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Toronto's chief planner Gregg Lintern, pictured in 2018, is set to retire. His position is one of three key roles in the city administration that Mayor Olivia Chow will be filling with new hires.Fred Lum/the Globe and Mail

This year, Mayor Olivia Chow will hire two top planning officials and a head of parks. And these may just be the most important decisions she makes at city hall. These three hires could, and must, change Toronto in profound ways.

In the planning department, retiring chief planner Gregg Lintern, a 30-year veteran of the city, will be replaced by two new executives, one for planning and one for development review. These people can help further Ms. Chow’s agenda to build housing and deliver a more equitable city – or sandbag it.

Ms. Chow must give these leaders a mandate for change and the political cover to deliver it. This is a pivotal moment. For half a century, planners in North American cities enjoyed a consensus view: Leave all the houses alone, and put the homes for any new residents somewhere over there. But since 2020, that grand bargain has shattered. Runaway housing costs, along with a critique of this approach’s classist and racist implications, have put the whole profession under well-deserved scrutiny.

Against that backdrop, Toronto city hall has made changes – but few, and slowly. Mr. Lintern’s department is pursuing ways to “expand housing options in neighbourhoods,” with tools that include laneway houses and garden suites. Their effort is something, but it’s not nearly enough.

After all, it is still illegal to construct an apartment building above four storeys on about 95 per cent of Toronto. In this zone, the city is stagnant or shrinking. Houses and neighbourhoods are emptying out, leaving deserted parks and mothballed schools. Within the other 5 per cent, supertall towers are popping up and apartment tenants are seeing their homes demolished to make room. This makes no sense.

But it is planning policy at work. Chapter 1 of the city’s official plan says house neighbourhoods “are not expected to accommodate much growth” and that their “character” should be “protected.” Right now, this chapter is up for a routine review, and it would normally be rubber-stamped. What it deserves is to be torn apart with a red pen. The neighbourhoods must become much denser, a move that will pay off financially and environmentally.

The next head of planning must understand all this. Ideally this person will also be an architect or a landscape architect who can develop a vision for how Toronto should grow. The utter absence of a design culture at city hall is striking.

Meanwhile, an executive director of development review will also have the opportunity to help drive change. Former mayor John Tory overhauled the planning department and created this role to speed up a process that is wildly, pointlessly complex and delivers poor qualitative results. Development approvals take years, and yet the best projects in the city invariably break the rules.

Then there is another big job to fill, leading the city’s largest division: parks, forestry and recreation. Its former general manager, Janie Romoff, left city hall soon after Ms. Chow took office. The 4,000 people in this department deliver valuable programs and run the rinks, pools and parks that are the city’s living rooms.

The parks are beloved but troubled. As we learned during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, the department has difficulty keeping its washrooms and drinking fountains working. Its forestry staff routinely hack apart trees without expertise or care. Parks are filled with garbage and staff driving one-ton pickups across the grass.

The new manager must, above all, be an outsider – someone ready to rethink both operations and strategy. The department certainly needs more money, but it also needs to work and build smarter. Parks is building a huge array of facilities. These should be led by the best designers, and they should be truly inclusive and lively places. Toronto needs more pool-park-library-café-social-housing complexes.

And here is where the new heads of parks and planning need to collaborate. Toronto could have a future as a much denser metropolis with a rich array of common spaces that provide public luxury. City staff must be prepared to dream this up, and to deliver it.

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