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.
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.
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.”