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Jennifer Keesmaat, Toronto’s chief planner, believes her role is to generate citizen discussion. “The public should know what the planning division is doing. I very quickly made it clear that I want to bring people into the conversation.” (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)
Jennifer Keesmaat, Toronto’s chief planner, believes her role is to generate citizen discussion. “The public should know what the planning division is doing. I very quickly made it clear that I want to bring people into the conversation.” (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)

Jennifer Keesmaat has plans for Toronto Add to ...

Still, she can be quite candid, talking about how her young children, now 12 and 7, were “troopers” when she press-ganged them into all-day bicycle touring on vacation last summer in San Francisco. She listed that city as one of her favourites – refreshingly non-political, she didn’t immediately say “Toronto” when asked – also rhyming off the reasons she loves New York, Amsterdam, Barcelona and Athens.

Clearly, though, she is passionate about this city.

“Toronto’s a gritty city, it’s not all polished up, and I appreciate cities like that that are full of surprises,” she said. “They’re nuanced, there’s change around every corner and unexpected unusual things in the fabric of the city.”

For her, the public reaction she’s generated is evidence that “people want to talk about their city.”

“I sure like what she’s saying,” said prominent condo developer Howard Cohen, a former Toronto planner who has been highly critical of the department’s attitudes in the past. “I think it’s great to have some personality and some flair and some energy.”

But the high profile risks undermining her relationship with some politicians on city council, the body which must approve her recommendations.

Some city politicians have said privately that they feel she is getting ahead of them and freelancing policy, a charge that would make it harder for her to build support on council.

Ms. Keesmaat said that no councillors have come to her directly with such concerns. She recognizes that planning is political in nature and she is careful in interviews to stress repeatedly the primacy of elected officials, saying that they are the ones who make the decisions. But she also notes that she gets praise from many members of council.

“Maybe that comes back to the old adage that you can’t please everyone,” she said.

Former planner Paul Bedford, who served in the position from 1996 to 2004, said they spoke before she accepted the role and he warned her to be ready for a bumpy ride.

“It’s a rough job, you’re always in demand, you’ve got a big staff to lead and you’re going to be attacked by lots of people who don’t like what you’re saying,” he said. “You need a thick skin.”

That toughness may be needed as her department stickhandles several major projects that are dear to Mr. Ford’s heart.

On the future of the Gardiner expressway, she has said that she’s “not big on massive investments … that are about moving cars.” Her department recommended a major reduction in the size of a casino that would be acceptable for downtown Toronto. And this week she said that, while no application has been made with regards to an island airport expansion, her department would expect to look carefully at how an infusion of people would affect movement in an “already quite congested” area of the downtown.

A spokesman for Mr. Ford did not respond to requests for an interview with the mayor on the job that she is doing.

The daughter of Dutch immigrants, Ms. Keesmaat studied English and philosophy at the University of Western Ontario. She had done well in these courses in first year, she explains, and thought the skills could serve her well no matter her future job. She remembers loving the great classical thinkers, studying a lot of feminist philosophy and reading Peter Singer, sparking a long stint of vegetarianism she finally ended for health reasons.

She remains a passionate reader, she said, and is working on Edward Keenan’s take on recent Toronto political history, Jeff Speck’s book on walkability and Daniel Kahneman’s analysis of decision-making. She also recently picked up Michael Ondaatje again. She admits getting sucked into the Twilight series after vetting one for her daughter but tends toward more serious work.

“I would never read 50 Shades of Grey, no matter how long it’s on the bestseller list,” she laughed.

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