We catch up with T.O.’s boldest bureaucrat, Jennifer Keesmaat, the city’s chief planner, for a frank discussion on housing and transit
Chief planner Jennifer Keesmaat is not without her critics, but her push to mandate affordable housing units in residential projects could spillover to the 905
Toronto’s chief city planner Jennifer Keesmaat is shaking things up at city hall. She has called for the removal of the Gardiner Expressway’s eastern portion — in direct defiance of the mayor — and she is pushing for a walkable, bikable city with integrated transit. Now, the province is set to green-light a cause she has long championed: inclusionary zoning, which would mandate affordable housing in new residential projects. We caught up with her to talk about housing, transit and winter cycling. The media describes you as a “troublemaker,” “loudmouth,” “outspoken.” Why are people surprised that you have opinions? You tell me. I think it’s the media creating some allure. Is the chief city planner someone who is traditionally not outspoken? I’ve approached the role in this way because I believe that a city of this scale needs to have a robust public dialogue about change. And I think that is quite common in large cities, but maybe it’s new to Toronto.
If it were a man in the position, it’s doubtful there would be an emphasis on the fact that he had opinions.
People have said about me, “She’s entitled to her opinion.” What’s that about? It’s a professional opinion. I couldn’t imagine that being said about one of my male counterparts. It did feel like there was something somewhat gendered about that. How will inclusionary zoning look in effect? Will we see affordable housing in all areas? That is the intention, that all new projects over a certain threshold would be required to provide a percentage of affordable housing. It seems that could be an issue for those who don’t want that kind of housing in their neighbourhood. It absolutely could. But in most instances where we have affordable housing in Toronto, it hasn’t really been a problem. It’s important to differentiate this
from social housing, which is not what we’re talking about. Why is it important to have affordable housing spread across the city? You need a diversity of employment types in any city. You need teachers and nurses, for example, and those professionals are being pushed out of the fabric of the city. It’s very difficult to afford a home on a
teacher’s salary. Let’s talk transit. The city has been flip-flopping on a plan for decades. How close are we to seeing something that will actually stick? I think we’re really close. We’ve been shifting the dialogue away from advancing one project at a time, which tends to happen in a politicized context. We are looking at how we can add a variety of infrastructure improvements: bus rapid transit, LRT and subways, where subways make sense. That’s very different because in the last administration it was always a very polarized discussion. We’re now having an evidence-based conversation. How difficult is it to plan cycling infrastructure in light of Toronto’s winter? It’s funny that you ask that after the winter we just had. We had one of the longest cycling seasons — nine months. Nine out of 12 ain’t bad. This winter is probably more the norm than the anomaly.
Do you cycle during the winter?
I don’t. Part of that is because my route to city hall does not have a cycling lane. I also can’t get my head around having to put on that much gear.
A recent Globe and Mail article called for an end to downtown street parking. What do you make of that idea? I think it’s probably too soon for that, but I don’t think it’s too far off. When you get to certain volumes of pedestrians, and you start to increase transit access, it becomes very undesirable to drive downtown. Just think of London or Paris or New York. You’re crazy to drive your car in those cities.