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Toronto goes outside city hall in picking chief planner

Toronto’s West Don Lands, seen June 21, 2012, will be home to the PanAm Games’ athletes village.

Michelle Siu/The Globe and Mail

After months of searching, the City of Toronto has a new chief planner, a woman picked from outside the ranks of city hall who is a media commentator and a partner at a Toronto firm.

Jennifer Keesmaat is expected to be named to the top planning position Tuesday, ending close to a year of speculation about who would fill the vacancy left by the retirement of Gary Wright earlier this year.

"I think this is a bit of a bold move for us," said Peter Milczyn, an Etobicoke councillor who chairs the city's Planning and Growth committee.

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"It is excellent news. I am very excited. Jennifer is going to bring a lot to the city," said Mr. Milczyn, an architect who has known Ms. Keesmaat and her work for about a decade. "I think it is going to be an appointment that will surprise some people and please most of them."

Ms. Keesmaat is a partner at Dialog, and a founder of the Office for Urbanism, a planning and design firm that describes its work as specializing in "the integration of planning, design and consensus building processes."

An award-winning planner, she is a frequent public commentator on urban issues and is a columnist for the CBC Radio's Toronto drive-home show. She has done work on master planning initiatives in Toronto, Vancouver, Mississauga, Vaughan, Regina, Saskatoon, Lethbridge, Moncton, London and Halifax.

The search for a new chief planner for Toronto officially started in November and gained widespread attention as speculation mounted that the vacancy was going unfilled because of the reputation of Mayor Rob Ford and the high-profile firing of TTC boss Gary Webster. Mr. Webster was let go earlier this year after he told council he favoured a light rail system over the mayor's push for a Sheppard subway.

Mr. Milczyn, who is a member of the mayor's executive committee, said the length of the search is a reflection of the importance of the job, rather than the political climate at the city.

"We took our time," he said. "We wanted to find the right person – somebody that would be able to offer a bigger, broader vision beyond the mere running of the department and the planning functions of the city."

He also said pay scales at the city make it a challenge to attract candidates from outside the public sector.

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There are indications that Ms. Keesmaat may not always see eye-to-eye with the city's car-loving mayor. A talk she gave this spring in Regina focused on the importance of children walking to school. Walking, she said during the address, "is an indicator of what we believe and what it is we value."

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