The History of Urban Magnet Theory

Urban magnet theory arose from a convergence over many years of a number of threads of innovative thought in a number of individuals and firms.

Mark Holland’s explorations

In the 1990s, while completing both a Landscape Architecture degree and a Masters in Planning at the University of British Columbia, Mark become increasingly sceptical that the rules being taught for good urban form were right because he and most of his graduating class in design school felt that what they were being taught was simply the preferences of older generations and did not reflect contemporary attitudes, technology or lifestyles.

Following extensive work on intergenerational preferences in urban form, his thinking moved beyond generational differences into subculture differences.  In combining the observations that many people do not like the places we create as designers and that we all search for places in a city that we feel at home in, the concept of subcultural precincts emerged – small locales that have a unique character and support the lifestyle preferences of a small group.  After researching places with these characteristics, he came to the conclusion that if these places were accidentally destroyed, the planning and design professions would have no idea how to reconfigure them again – and that therefore, we needed some new theories.  From there, the foundations of Urban Magnet theory began to take place.

Mark discovered that his theories offered an interesting rationale for why Granville Island works so well, but has never successfully been replicated – namely that while most see it as a tourist draw with artisan shopping opportunities, it is actually a center for real authentic activity in arts, food and marine activity and that the shopping is a small part of the deeper functioning of the Island.  He was working as a city planner in Vancouver at the time and shared his ideas with Michael Gordon, the planner overseeing Granville Island.  A robust discussion followed and Mark and Michael continued to work and flesh out the ideas further over the subsequent years, presenting them at various planning conferences to raise the level of discussion about how to effectively address diversity in cities.

Several years later after leaving the Planning Department and establishing his own firm, Holland Barrs Planning Group, Mark took these theories and observations to his colleagues at Dialog (then Hotson Bakker Boniface Haden Architects) who had designed and continue to work on Granville Island – and the Urban Magnets discussion began anew, expanding with new people, ideas and refinements.


Dialog’s philosophies and work

The principals at Dialog are recognized as some of the most innovative architects of their generation working on urban concepts and design with the design of Granville Island, launched in the 1970s (as Hotson Bakker Architectures; then Hotson Bakker Boniface Haden Architects). For a better understanding the complexity and philosophy behind this interesting firm, visit

Bruce Irvine’s work

Bruce has been front and center in the western Canadian planning world for a long time, including serving as the Vice President with Calgary Economic Development and as Manager for the City of Calgary Development and Building Approvals Department.  His work in the private sector included stints with the IBI Group and HB Lanarc consultants, where he has worked with over over thirty different municipalities and developers.

Bruce played a central role in Calgary’s transition to a consciously urban and urbane city as it grappled with its boom and bust legacy of poor urban form and experiences.  He was part of an influential urban brain trust in the Calgary Planning Dept that led the development of a new vision for Calgary and  has been field testing ways in which planners can create vibrant projects through pivotal roles on such projects as Canada Lands Currie Barracks initiative, Edmonton’s Downtown Plan and “The Bridges”, an award winning brownfield re-development in Calgary.  Bruce’s work has been recognized by The Canadian Institute of Planners and the Canadian Association of Municipal Administrators, and the International Downtown Association for work related to innovation in planning.

In 2009 Bruce joined Mark Holland on numerous successful projects. Their collaborations lead to further exploration of the ideas, practices and application of Urban Magnets. Together with Bruce Hadden and Alan Boniface, he has been influential force in the integration of urban magnet concepts into the award winning Edmonton Downtown Plan.   His work currently includes raising the profile of “experience” in development and planning in the rapidly growing municipality Coquitlam in BC’s lower mainland.

The Idea Partner

The Idea Partner are a team lead by the highly experienced real estate vision builder – Norbert Jakube.  Norbert has helped build, communicate and deploy visions for some of the most interesting real estate projects in North America.  He had been working with many of the professionals in this brain trust on their various development and planning projects, and then was invited to join the team with his colleague, Michael St John Smith to help develop and deploy the idea into our professional community.   The term “Urban Magnets” was created by them to gather the complex range of ideas and concepts in play in the discussions over the years – and immediately resonated with the entire group.


Michael Gordon’s planning leadership

Michael Gordon MCIP is an iconic planner to many in Canada for his leadership in integrating alternative subculture groups into the mainstream of Vancouver’s planning department. While he has overseen some of the largest and most complex planning projects in Vancouver as the lead planner for its downtown, his work to educate niche groups in how to engage the planning process has won him awards and respect, in particular his work with the skateboarding subculture.

Michael Gordon, as the planner who oversaw Granville Island for the City of Vancouver, and worked with Mark Holland over many years as colleagues at the City, spent many hours in discussion and debate on the ideas that form the basis for urban magnets – at that time called subculture precincts.  Michael and Mark presented the ideas to the planning world first in 2004 in Toronto at the annual CIP conference and have been further deploying it to the professional planning community over the past number of years.


Angus McAllister’s demographic insights

Angus MacAllister is one of Canada’s most innovative pollsters.  His work on demographic subcultures dates back into the 1990s when we worked at Environics with Michael Adams on publishing the watershed book on Canadian values – Sex in the Snow – a book which had a significant influence on Mark Holland and Michael Gordon in their efforts in Vancouver to better understand and address the issues of urban subcultures.

Angus began working with Mark Holland and Michael Gordon in 2005 to add additional demographic statistics and perspectives to their emerging concepts and has presented with them at conferences on subculture diversity.