City hall watchers are combing through new chief planner Jennifer Keesmaat’s Twitter postings on everything from bike lanes to transit trying to surmise how the high-profile hire will fit with Mayor Rob Ford’s car-friendly agenda.
Ms. Keesmaat calls her new job the most important planning gig in Canada. She starts in September, and said she is aware of the challenges facing Toronto – that’s partly why she left the private sector to take it on. Raised in Hamilton, Ms. Keesmaat knows her way around city hall, doing short stints in the offices of councillors Joe Mihevc and Jane Pitfield, and is married to a Toronto native who just happened to face off against the mayor in high school football.
Why did you take the job?
I was recruited. This was in fact the furthest thing from my mind. I suggested to them some reasons why I wasn’t the right candidate. They came back and said those are the reasons we want to keep talking to you. That planted a seed. I love this city. Once I let my mind go to that place, then I really started to get excited. This really matters and I wouldn’t have done it and taken the huge pay cut I’ve just taken if I didn’t think it really mattered.
What were the reasons you gave for not hiring you?
I said I’m a big-ideas person. I like to have lots of conversations about ideas. I said I could never come into a position like this and keep doing things the same way. That appealed to the city.
What kinds of changes do you want to make?
We have a very labour-intensive model of planning in this city that involves a tremendous amount of negotiation. It’s a slog. We have the second-highest number of high-rise buildings being built of anywhere in the world and we are negotiating all those applications one-by-one. There are always ways to do it better and be more creative.
You want to speed up the planning process?
Absolutely - as long as we are confident that we are not compromising our core city-building principles. There is no point in expediting our planning processes if we are not creating a great city.
You are a pedestrian advocate. How will that fit with this administration?
More than pedestrians, I’m an advocate of choice. I think that having urban places where people have lots of options in how they move from place to place is imperative to great place-making. When you create great places for walking, that is often the first choice. What is great about that is that it has zero impact on our infrastructure, it is great for the environment and it is great for our bodies. Does that mean everyone should walk? No. But they should have that choice.
What about bike lanes? Your recently re-tweeted a comment that said ripping out the Jarvis bike lanes was a waste.
It’s interesting the things that come back to haunt you. To me it comes back to choice. Bike lanes are a relatively inexpensive way to increase the choice of how people get around the city.
Would you like more bike lanes?
Absolutely. I am a strong advocate for dedicated bike lanes and separated bike lanes. I recognize that is often difficult to achieve, but I think that is the desired goal and very clearly we fall short.
Have you met the mayor?
What was that like?
Can you elaborate?
His key message to me was, ‘My door is always open.’ That was an important message to hear.
Did you have reservations about the political climate? There have been reports about people not wanting the job because they were worried about working with this administration.
Just to set the record straight, this job was not offered to anyone else. The notion that people didn’t want the job is simply not true. That mythology has got to be laid to rest.
Were you nervous about taking the job?
Sure. I am not Superwoman. I have had sleepless nights. Part of the value of coming from the private sector is I am used to taking risks. I am taking a risk here and I am taking a risk because it is worth it. The reality is, being a chief planner in a city like this is always going to be relatively volatile and I’m going to have to gain some skills and sophistication in navigating that.
Are you going to keep your Twitter account?