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.