A Conversation with Dr. V. Setty Pendakur: Professor, Urban Planner, International Consultant

By Raffi Wineburg

Dr. V Setty Pendakur takes his first sip of tea, momentarily mulls its taste, and then launches into discussion without prompt from a question. We had met a block from his Yaletown home on the silver-tabled patio of Sciue Italian Bakery. I arrived early to scope him out. But somehow he materialized from nowhere, introducing himself with a firm hand-shake.

Dr. Pendakur, Professor Emeritus at UBC, is a highly distinguished academic, urban planner, and international planning consultant. His numerous online biographies—without much for personal detail—tell the story of a busy man. He’s advised governments (Canada, China and Singapore to name a few), been a visiting professor at over 20 institutions across the world, and cycled through service on all the important sounding nouns for distinguished groups of people (boards, councils, commissions, foundations, associations…)

He’s bald on top with patches of wispy-white curly hair that stick out from the sides. Born in India, his accent remains thick, sometimes audibly rolling his r’s for a half-second at a time. The accent only adds to his already forceful style of speech. A former politician (Vancouver City Council), it shows in conversation—not in the negative knee-jerk manner we react to ‘politician’ but by virtue of his unfaltering eloquence. Whole paragraphs come out a time as if he had prepared each word before-hand. He’s a politician without the nonsense, answering questions directly, honestly.

At times, Dr. Pendakur makes a bold statement, or asks a question which I hope is rhetorical, reclines in his chair from his forward angled position to take a quick rest—perhaps waiting for my response that never comes—then leans back towards me, finishing his thoughts with a renewed purpose. By the end of our interview he was interviewing me, and most of my prepared questions remained unasked. This is not to say that he dominated our conversation, but that his stories, evident passion and belief seemed more important than my perfunctory questions.

The following attempts to capture important bits of Dr. Pendakur’s story, including his experience as a professor, as an international consultant, and his views and opinions on the city of Vancouver.

On Teaching

“I have a strong belief that especially in applied fields like transportation, engineering and planning, you need to do something outside of campus in order to be related to the doing part. If not, teaching just becomes theory with no relation to reality. I think [professors] do a lot of teaching about talking. We do much less teaching about doing.” V. Setty Pendakur, June 2013

There’s a common caricature of university professors that, as per usual with caricatures, portrays an unflattering image. It’s of a pot-bellied man who wears a worn, bearded face. He stays holed up in his office in a tweed jacket and corduroys. His thick rimmed glasses rest on the tip of his pointed nose, as his fading eyes squint into a dusty old book. It’s in this book where the professor finds purpose. He’s collected a wealth of dense, esoteric knowledge which he relays to students who scribble his thoughts in pads and repeat them back to him on their exams.

Dr. Pendakur’s career as a professor was a practice in debunking stereotypes. He taught transportation and infrastructure planning for 31 years at UBC before “starting a new life purposefully” as president of his own boutique planning firm.  He’s less restricted now by his on-campus time commitment.
“When you are teaching, your flexible time is three months in the summer, and to make clients needs and your own timetable meet is an enormous challenge,” said Dr. Pendakur.

Nevertheless, he remained highly involved in off-campus work during his time teaching. Summers were spent abroad. Sometimes, if a project demanded it, he would take a leave of absence. But this was no shirking of professorial responsibilities. The travel and time off let him apply the theoretical aspects of the academic world into relevant real-world scenarios.  That’s doing—getting off campus to put the course material into practice.

For Dr. Pendakur, ‘off campus’ really meant ‘outside of the Western Hemisphere.’ Much of his work was abroad, in China, India, Southeast Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. ‘Doing’ made him a good instructor. He could identify areas of concern not found in the textbook and integrate them into the classroom.
“I was more concerned with myself as a professor,” said Dr. Pendakur. “I had to keep up with what was happening globally in my field. Reading only achieves so much, and writing theoretically achieves so much. What is written and what is practiced, there is a huge difference.”

Theory is the caricature’s specialty. It involves thinking hard, reading and writing, copious cups of coffee, and probably a fair amount of pipe-smoke. It’s knowledge as currency, a type of capital unique to the university environment. Yet theory is only worthwhile in the context of practice; theory and practice are heads and tails on the same coin.

“Practice comes in the context of political economy, social and environmental concerns, cultural history and all of that. As you begin to learn theoretical aspects of a field, when it involves social and environmental concerns in the Western World, and then you want to apply that in Mongolia or Siberia, then you are going to need to modify your theory to that day, and that cultural milieu, and that historical context and financial capability.”

He’s quick with an example.

Professor Pendakur was consulting in Bangladesh (“probably the most universally corrupt country in the world”). He and a team of planners and engineers were in the country’s capital, Dhaka. The city presented their priorities: roads and highways. But Dr. Pendakur and his team identified different priorities: improved sidewalks.

In Dhaka, 60% of all trips are made on foot. Yet inadequate sidewalks leave pedestrians vulnerable to oncoming street traffic. Moreover, sidewalks have poor drainage and are filled with potholes. For the women of Bangladesh—who primarily wear Saris—this presents a constant challenge. Every time it rains, their Saris drag through large puddles, ruining the cloth and leaving them soaked.
The challenge, in this case, was not technical. And it rarely is. Planning an urban area certainly sounds difficult, but that’s what planners do. The challenge, rather, was to navigate an unfamiliar cultural environment.

“We, as a group of foreigners, bring certain priorities. To get to a middle ground, where they to agree to allocate enough money to widen sidewalks and improve drainage, and build over-bridges for pedestrians, particularly for women, is a struggle. Those are the challenges in the practical world compared to writing a theoretical paper, where it’s easy to justify sidewalks and over-bridges in an area where people are poor and mostly walk. This is what you come back and teach. This is what makes you a better teacher.”

On The City

“More than the politicians, it is the citizens of this city that have been on guard. You can’t ignore that fact,  and that city councils—even when they have changed stripes—have respected the right of citizens to come and petition the city for what they think is right is what is important.” V. Setty Pendakur, June 2013

We’re blessed to live in a city like Vancouver. Not just because of its stunning mountainous backdrop and ample bike lanes, but because it’s a city where citizens remain actively involved in decision-making processes. Major decisions in the city’s history are marked by major citizen influence.
Dr. Pendakur identifies 1972 as a turning point for Vancouver.
“The city of Vancouver changed irrevocably in 1972 when we officially said we are not going to have inter-city freeways.”

In particular, the Strathcona neighborhood was famously “saved” from redevelopment that would have traded houses, schools and small businesses in favor of high-density apartments and a large concrete freeway. Vancouver’s oldest residential neighborhood lives today because of grassroots citizen activism which resisted these changes. The Srathcona residents succeeded not only in standing up to the city, but in setting a new precedent for the power of community activism and civic engagement.
Fast forward forty years. In January of this year, the parks-board proposed changes to the joint-operating agreement with the Community Center Associations (CCAs). The Board’s proposal would have largely cut the role of Community Associations—non-partisan organizations made up of elected neighborhood members working on behalf of the community. Widespread public outrage and push-back from the CCAs ensued. Now, the original proposal is off the table. The CCAs are in negotiations with the Parks Board over a new Joint Operating Agreement.

The citizens spoke again.

“Some of the goals [of the Parks Board] were laudable. But before you plunge into these things, you have to do impact studies. How do the changes impact each of the community centers? Who loses and who gains? You can’t simply come and bulldoze, and say we don’t care who loses and who gains. The goals are laudable, but the process was enormously flawed. And again, in this regard, it is the citizens who are raising alarms. Without the citizens, they would have done it without asking anybody.”

Sometimes it seems like the politicians and citizens of this city are playing a game of political decision-making tug-of-rope. It’s a back and forth match, each side pulling for a greater portion of the rope: greater ability to make decisions. But why fight in the first place?

“There is a fundamental belief that the bureaucracy can do things more efficiently than the citizens,” said Dr. Pendakur. “That is totally wrong. It’s never been proven. It’s impossible. Citizens come voluntarily to do service. If they have to go home at 4 o’clock, and there is a customer or client standing there, they will still serve them. The bureaucracy doesn’t have to that.”

Dr. Pendakur serves on the board (formerly the President) for the Yaletown Roundhouse Community Center. A quick example from his experience highlights a telling difference between citizen and bureaucratic operations.

“Probably every month in the Roundhouse we issue about 500 checks. And about three or four people, they lose their checks. They come back, and we issue them a new check in one day,” he pauses now leaning back in his chair, then leans back toward me with a look of incredibility: “Try to get a new check from the city of Vancouver in one day!”

Often the citizens and the councilors want the same things. The issues between the two stem not from differing worldviews, but inadequate communication.

“The question is one of more communication and openness between the citizens and the city,” said Dr. Pendakur. “I’m not advocating miserably prolonged process which achieves nothing, where process is the product and nothing else. I’m advocating honesty and openness so that citizens know what is happening, and if they don’t like it, they can come and say so.”

So how do we ensure that this honesty and openness are upheld? It’s a question that probes to the core of our political representation.

In October, 1774, Great Britian’s second largest city, Bristol, elected two new members to the House of Commons. One was a 44 year old Whig from Dublin, Ireland (then part of the British Empire) who made a speech that same day, which, albeit indirectly, shapes current understanding of the roles for our elected officials.

His name was Edmund Burke, and he had this to say: “Parliament is a deliberative assembly of one nation, with one interest, that of the whole…You choose a member, indeed; but when you have chosen him he is not a member of Bristol, but he is a Member of Parliament…Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”

Burke envisioned himself as a trustee for the people. His role was to consider multiple sides of an issue, and act autonomously toward the best interest for all, even if it meant sometimes going against the wishes of his constituency.

This ‘trustee’ model of representation contrasts with the ‘delegate’ model. Delegates serve as a mouthpiece for their constituents. They are beholden to them, and represent them directly.
Elected officials are rarely true delegates. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but a fact of politics which must be handled with caution. If communication between the trusting and the entrusted slows, or stops altogether, then the elected official acts without a proper gauge of the political climate. It’s as much of the trustee’s job to seek out the opinions of the people, as it is for the people to express them. Given the right to speak, it is the citizen’s duty to be heard.

Moving Forward

“The lack of long term vision is another question. In Vancouver the long term plan is about 2 years and 2 months, because the next ten months is election. Chinese, their short term plan is 50 years.” V. Setty Pendakur, November 2011.

With limited technology, Medieval Europeans managed to build massive, awe-inspiring cathedrals. These mega-structures carried an element of competition. A cathedral’s size and beauty marked the prosperity of its builder and the importance of the city or country in which it was built. Cathedrals continued to grow in size and complexity throughout the middle ages, making their construction—to say the least—quite lengthy. France’s Chartres Cathedral was built in 25 years—considered extraordinarily fast. In Germany, Cologne Cathedral took over 600 years to finish.

Often, the original financers, artisans and stonemasons of a cathedral would perish long before their project was completed. It seems a pointless game to play. Why enter a competition whose outcome will be unknown?

The architects of some of society’s most eminent monuments understood that the measure of significance for a given act is not in its immediate gratification, but is lasting impression on the world. We call this cathedral thinking. Rick Antonson, President and CEO of Tourism Vancouver, is a self-described cathedral thinking “apostle.” He describes cathedral thinking as, “a far reaching vision, a well-thought blueprint, and a shared commitment to long term implementation.” While I didn’t talk to Professor Pendakur specifically about cathedrals, I got the sense that he would empathize with those medieval builders.

His life has been lived looking forward. His achievements, while inherently individual, are also indelibly collective. He takes on real problems from an active, practical approach: improving the world around him as a result.

Modern society is oriented towards the present. News stories get broken as they happen. We stay constantly updated via social networks. The world’s information is available to us instantly at our fingertips: on laptops, smart phones and tablets. When ABC Studios can build a house in 7 days, cathedral thinking no longer seems necessary. Yet the same reason cathedral thinking appears irrelevant, is why we need it most. Patching a tire solves a problem in an instant, but will soon leave you with another one.

In his work in Vancouver, and across the globe, Professor Pendakur has thought with a mind towards cathedrals. Evidence of his extensive work is available online and in the countless locations he has consulted with. Yet only the future will reveal his true accomplishments.