For many of our peers, their professional careers have seen many twists and turns, evolving over time as their interests change. But for Renée de St. Croix, her journey has been incredibly direct, knowing from a young age where her passions lay. Just 32 years old, her focus and determination has allowed her to continually build on her career in urban planning.
We have been fortunate to know de St. Croix for several years, but many people may be more familiar with her husband and fellow city planner, Brent Toderian. With their combined experience, they could easily be considered one of urban planning’s “power couples.” But while he may see more of the spotlight, de St. Croix has happily spent almost the last two decades dedicating her life to building better cities.
“I Love How the Pieces Fit Together”
Many city builders have a common hobby at a young age, and de St. Croix is no exception. “I was a kid that loved to build things. I played with Lego and did puzzles, I made paper houses – I built stuff,” she happily admits. That fascination with assembling pieces to create something tangible led her to a fortuitous summer position with the architectural firm, Stantec, as a fifteen-year-old Calgarian.
“I was fortunate enough to have a wonderful mentor that wanted to immerse me in architecture from the get-go,” de St Croix reveals. Instead of spending her summers pushing paper and filing documents like most students, she was learning all about the industry – from facilities planning and urban design, to small architectural work and drafting. This breadth of new knowledge helped her realize that she was less interested in the physical aspects of a building itself, and more in how the city around it worked.
“I love how the pieces fit together, and it’s such a great puzzle,” de St. Croix says. She returned every summer to Stantec, learning as much as she could about the industry, including during her time at Dalhousie University. De St. Croix’s choice to travel across the country to attend the only community design-focused planning bachelor’s degree in Canada, was just evidence that she knew what she wanted, and was determined to get her urban planning career started as soon as possible.
“You Can Make a City What You Need it to Be”
After graduating from the honours program, de St. Croix returned to Stantec for two years as a full-time employee, before making the decision to move to the other side of the Rockies to live and work in Vancouver. “The whole of Metro Vancouver is a pretty phenomenal place,” says de St. Croix.
She quickly started making her mark in urban planning, working for the highly regarded architectural firm of Hotson Bakker Boniface Haden – now DIALOG. “It gave me a real opportunity to participate in some fascinating projects in the Lower Mainland, Canada, and the US,” she suggests. She also continued to add to her education including completing the SFU City Program Urban Design Certificate and becoming a LEED Accredited Professional.
While the opportunities de St. Croix had helped lay the foundation for her successful career, she attributes much of it to her decision not to specialize. “I was always more interested in how all the systems worked together,” she states. “I love the idea that we all can make a city what we need it to be.”
During her time at DIALOG, one project that best allowed her to see all those systems at work was the award-winning downtown plan for the City of Edmonton. “It’s the type of project that doesn’t come across your desk very often,” de St. Croix points out. Being a part of the project, she worked on all phases of the plan, experiencing the progression not only of the project itself, but also of her own career, growing her leadership skills and knowledge that would be an immense asset for her next transition.
Sitting on the Other Side of the Table
In 2013, a job posting came to her attention that incited a visceral reaction. Having enjoyed several years in the private sector, de St. Croix learned that the City of Burnaby was hiring a Senior Planner, and saw it as an opportunity she couldn’t pass up. “It was one of those moments where you read a job description and say, ‘That’s me!’” she recalls.
Working for the City of Burnaby has provided de St. Croix with the opportunity to combine her long passion for design with her newer passion for policy. But switching to the public sector also affords her the experience of sitting on the other side of the table, as well as getting to work with a variety of specialists while maintaining her general focus. Her work with Burnaby has included a variety of topics within planning such as design, transportation, sustainability, housing, regulation review, public consultation, and even issues like pipelines.
What she finds most exciting, though, is seeing her work become real. “Getting to work at the city level, there’s more opportunity to see how projects work out, whereas in the private sector you don’t always get that opportunity.” De St. Croix has a lot of appreciation for the work, but recognizes it’s not just about the projects. “The people I’ve had the opportunity to work with have taught me so much,” she says.
“Many Find Planning Later in Life... I Was Fortunate to Find it Early”
De St. Croix is arguably still at the beginning of what looks to be a very successful career in urban planning. Nearly twenty years since she first started her journey as a student at Stantec, she has been focused on her passion and desire to learn how to put all the pieces together to build better cities.
Nowadays, she gets to experience first hand how some of her planning principles and beliefs impact the people living with them. She’s enjoying living in Downtown Vancouver with Toderian and their 20 month-old son, Alexander. She’s the President of the Strata Council for their 1000 resident building, interacts with her neighbourhood by foot, bike, and transit, and plays soccer on weekends. “When you live it, you have more appreciation for all the things you are taught in school, and how all the pieces fit together.”
While her experiences have helped inform her practice, it is clear that de St. Croix has always known where she wanted to be: “Many find planning later in life, but I was fortunate to find it early.” She may have had many supportive mentors along the way, all excited to see her succeed, but it is her own steadfast determination that has led to her this point, and will continue to see her succeed in the many years to come.