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Jennifer Keesmaat, chief planner at the City of Toronto
Jennifer Keesmaat, chief planner at the City of Toronto

COMMENTARY

Our cities will define our future Add to ...

While some may argue that the issues Toronto faces as a city are insurmountable, and therefore planning is an impossible task, I believe this is the best possible moment, both locally and nationally, to engage in city building and taking ownership of our shared future.

This is the moment because most Canadians now live in urban places. The absence of national strategies related to the development of transit infrastructure and affordable housing affects us all. Canadians are shortchanged by the lack of national policy, investment and leadership that could address these oversights.

Much of what we need to do is already being done elsewhere, and national governments are playing a pivotal role in urban development in countries across the world. Canada, for example, is the only country in the G8 without a national transit strategy.

Furthermore, there are some serious conversations we need to have about how our cities will evolve. We need to move away from rhetoric and use data to find insight that will inform these conversations, shape our policy and position us as leaders of best practices.

This is also the moment because well-planned cities provide healthy places for diverse members of our society to thrive, including new Canadians. In Toronto, there’s a clear and distinct geography that tells the story of growing income disparity between the rich and the poor. Bridging this gap demands special planning efforts focused on attracting private- and public-sector investment to areas in need of physical revitalization.

Affordable, quality housing and access to excellent public transit are minimum requirements for moving out of poverty and into the middle class. Also important are strategic investments in social and community development programs and job-creation opportunities similar to the models now under way in Regent Park.

Cities are emerging on a global scale as strategic places for innovation, which is a key driver of economic recovery. Continuing to attract talent drives this innovation. Creating great places to live – which includes investing in the buildings and spaces we share in common – is imperative in ensuring that people seek out our cities as places to learn, visit and raise families. Our economy needs our cities to be places of beauty and inspiration.

The passion Canadians have for their cities is palpable. But so is the frustration, and the sense that we continue to miss the mark. We need new planning paradigms that entwine our cities and regions, we need clarity about what it will cost to make the public infrastructure investments that we require, and we need to embrace new, creative financing models.

In Live Where You Go, the recently released report prepared by the Pembina Institute and the Royal Bank, residents in Ontario and elsewhere increasingly say they would give up a large house and yard and a long car commute in favour of homes that are a convenient distance from workplaces, amenities and rapid transit.

Our suburbs – often the least walkable parts of the city fabric with the most underutilized public infrastructure – must evolve to be responsive to this emerging desire. This is the moment when planning differently – sustainably, with a comprehensive view of how land-use patterns affect long-term infrastructure costs – could be embraced across the political spectrum.

Changing how we plan will not be easy, although our future depends on it. We’re going to need to take some risks. And we need all hands on deck.

After all, this is the perfect moment to do it.

Jennifer Keesmaat is the City of Toronto’s new chief planner.

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