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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Meet Jennifer Keesmaat, Toronto’s new chief planner

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In the lead-up to the previous municipal election, Spacing identified the most pressing urban issues facing the city. In our urban planning feature we highlighted the need for the City to hire a new and energetic chief planner to replace the soon-to-be retired Gary Wright. We wrote, “A new boss who is willing to reform the planning and public consultation process is desperately needed in Toronto.”

After a year of searching, the City of Toronto announced yesterday the hiring of Jennifer Keesmaat as the new chief planner. It was a surprise hiring to many observers, including yours truly, as we believed the City would take the safe route and hire a warm body from within the bureaucracy. Instead, they chose an unapologetic urbanist who made her mark in private practice as a partner at both the Office For Urbanism and Dialog. She comes with a plethora of experiences and contacts from working with civic agencies and governments across the country.

Her hiring is commendable for a number of reasons. From the City’s perspective, she brings an outsider’s view into City Hall and her presence will hopefully infuse new energy into the planning department, which has often been described as professionally depressed. From Ms. Keesmaat’s perspective, she is leaving her role as a partner is a very successful planning and urban design firm at Dialog to go work at City Hall and bear the brunt of every NIMBYist in the city. A pay cut and a target on your back is not what most of want to inherit when we change jobs. She’s into the job for all the right reasons.

On a personal note, I’ve known Ms. Keesmaat for over five years and I’ve sought her advice and commentary on a number of city-building topics (she knows just as much about urban issues in Regina or Portland as she does about Queen West or North Toronto). She possesses a keen eye for detail (it was her who told me to look out for the awesome tree pit grates in Saskatoon) while being highly tuned into the impact of large-scale projects on neighborhoods and communities (we’ve spent time debating the merits, drawbacks, and challenges of the Eglinton-Crosstown LRT).

Keesmaat and I talked yesterday afternoon about her new job (she starts in September) and the challenges that await her.

Blackett: What do you think are the biggest urban planning challenges for the City of Toronto?

Keesmaat: The obvious one to say, which is on the tip of everyone’s tongue, is how we move around. It’s about transit planning and transportation planning and the whole variety of different things that fall under that umbrella, including cycling, including creating great environments for pedestrians. We need to figure out the connection between transit planning and land use planning that produces a really strong rationale for a really great transit strategy, one that takes a long view but can be executed very quickly. I think it’s pretty safe to say there’s a lot of consensus that’s a big problem we need to solve, and we’re not there yet.

Although we have a ton of ideas, we need to think about how we continue to accommodate density, while making great places. What I mean by that is there’s a significant difference between building buildings and building a city. We’re doing a phenomenal job of building buildings. We’re also doing a pretty unbelievable job of building a city, but not always. Sometimes we are just building buildings. So thinking about the connected tissue, the public realm — those spaces where our lives unfold in common — is a really important part of city planning and it’s a really important area where I think there’s an opportunity to focus moving forward.

Your predecessors Ted Tyndorf and Gary Wright both envisioned a city similar as you — how can you make a difference on these topics that they couldn’t achieve?

I know that I’m going to walk in the front door and I’m going to be on the inside and it’s going to be pretty challenging. I bring some principles to the table from the planning practice in my work from mid-sized Canadian cities. One of those principles is around generating deep collaboration that is evidence-based, that is based on sharing information and sharing data and knowledge in a way that allows us to have a more sophisticated conversation about the type of city that we want to create. I don’t want to imply in any way that Ted or Gary didn’t do that, but I’m going to do it in a very different way.

For example, Civic Action is crossing all these boundaries in new ways so I also see that group as being a really important potential collaborator moving forward in city building. I think you’re going to see the tentacles reaching out beyond 100 Queen Street in new ways – that’s my objective, in part because I am not coming into this with all the answers. What I’m bringing to the table is an ability to facilitate and collaborate and identify good ideas and push them forward. There’s a ton of great ideas. There’s an amazing energy in this city. I see part of my role as being able to build on that, collect it and use those ideas to create the city that I think we all want. Where we used to lead, we now lag, so it’s the moment for big things to happen. It’s going to be how quickly can it happen.

You’re the City’s first female chief planner — I think it’s amazing that we’re going to have a female voice leading the local discussion on urbanism. Do you think this is a changing attitude in the world of planning that’s been mostly dominated by men?

I’m very conscious that I act as a role model to young, up and coming female planners and it’s one of the reasons why I lecture every year at Ryerson University, because I think it’s really imperative for young women to see a woman in this role and how a woman goes about this role. But other than that I don’t hang a huge amount of significance on it.

Do I have a unique perspective because I’m coming to this role as a woman? You bet – I’m a mom. The TED talk I gave is about walking to school and it’s very personal. That’s the story of an urban planner, but it’s also the story of a mom who’s thinking about her children and other children and how we create a great world for our kids. Earlier today I was talking to another reporter about the Eglinton Crosstown because I live near Eglinton. Of course there is going to be a tremendous amount of construction over the next many years, and he said “How do you feel about that”? and I said, “Bring it on.” I love it because I’m first of all I’m going to take my kids out and we’re going to be giddy watching it being built and I’m going to say to them, “Someday you’ll say to your kids, ‘Remember when this was being built?” But more importantly because I see everything that we do as a legacy and I’m deeply grateful for the legacies that those who’ve gone before have left in the city. I see the work that we do in planning, in city building as either being about creating a legacy — leaving something better than what we found — or about being irresponsible. So I think those are the ways in which I think being a woman is reflected in the way I think about my planning process.

My objective moving forward is about breaking down silos, getting people talking, creating new collaborations. I want to be open to ideas from a whole variety of different sectors and perspectives. I think there’s a great opportunity to open up the unbelievable amount of excitement and energy and love for this city that currently exists. We need to bring that into our planning processes and to capitalize on it. There’s a tremendous amount of shared interest in this city and I’m hoping that we can build on that to address some of the very serious challenges we have in front of us.


Is the planning in Toronto as bad as we all say it is, or this just the nature of the world of planning? You hear about a great planning process in one city and once you talk to locals you hear about all of their planning problems. Is it just the nature that we’re negative about the planning process, or is Toronto as backwards as it is portrayed?

Honestly, I’m so glad you asked this question. This is a really important question. I have two answers to it and the first one is, if you look at the magnitude of what’s going on in this city, it’s a level of deep complexity. This is a city of 2.7 million people, bigger than most provinces. If you look at the magnitude of what’s going on here — just the magnitude of the port lands alone — I think what you see in terms of what residents are so frustrated about, is the politics. The politics in Toronto are not that different from anywhere else, it’s just magnified on such a scale that it feels much more dramatic.

I’ve always seen planning as being a really central part of the democratic process. I’ve always felt this sense that I’m participating in something really important and that is negotiating what we value, negotiating what we share, and the kind of lives we’re going to create with each other. That’s really what planning is about. But doing that isn’t easy; it’s a pretty intense thing to sit down and have a conversation with your neighbours about what you value, particularly when there are differences.

We’ve had moments where we’ve had a lot of discourse and I really think that becoming the mega city changed the whole conversation; it changed who we are as a city. Our whole genetic makeup as a city, our whole urban structure changed when we became the mega city. So in some ways you almost have to take that and recognize that from that point in time is when the conversations began.

What kind of things can Torontonians expect from you as a chief planner – are you going to be out front or be try to shun the spotlight?

As a bureaucracy you can’t get too far ahead of those elected officials. I have great respect for elected office. At the end of the day, these are the leaders who were elected in this city and so there’s this necessary tension: we make recommendations to them and sometimes come forward with ideas that might not get passed, but it might plant seeds for the future. I’m cognizant that I’m walking into that political theatre and I’m going to figure out how to play in that tent. That being said, I have every intention of opening up as much as possible our planning processes and having a dialogue about urbanism.

In a post-Gary Webster world, there’s a notion that bureaucrats are a little less willing to express their opinions for fear of their jons. It doesn’t seem like that’s part of your M.O.

No, and that’s what’s interesting having come from the private sector. I come from the private sector and I am completely comfortable with risk. I take risks all the time. I have to measure those risks and I don’t want to do things that are silly because at the end of the day my goal is to build a great city here. There’s some moment where I’m going to have to take risks; that’s a huge part of private sector practice, you take those risks. So it’s not like I’m coming into this saying “I’m becoming a bureaucrat, yay!” I’m a city builder and I recognize that there are going to be tensions and negotiations and there are some risks. I’m going to have to embrace those risks and hopefully I can build up the capital and do a good job and earn the trust of council and residents in this city so that at the end of the day they’ll put up with me.

photo by Leif Norman



  1. How will she survive in a city where the Mayor “reacts” without thinking or researching?

  2. Hurray!

    Community and Residents associations have been decimated by the TO Planning Dept and Council since Amalgamation. For the last few years ARECA has been putting forward ideas that have fallen on deaf ears eg. –

    and getting involved in adult conversations about how poorly-regarded the Public Realm is in the drive for intensification eg. –

    I hope she can move the Planning Dept away from silo-thinking about massing only. There’s a lot happening and the department she is taking over is in dire need of revitalization and injection of professionalism.

  3. Great interview. I wonder if her experience in smaller cities will help in better integrating this city. As we all know too well, there is a definitive divide between the areas developed before WWII and after it. Not only this divide seen in the build form, but also in getting around the city. In too many cases, getting from downtown to the inner suburbs/outer city by public transit is long and tedious, and helps to foster this disconnect. This says nothing about getting between the city and its outer suburbs laying in the 905.

    When I’ve visited smaller cities, specifically in Southern Ontario, I don’t sense this same divide. While these cities do not usually have efficient public transit systems, getting from downtown to their outer suburban areas, and even the fringe laying beyond the urban area, is much less tedious than here in Toronto.

    While I don’t know how far she will be able to get with all the bureaucracy here, the fact that I get the sense that she realizes the problem does give me hope. While Stintz’ transit vision never really went anywhere, the name and concept should be a goal to strive for. This is “one city,” and it should feel like a single city to get around.

  4. Planning is just another layer of bureaucracy which provides little benefit, if not net negative results (i.e., minimum automobile parking requirements which are not based on empirical evidence rather than maximum automobile parking of 0 for infill, height and setback restrictions, segregation of residential and commercial use of land, etc.).

  5. Danny: you wrote: “Planning is just another layer of bureaucracy which provides little benefit, if not net negative results ”

    So you want an American city? Go to Phoenix if you don’t want planning. 

  6. Hopefully, they do use “SimCity” as a “planning tool”. Zoning after WWII made the city worse than the parts built before WWII.

  7. It didn’t dawn on me that it’d be “amazing that we’re going to have a female voice leading the local discussion on urbanism” until Matt Blackett brought it up. (i.e. what’s even more “amazing” is how easy it’s become in 2012 to take gender for granted)

  8. Developers will continue to run the city but it’s nice to have a new person whose recommendations can be completely ignored.

  9. Phoenix seems to have the same types of government intervention in land use (height and minimum setback restrictions, segregation of residential and commercial use of land, minimum automobile parking requirements and development charges) that Toronto (and most municipalities have) which make it more profitable for builders to build outward rather than upward.

  10. Hi Jennifer – Welcome to the neighbourhood! Looking forward to your good efforts. Follow your TED talk strategy along the way. Cheers – Terry

  11. Having worked in community planning, I cannot tell you how thrilled I am to have Jennifer lead the planning department. She will instill an urbanists ethic to the city that was missing. No disrespect to Wright and Tyndorf (may he rest in peace) but they were never ones to articulate, at least publicly, their vision of a city. I already know more about where the planning department is headed under Keesmaat than I did under her predecessors.