Don’t call her a star.
Toronto chief planner Jennifer Keesmaat has burst onto the scene as one of the city’s most high-profile bureaucrats in memory. She has thousands of Twitter followers, organizes popular roundtables, has been mentioned more than 150 times in the print media and is in hot demand as a speaker.
But she’s not comfortable with the adjectives that now trail in her wake. “Celebrity,” some commentators say, others call her a “rock star.” They’re descriptions she could do without.
“The word ‘celebrity’… feels flippant to me,” she said in a recent interview. “I associate celebrity with something superficial and, you know, obviously nothing could be more weighty than the role I’ve taken on.”
At 42, Ms. Keesmaat is Toronto’s first female chief planner and the first hired from the private sector. She acknowledges she has taken on a “gargantuan” task in helping steer the growth of the city.
Making the job harder, her high profile has already generated unhappiness among some councillors at city hall, the people she must ultimately convince. She has run the risk of angering Mayor Rob Ford by raising questions about projects important to him. And there are mutterings that she is grandstanding. She quickly acknowledged last year that she had been unwise to tweet that councillors’ speeches were “insufferable.”
But she insists her public role is in keeping with the understanding when she was hired that she would generate citizen discussion. “The public should know what the planning division is doing,” the Hamilton native said. “I very quickly made it clear that I want to bring people into the conversation.”
The challenges are legion: worsening traffic congestion, runaway downtown development and the loss of employment lands, which threatens mixed-use neighbourhoods. The planning department is understaffed and Ms. Keesmaat explains how a colleague at another department warned she could be overwhelmed if she tried to do too much at once. The advice proved sound and her blog, for example, has been allowed to languish.
But there are huge opportunities as well. Toronto is growing in a way that would make many cities envious, it is the economic engine of the province, and there is finally a serious discussion about breaking gridlock.
Ms. Keesmaat sat down with The Globe and Mail last weekend to discuss the difference she wants to make, and the trajectory that brought her to this point. Coming from an event that got in the way of lunch, she was glad to swap her heels for a pair of Converse. She offered a cup of decaf and unwrapped a Clif bar before settling into her cluttered office to lay out her vision for the city.
The whiteboard covering most of one wall had a long list of priorities both for this year and for the next decade, some of which she elaborated on during the conversation.
She is keen on mid-rise development because it spreads density beyond the traditional core, helping to provoke amenities that build neighbourhoods and making it less necessary to drive. The city can smooth the way for developers pursuing these projects, she said.
She also wants to stem the loss of employment lands that help keep industry in Toronto, though she recognizes that developers have successfully appealed to the Ontario Municipal Board to build condos on such sites. A policy framework needs to be developed for the sort of “super-projects” increasingly being proposed downtown. And she would like there to see a major growth in the number of so-called heritage conservation districts, in which a whole area is subject to a preservation strategy.
The two-hour discussion, which ranged from cycling injuries to the charity she and her husband ran for at-risk youth, was by turns fascinating and frustrating.
Ms. Keesmaat clearly understands the value of the media in amplifying her voice, but she also feels she has been burned by some reporters and will occasionally err on the side of caution.