City hall likes its unelected officials bland and obedient. Most of them are happy to play the part, keeping their heads down and letting city councillors grab the headlines. Not Jennifer Keesmaat. The city’s new chief planner is on her way to becoming modern Toronto’s first celebrity bureaucrat, and some people don’t like it.
Ms. Keesmaat, 42, seems to be everywhere these days – giving speeches, tweeting up a storm, leading public consultations and heading up high-end talks. York University’s magazine put her on the cover, asking: “Can urban planner Jennifer Keesmaat help Toronto make a comeback?”
Leaving a flourishing career as an urban-design consultant in September, she arrived at city hall like a gust of fresh air. With her bright-eyed passion for cities and her open, engaging personality, she has already emerged as a leading advocate for change in a city that sometimes seems stuck up to its axles.
In the Feeling Congested? consultation, she challenges Torontonians to join a conversation about gridlock and consider what they are willing to pay for fixing it. In the Chief Planner Roundtable, she is bringing in leading thinkers to brainstorm about issues like how to transform the sprawling suburbs. Her first session this week drew an overflow crowd.
“As I lie awake nights thinking of the gargantuan challenges we have – because they are, and they’re completely overwhelming – what’s become clear to me is that I’ve got to bring as many people into the conversation as possible,” she says. “It’s not good enough for me to sit at my desk and be really clever – if I am really clever [she adds with a laugh].”
Her high profile has raised eyebrows at city hall. Some city councillors complain privately that she is getting ahead of herself and freelancing city policy.
“I think they would be more comfortable if she would concede that the final arbiter of the public good is council,” says Councillor Adam Vaughan, who stresses that he himself applauds her for speaking up about how critical good planning is to the city’s future. “If she deliberately excludes politicians from the process, she will find herself alone on the floor of council and alone in the city. The people make decisions, not bureaucrats.”
Ms. Keesmaat has not helped her own cause. At a council meeting in November, she issued a cheeky tweet suggesting that councillors’ speeches were becoming “insufferable” because, with Mayor Rob Ford then facing ouster over conflict-of-interest allegations, “half of council is considering running for mayor.”
She says she deleted the item within minutes after a city councillor complained. “I’m learning the hard way,” she said during a public “fireside chat” with Mississauga Mayor Hazel McCallion this week. “I’m almost petrified before I say anything because I’m so hyper-conscious of the way my words can be misconstrued.”
Not too petrified, though. She told a board of trade event in January that “we have a political culture that is very challenging.”
But given all the good she is doing, it would be a mistake to slap her down over a few indiscreet remarks. The city desperately needs leadership and, at the moment, there is precious little coming from the political side. If it takes a celebrity civil servant, so be it.
Deputy city manager John Livey praises her for “really raising the profile of planning and the import of a thoughtful discussion of urban issues.” Former chief planner Paul Bedford says that, unlike a federal or provincial deputy minister, a planner should feel free to speak out. “I think that’s the role of the chief planner – to say what they think of the issues facing the city.”
Ms. Keesmaat herself has no intention of fading into the wallpaper. “As radical as it may seem here,” she says, the trend is for major-city planners to be a “big voice” on urban issues. She points to New York’s dynamic Amanda Burden – no “shrinking violet” by any means.
“I did not come in here saying I was going to be traditional,” Ms. Keesmaat says. “I was pretty clear from the outset: I am not a bureaucrat. I am a kind of a can-do, change-agent type of person. I’ve been entrepreneurial my whole career and that is the approach I’ve taken to this role – focusing on how can we be creative and what are the risks we need to take to get there.”
Let’s hope she keeps at it. The last thing Toronto needs is for Jen Keesmaat to shut up.