An Interview with SALA alumnus Robert Freedman

University of British Columbia
School of Architecture & Landscape Architecture (SALA)
January 8, 2015
How to build a career in Urban Development

Robert Freedman, former Director of Urban Design for the City of Toronto, is currently heading up his own consulting business advising public and private clients, governments and developers, on how to develop cities and neighbourhoods in ways that are both economically successful and provide value to the surrounding area. But he began his education with degrees in arts and law at a time when there were no programs of education in urban design – and here explains how his untraditional path led to an amazing career.


“I grew up in Toronto at a tumultuous time,” he begins. “The city was ‘revitalizing’, which in those days meant tearing down a lot of Toronto’s fine-fabric of older buildings and replacing them with ‘towers in the park’ and urban highways.” The conversation around his family dinner table – and elsewhere in town – centred around the revitalizing debate, and he was drawn to the idea of helping cities – his city – cope with change. He studied history and geography at the University of Toronto; a chance course in environmental law and the reading of Jane Jacob’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities showed him a possible way forward to reach his goals, but while he attended and completed a law degree, the idea of cities and city planning still drew him. His final project for his law degree, which compared the development of downtown railway lands in Toronto and Chicago, put him in touch with Ken Greenberg, then Founding Director of Urban Design for Toronto, who pointed Robert back to his first love: city planning.

At the time – there were no Canadian programs teaching Urban Design so Greenberg’s advice to Robert was to pursue architecture, because city planning is really about the art of designing cities. Robert applied and was accepted to UBC’s School of Architecture, where he completed an undergraduate degree in 1989. “It was a very interesting time to be in Vancouver,” he says. “Many of the professors were emigrants from Berkeley, and Vancouver was just about to start the condo boom which transformed the city.” He remembers his time here fondly, especially the first-year pre-class field trip which his year went to Parksville to examine the changing face of the town. But it was his professors’ focus on the human face of architecture – the users – that most appealed to Robert, and something that drove his career focus over the coming years. His thesis project (which he worked on with advisors Ron Walkey and Dean Sandy Hirshen) focused on the Arbutus Lands and created a mid-rise, mixed-use community centred on the old self-storage warehouse and supported by a new subway line running under the rail corridor.

After Vancouver, Robert moved to Manhattan to study Urban Design at the City University of New York under instructor and mentor Jonathan Barnett. It was a Co-op program which also included a work-program with the New York Main Street Alliance – and a chance to revitalize communities all over New York State.  After completing his degree, Robert moved to Pittsburgh for what he anticipated would be a two to three year engagement with  Urban Design Associates (UDA). It was the early 1990s, the economic recession was over, and under the leadership of Ray Gindroz and Don Carter UDA emerged as one of the leading urban design firms in North America. Robert spent the next ten years working with UDA on public-and private-sector projects across the United States. The company was very active in the HUD (Housing & Urban Development) HOPE VI Program, which  focused on the most run-down housing projects and transformed them into more traditional neighbourhoods – replacing the mega-block site plans and barracks-like housing units with more typical streets, blocks,  houses, and integrated public / private space.

In 2002, Robert’s work had received so much attention that he was head-hunted to the very job that had inspired him to architecture in the first place: the position of Director of Urban Design for the City of Toronto. The city had amalgamated to the larger City of Toronto in 1998, which brought together six former municipalities (East York, York, Etobicoke, North York, Scarborough, and Toronto) into a single city, so his eleven years with the city oversaw a period of enormous growth, development and change. The high-rise condo-boom was just getting underway when he arrived and would soon completely transform the shape of the city. His development of a series of award-winning guidelines on such issues as Tall Buildings, Mid-Rise Buildings, and Townhouses are still in place today, as is the design review panel – modelled after Vancouver’s – which he helped to establish.

As a result of his unorthodox combination of education and experience, Robert is now a successful independent consultant, doing exactly what he loves to do: helping cities and developers manage development. He is enthusiastic about SALA’s new MUD (Masters of Urban Design) program, something that was unavailable to him when he was looking for it. “Urban Design is many things. It’s interdisciplinary by nature: cities are very complex. You need to consider politics, law, design, history, planning, social aspects – and good urban design brings all of this together.” In this, he agrees with Jonathan Barnett, a pioneer of the modern practice of city design, who promoted holistic, rigorous design for cities. “But for new students, if you wish to pursue this career, you need to ask yourself: what does urban design mean for you? What jobs are out there that fit with your ideas?” If you want to influence cities, he says, there are many ways to do that, through architecture, landscape architecture, or planning. But urban design is broader – and the impact, therefore, can be even greater.

He credits his own success to a mixture of hard work, passion, and serendipity, as well as a willingness to try new things, something he highly recommends to students. “Get involved with organizations – or, if there aren’t any that fit your specific interests and goals, invent one. Volunteer. It will help your career, and gets you in doing the real work with people on the ground, which is an invaluable experience.” Robert is currently a Board member of the Urban Land Institute (ULI) Toronto and the Council for Canadian Urbanism (CanU), and is also active with the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) and the Form-based Codes Institute (FBCI) – all of which provide great opportunities for volunteering.

While some of his current consulting career and much of his work with Toronto was largely policy focussed – something that has left a lasting legacy for the city and an example to follow for other large cities around the world – Robert says that it’s the tangible improvements to people’s lives that he has influenced that have left him with his biggest sense of accomplishment. He still lives in Toronto, and takes pleasure when he travels by areas that he worked with directly to improve.

“I also had the opportunity to re-visit one of the ‘projects’ that I worked on while with Urban Design Associates in Pittsburgh, one in Portsmouth, Virginia,” he remembers. “And as we were walking around taking pictures of the changes that we helped put into place, we were approached by some of the residents sitting on the front-porch a nearby house. When we explained why we were taking the photos, they came down from the porch to give us a hug and told us what a huge difference we had made in their lives through by transforming their neighbourhood.” It was safer, cleaner, more attractive and no longer felt like a “project” – it was “home”. The human face of architecture – the idea that has driven Robert’s career from his time at UBC – was never more apparent than in this tangible evidence of the profound positive impact of urban design on people’s lives.

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