Consultants Take Centre Stage

For the last two years, UDI – Edmonton has hosted several discussions with a range of leaders in the industry – from developers to trailblazers in the construction industry.

At our March luncheon, we handed the microphone to our consultant members – the groundbreakers who help the industry take center stage but from behind the curtains.

“City building is a multi-disciplinary effort, and some people and roles are naturally behind-the-scenes,” said Yolanda Lew, a senior principal at Stantec. “Having worked as a consultant for over a decade, I have seen and been part of so many projects from concept to design to completion. There’s a lot of lessons that our profession can share.”

For over 22 years, Yolanda has and continues to work as an urban planner in a range of sectors – from Strathcona County to the City of Edmonton, now Stantec. She has worked on numerous community plans, rezonings and subdivisions, including planning for ICE District and Village at Ice District. She serves as a board member of UDI – Edmonton Metro and ULI Alberta.

Lew convened a conversation with Kathy Oberg and Ken Liu about the critical leadership role of consultants in urban development. The panel shared their thoughts on how the industry has changed, and the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead of us.

As the president of Invistec, Ken shared how he joined the industry at a time when the economy was booming. Ken formed Invistec in 2011, growing its presence in Edmonton and Calgary. He has a degree in civil engineering and has stewarded major public infrastructure and high-density residential and commercial projects in Beijing, China, and New York.

“When I arrived in Edmonton at the beginning of the century, the land development industry was fast-growing, and I felt I had a chance to positively shape the city.”

Kathy, who started her career as a public servant in the City of Calgary, transitioned to the private sector. She said, “In the early 2000s, Alberta was very active in planning applications – so there was a real opportunity to make a mark as a consultant.”

Over the past 25 years, Kathy has worked in the Calgary Region, City of Calgary, and now within the Edmonton Region – providing expertise in urban design, architectural design, subdivision, land use planning, and sustainable community design. She is the President of B&A Studios, and has served as BILD Calgary’s second vice chair since 2023.

When asked about their contributions to the industry, Ken noted how he was one of the first engineers to design a bioswale in Alberta.

“I am proud to have contributed to sustainable design engineering standards and guidelines, nearly 15 years ago, and that has laid the foundation for all of us to deal with today’s environmental challenges.”

Kathy, on the other hand, said her career-defining moment was in rallying other consultants and partners to address the unintended impacts of policy, and challenge standards that conflicted with municipal goals.

“Industry had to pivot when the City of Calgary introduced new cross-sections,” she said. “Everything had to be unnecessarily bigger, and we were forced to widen roads.”

Another policy she worked to address was policies limiting growth – which she says not only impacts supply but directly impacts affordability.

“There was a time in Calgary in 2020 when there were no new growth applications approved due to political emotions in places where capital had been approved and constructed or under construction and that has put Calgary behind on building homes to meet demand.”

While the City of Edmonton has earned a reputation as a national leader in development policies and processes, Kathy presented a cautionary tale – that additional layers of red tape could undo the positive work undertaken by Council and Administration thus far.

“I’m worried that my kids won’t ever be able to afford their own home and the growth uncertainty has driven some potential investment to other cities,” she reflected.

Ken agreed, saying, “While our new zoning bylaw is more permissive and Edmonton is the most affordable big city in Canada, we need to continue to improve our timelines and associated processes.”

“We have made small improvements with innovative projects, but it doesn’t always come with reduced timelines, and time is money,” he said.

Where to go next?

When asked about where the industry is headed, or the big next idea, Kathy said that we need to collectively become more comfortable with being uncomfortable.

“If we want to be technologically friendly, then we have to be prepared to think outside the box, and one of the ways to do that is to stand up to our technical stakeholders and rewrite the norm.”

Ken agreed with this sentiment of embracing the journey and collaborative process.

“We need to think about how we get to the end destination, instead of choosing not to go there at all. City building shouldn’t be about choosing the path of least resistance.”

Kathy joked, “And for the love of God, please do not make the fire trucks any bigger.”

Thank you to our generous sponsors – Thompson Infrastructure, MIDA Contracting, and Hi Signs.

5 Key Takeaways

  • City building is a team sport. There are many people and roles that help to plan and build the places and spaces we enjoy.
  • Building trust. The best way to bring about change is through relationship building and demonstrating success.
  • Policy has unintended consequences. Changes to processes and regulations can inadvertently create complexity and added timelines and delays with development, ultimately impacting our affordability as a region. We need to ensure that our policy intentions are driven by strategic outcomes.
  • Planning and design practices are constantly changing. Social, fiscal, and environmental disruption has resulted in a range of innovations from consultants and industry. We need to see the same level of change from municipalities.
  • The industry is changing. The industry is more diverse, with different scales of developers, more consulting firms, and a younger and diversified workforce. This shift is positive.