Plan­ning hole

Jennifer Keesmaat’s de­par­ture leaves a big void at City Hall


In her five years as the City of Toronto’s chief plan­ner, it has not been “busi­ness as usual” un­der Jennifer Keesmaat.

She has left an in­deli­ble mark on a city in the throes of a ma­jor par­a­digm shift – grow­ing dra­mat­i­cally in numbers, ris­ing ver­ti­cally, be­com­ing more di­verse, and strug­gling to heal the di­vi­sions of a forced and un­pop­u­lar amal­ga­ma­tion as it wres­tles to keep up with de­mand for hard and soft in­fras­truc­ture.

Keesmaat, who re­cently an­nounced her de­par­ture from the city, be­gan the job of man­ag­ing such mas­sive and un­re­lent­ing change in a highly charged po­lit­i­cal en­vi­ron­ment un­der Rob Ford in 2012.

Dur­ing an at-times tu­mul­tuous ten­ure un­der Mayor John Tory she has el­e­vated the pro­file of chief plan­ner, mak­ing her­self known to the pub­lic as a force­ful, ar­tic­u­late and pro­gres­sive voice not afraid to of­fer ad­vice that chal­lenged city coun­cil.

Bal­anc­ing the day-to-day strug­gle of pro­cess­ing lit­er­ally hun­dreds of ap­pli­ca­tions for new projects with a large staff, while also ac­knowl­edg­ing the need for trans­for­ma­tion – in other words, do­ing real ad­vance plan­ning and not just reg­u­la­tion – is one of the most dif­fi­cult chal­lenges of the chief plan­ner.

Fac­ing that chal­lenge, Keesmaat has been par­tic­u­larly out­spo­ken in try­ing to get us to imag­ine and plan for a more sus­tain­able ur­ban fu­ture, weaned from an over-de­pen­dence on the car.

To this task she has brought tal­ent and am­bi­tion, fo­cus­ing on a num­ber of key ini­tia­tives in­clud­ing the first com­pre­hen­sive plan for the down­town in 40 years (TOCore), the city’s first coun­cilap­proved tran­sit net­work plan (Feel­ing Con­gested), the ravine strat­egy and Com­plete Streets Guide­lines.

She’s also part­nered with other city di­vi­sions and agen­cies on key projects like the King Street pi­lot, the Eglin­ton Crosstown LRT, the Wa­ter­front LRT and the relief line. None of these were easy. All are vul­ner­a­ble works in progress that hope­fully won’t lose mo­men­tum in her ab­sence.

Now that the bar has been raised by Keesmaat on these trans­for­ma­tive projects, it is cru­cial to find a re­place­ment who will con­tinue to as­sert the crit­i­cal im­por­tance of the role of chief plan­ner.

Most im­por­tant, her suc­ces­sor must be able to lead a col­lec­tive ef­fort at ev­ery level, as well as be open to the in­ven­tive­ness of the de­vel­op­ment and de­sign com­mu­nity in com­ing up with so­lu­tions to plan­ning is­sues that do not al­ways fit into pre­de­ter­mined templates.

City build­ing is a team sport, and the role of a mo­ti­vat­ing player-coach with a fu­ture-ori­ented vi­sion may be the most im­por­tant of all.

Jennifer Keesmaat has raised the bar on plan­ning is­sues in Toronto.

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