It’s been a wild five years to be a city planner. Ever since Gregg Lintern took over as chief planner for Toronto in 2018, the field has been turned upside down. The pandemic enhanced inequality in our cities, and critics argued that the whole business of planning needed a shakeup.
Mr. Lintern handled himself well in this storm, but this week the veteran civil servant announced he will retire in December. Mayor Olivia Chow will appoint a new head of planning. That person must be ready to get stuff done, pushing the city toward a vision of itself that is dense, fast-changing and emphasizes design.
When Mr. Lintern took the position in 2018, he had spent more than 25 years at the city and had a reputation as a grey-flannel-suit type. Yet as housing politics shifted, he took the department through significant reforms: allowing new houses in back laneways, then garden suites; eliminating minimum parking requirements; even legalizing four-unit apartment buildings on any lot in the city.
This was incremental change, but it was real. For 50 years, Toronto and its predecessor cities have made it harder to build everything everywhere. Neighbourhoods of single-family homes were especially untouchable. Under Mr. Lintern’s leadership, all this began to change.
That work followed the prevailing winds in planning; so-called “exclusionary zoning,” which primarily means banning apartment buildings, has rightfully been under attack. The planning profession spent decades tying North American cities in knots. Now the job is to cut some of those back.
Toronto’s next chief planner needs to bring a big pair of shears. If she or he does so, the opportunity is huge. For two decades now, the government of Ontario has favoured “intensification” – building within cities rather than promoting sprawl. But Toronto has been weirdly reluctant to embrace this. Apartment buildings are still illegal on roughly 95 per cent of the land in the city.
This has grotesque outcomes. Many neighbourhoods are losing people because the city won’t let anything large be built there. At the same time, tenants are being “demovicted” so their high-rise apartment buildings can be torn down and replaced with bigger high-rises. None of this makes sense – and none of it is inevitable. City planning shapes it all.
The next chief planner needs a different mindset. She or he should help Toronto take advantage of its tremendous assets: good civic bones, great wealth and an endless stream of new arrivals who – for the moment – want to live there. She or he must be focused on delivering results rather than policies.
It will almost certainly be an outsider, someone with vision who can make institutional change. An ideal candidate would be someone like Maurice Cox, the former Chicago and Detroit planning commissioner. He has been a strong advocate for equitable cities and using design to make concrete, immediate change.
Mr. Cox is also an architect, which would be a welcome credential. For decades now, Toronto has lacked a strong culture of design. There is no strong vision at city hall about what a good building looks like, or a good block, or a good park. Toronto has built a lot of places in this construction boom; most of them aren’t interesting or beautiful, and the ones that are tend to break city planning rules.
The heritage planning division, meanwhile, went haywire, adding heritage protection to thousands of humdrum buildings. That overreach provoked Premier Doug Ford’s government into gutting heritage policy for the entire province. And that raises serious questions about city hall’s vision for the future of Toronto. Today the city has a thick sheaf of competing priorities, policies and processes. Which are most important? What is the end goal?
That should be a dense, walkable, equitable city with high-quality public spaces, a place where the best architects and landscape architects are given room to define the future. Toronto can be that place – if it plans to be.