called the UDI (Urban Development Institute), from what I’ve seen, they don’t represent inner-city developers very well. In fact, I believe most of the membership is the green field developers. What I see is the homebuilders, the people building the single-family homes predominantly in the green field areas, are the strongest lobby.”

He believes that doing suburbs “right” means taking a hard look at whether or not the City’s tax base will be able to afford their upkeep down the road — a matter of dollars. “You can never raise the taxes enough on single-family homes to pay for the infrastructure that exists under the streets in front of them,” he says. While higher-density residential developments pump tax dollars into the City’s coffers, laying down the same number of living units on 50-foot frontages is a financial drain.

He’s seen the damage unchecked low-density suburban development inflicts on older municipalities in the U.S. and believes Calgary is still young enough to avoid going down that same path. Montgomery County, for example, designated US$14 million toward road upkeep last year; however, the total it needed to spend was more in the range of US$375 million. “They’ll never catch up,” he says.

Admittedly, the demand for single-family homes exists here for the same reason as in other places — people like houses. Gas prices are still reasonable enough not to be a deterrent to commuters, and, while traffic congestion on the major arteries is a headache for many residents, it’s still not severe enough at this point to force people to consider a major lifestyle shift. Therein lies the challenge: to convince a booming city to consider leaner times. “Calgary is very successful,” Stanley says. “When you’re down on your luck is when you really start to realize the things you need. We’re not there and hopefully we won’t be there for a long time. If ever.”

The other side of the coin involves funding. Stanley believes the provincial and federal governments should take a page from the U.S. model, which allows municipalities to exercise greater authority over methods of generating revenue to fund new infrastructure projects and to pay for the upkeep on existing infrastructure. “One of the only reasons some of the older cities in the United States are clinging on is they have specific funding mechanisms that allow them to generate revenue,” he says.

In the U.S., the residents of a municipality can vote on proposed sales taxes to fund anything from education to transit expansions, generating new revenue streams to address each city’s unique needs. “We can’t do that in Canada,” Stanley says. “The federal government and the provincial government have to look at how they fund cities, and it’s got to change or the cities will not succeed. Cities [here] haven’t reached the level of distress that’s being experienced in the United States, where the challenges result in you finding different ways to do things … We should learn from that experience and change what we do now to enable us to better prepare for what’s coming. The infrastructure bills that are coming. It’s better to prepare before you need to prepare.”

Change is in the air

Like most progressives in his field, when asked to name a “favourite city,” Stanley’s preferences are the walkable European burgs. Stockholm is at the top of his list for its narrow streets, small shops and mobility via boat, car or foot.

But there’s much to appreciate about Calgary, a place he’s found to be welcoming and relatively easy to settle into (despite his difficulties finding rental accommodations to suit his needs). He likes being able to ride his motorcycle to the mountains on a free afternoon, something people here might take for granted if they didn’t know anything else. “In Washington, it’s not that safe to drive a motorcycle. There’s just too much traffic,” he says. “Calgary is a very easy place to be, and the future is limitless.”

That optimism might have something to do with his intention to stick around for a while and have this gig be the last stop on his professional journey. Or it might have something to do with the high praise he has for Mayor Naheed Nenshi. “The cool thing about Calgary is that it’s very open to change,” says Stanley. “The interesting thing about how the department is arranged is the permitting and the planning process can be tied together much greater, and it really opens up the door for us to bring about changes to help Calgary progress into the future. The mayor said we’ve defined the vision; we now have to implement it, and that’s our challenge.”

Say what you will about Stanley, he’s not one to back down from a challenge. Just shy of his first anniversary, it may be too early to rack up his stats. Give him a season or two and see what he can do.

Rollin Stanley’s Wish List for Calgary

(in no particular order)

  • A better bourbon selection. 
  • Home delivery of the Wall Street Journal — an indicator the city has truly arrived on the international business calendar. 
  • A thriving blog culture on civic affairs to engage a broader spectrum of the public when it comes to decision-making.
  • A thriving non-profit sector akin to what you find in major U.S. cities, to help newcomers and immigrant populations integrate into local economy and society, as well as achieve more public art projects and improve public facilities. 
  • A municipal funding model that will better serve cities to meet the demands they have for public facilities, transit, roads, recreation and social services. 
  • Housing options for seniors who wish to remain in their communities when they downsize from their homes.
  • A film industry.
  • More diversity in the new home products.
  • A monument to bacon.
  • An international design competition for treehouses funded by the local business community.
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