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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 ...

She found herself in Vancouver after her BA, and it was there that her career path was sparked. She had been volunteering on affordable housing issues and started helping to organize fora that could give the Downtown East Side a voice in the rest of the city. At a party, a friend said “you talk like an urban planner.” As Ms. Keesmaat remembers it, she asked “what’s an urban planner?” and was amazed that someone would pay her to do the role.

She read Jane Jacobs and starting taking classes at UBC. Eventually she and her husband, Tom Freeman, moved back to Ontario for her Master in Environmental Studies, at York University.

In 2003, she and two others founded the Office for Urbanism, a boutique planning and design consultancy. The firm grew and eventually merged with three others to create DIALOG, with whom she worked on projects across the county.

That work showed her as an unabashed advocate of urbanism. Even in Fort McMurray, famously an Alberta boomtown of roughnecks and half-ton trucks, she encouraged a downtown where people would walk and cycle.

In Regina, where she worked on a plan for the core, she stressed the importance of not just encouraging development in that area. “Another important factor will be where growth is directed, and whether the incentives to direct growth to the downtown are sufficiently accompanied by disincentives to accommodating growth elsewhere,” she wrote in a 2008 memo to that community’s city council.

When she was hired at Toronto city hall, political observers trying to figure her out parsed a talk she had given on the importance of walking to school. Both of her children do, she says, though the younger still does it with parental accompaniment.

In her role as planner, Ms. Keesmaat continues to make strong arguments for walkability, a factor increasingly seen as an important element of liveable cities worldwide. She believes that planning around the automobile no longer makes sense. But she rejects the contention that she is at odds with a “pro-car and pro-suburban” administration.

“I think you positioned the question wrong because I don’t think it’s about urban versus suburban. I think that’s a dated way of looking at the city,” she said.

“I also think that the sentiment that the suburbs have often been forgotten and it’s all about the downtown is a very legitimate one. I think our suburbs are extremely important to the future of this city. They’re under increasing pressures to change and evolve and … figuring out our suburbs in the 21st century is our most important challenge.”

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