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Jennifer Keesmaat

April 18, 2013 by Speakers' Spotlight

Rules of Engagement

One of Toronto’s most popular weekly publications, The Grid, takes at look at the city’s new Chief City Planner, Jennifer Keesmaat:

If you follow City Hall even a little bit, you probably recognize Jennifer Keesmaat by now. Eight months into her job as Toronto’s chief planner, she’s the closest thing the city bureaucracy has to a rock star. Since she started last September, Keesmaat’s blonde, angled bob seems to have appeared in pretty much every publication in the city, from the op-ed page of The Globe and Mail to Corey Mintz’s Star food column to Toronto Life. Her TEDx talk, “Walk to School”—about the importance of experiencing your neighbourhood on foot—has been passed around on social media. This spring, she led a travelling transit-funding consultation road show called “Feeling Congested?” and had to set up an overflow room at City Hall to handle the crowds attending her Chief Planner Roundtable discussion/salon. She blogs, she tweets, she attracts attention. When New York–based website UBM’s Future Cities recently placed urban planning at the top of their list of cool municipal jobs, the accompanying profile was of Keesmaat.

“She’s certainly more outspoken than any other bureaucrat in Toronto on citywide issues,” says councillor Karen Stintz, who represents the area near Yonge and Eglinton and is chair of the TTC.

Keesmaat’s immediate predecessors in the job, Gary Wright and Ted Tyndorf, toiled in relative obscurity, working behind the scenes and preparing reports to city council. Keesmaat, by contrast, almost appears to be campaigning, acting in many ways more like a politician than a staffer. Rather than working anonymously and letting the elected officials debate the ideas, Keesmaat has been taking her vision of the city directly to the public, as if to build political support before her ideas ever land on councillors’ desks.

That approach hasn’t always endeared her to Toronto’s actual politicians, who are used to soaking up the headlines while the planner follows their instructions. “It’s almost as if it’s a branding exercise right now,” says leftist councillor Shelley Carroll. While Keesmaat is on the front page of every newspaper, Carroll observes, the chief planner hasn’t been in councillors’ offices to talk about ward-specific issues. “It’s a departure from the way things were in the past, and council can get pretty cranky about that.”

What’s at stake in Keesmaat’s work is nothing less than the way Toronto will look and function in the future. She heads up the department of urban planners, who are tasked with figuring out how the city should be built. Her purview includes the appropriate height of buildings, the ratio of residences to businesses in neighbourhoods, and transportation—trying to achieve the proper mix of public transit, bike paths, roads, and sidewalks. Keesmaat reports to deputy city manager John Livey, and acts on council’s instructions; through Livey, she gives advice about planning to council. The councillors ultimately have the power to make Toronto’s final planning decisions, but Keesmaat relentlessly focuses on the public, to whom city council itself ultimately reports.

If Keesmaat’s high profile is a surprise in itself, it’s more surprising still because her vision for the city is so often at odds with that of the mayor. Somehow, Rob Ford’s City Hall recruited an outsider to shake up the planning department. She’s the first woman to hold the job, and an unapologetic advocate of Jane Jacobs–style urbanism—pedestrianism, higher taxes, mass transit, and cycling. Keesmaat says she has a few priorities, including overhauling the planning process, which is still based on making decisions on a case-by-case basis in reaction to developers’ applications. She wants to articulate planning visions for the city and for individual neighbourhoods, which would then allow developers to more easily get permits that conform to the vision. Keesmaat also wants to take a close look at how condo neighbourhoods are developing. She isn’t wild about spending more money on car infrastructure, and has suggested that people need to be willing to pay more to build additional transit.

Her opinions haven’t always just put her in opposition to the mayor, though. Keesmaat caused a minor controversy when a tweet she posted during a council-meeting lunch break seemed a tad too honest: “Now that half of council is considering running for mayor, the speeches at council are…insufferable. Did I say that out loud?”

Paul Bedford, a former chief city planner, thinks the waves she’s making are positive. “A fresh perspective, breath of fresh air—all those different analogies can be made. But I think the fact is, she brings a totally different perspective from the outside, and I think that can only be healthy,” he says. “She’s only been in the job eight months and she’s established an ongoing dialogue [with citizens], which is critical. Because the city is ongoing, it’s constantly evolving, it’s exciting.”

On a grey, windy day in April, Keesmaat walks into a café at Bay and Lakeshore in a bright pink top and heels, accessorized by a wrist brace to heal a fracture (a bike accident, of all things, she says). At a glance, she lives up to her billing as the opposite of stodgy bureaucracy. This location is a nexus for many of the city’s planning challenges. Outside the window, you can see the hulking (and deteriorating) concrete columns of the Gardiner Expressway and, beyond them, the multiplying glass condo towers of CityPlace. The Metrolinx office, where regional-transit projects are overseen, is just a block away. There’s the constantly evolving waterfront just to the south, and the massive redevelopment of Union Station—which Keesmaat helped plan while working in the private sector—just to the north.

Sitting in a leather chair and sipping tea, Keesmaat describes the initial questions she looked at when deciding to get into the profession: “Why is it that we know that if we plan a certain way it will result in certain problems, and yet we do it anyway?” That real-life gap between the best theoretical way to build a city and the way it’s actually built through political decisions ultimately led her to focus on the decision-making process in her work—specifically, how planners can establish a two-way relationship with the community and “advocate and advance ideas” in a way that will get politicians to adopt them and residents to embrace them. “While people like to blame planners, we often forget they are immersed in a system where they often have very little power,” she says.

Born in Hamilton, Keesmaat studied philosophy and English at Western University and had originally planned to attend law school. Fresh out of college, newly married, and “young and footloose,” she moved to Vancouver and became interested in urban affairs. She co-founded a charity for at-risk kids called All-A-Board Youth Ventures; her husband ran it for 13 years.

After a friend persuaded her to read Jane Jacobs’s urbanist bible The Death and Life of Great American Cities, she was hooked. She and her husband, Tom Freeman, moved in with his parents in Etobicoke while she studied urban planning at York University in the 1990s. (At the same time she worked for councillor Joe Mihevc.) In 2004, she co-founded her own consulting firm, the Office for Urbanism. She moved her family to Roncesvalles Village, then to Yonge and Eglinton, where the 42-year-old lives now with her husband and two kids. In private practice she remained focused on process—talking with local residents and getting them involved in the planning so that the results both met their needs and received their support.

Keesmaat called her plan for downtown Regina, “Walk to Work.” “In downtown Regina the notion of walking to work is a radical idea,” she says, “because it’s a fundamentally suburban municipality. The only way walking to work is going to work in downtown Regina is if you urbanize and densify it.” At the end of the process, she says, residents were on board with an approved downtown project that will expand parks, change traffic systems to make cycling and walking around easier, and build new residences.

She’s seen similar results in Halifax, Moncton, Fredericton, and Winnipeg, as people and their politicians embrace the principles of good planning and urbanism after a process in which they are involved.

Antonio Gómez-Palacio was one of the co-founders of the Office for Urbanism, and continued to work with Keesmaat after it merged with the architecture and urban-planning firm Dialog. “I’ve seen it happen for 20 years: Everything seems to be stuck, and then, trusting the process and the people you’re engaging, you get unstuck,” he says. “[Keesmaat] definitely has the savvy and the tools to be able to work through things. That’s part of the freshness she brings.”

When Gary Wright retired as Toronto’s chief planner in March 2012, Keesmaat wasn’t looking for a new gig. As the position stayed vacant into May and June, speculation around City Hall suggested it was difficult to find a qualified candidate to take the job.

Keesmaat says when she was contacted, she initially told the recruiter she was the wrong person. “I’m not a bureaucrat, first of all,” she says. Her new salary represented a pay cut of around 40 per cent, and she’d have to leave a private firm that had gained new prominence, handing off an exciting new project in Memphis she describes as a combination of the Brick Works and the Distillery District. But after reflecting on the public-service mission at the root of her profession, and looking at a city that was growing faster than almost any other in the world, the opportunity to help shape Toronto—to plan what could be one of the world’s great cities at a pivotal time—was too attractive to pass up. “I [told the recruiter], ‘I think it’s the role of the chief planner to be very vocal and to facilitate a conversation on urbanism,’ and I said, ‘I’m not sure that’s what the city’s looking for.’ And they called me back and said, ‘Actually, we’re sort of really interested in talking to you.…’ Then my imagination began to run wild, and I got really excited about what might be possible.”

Today in Toronto, we’re used to City Hall bureaucrats being relatively anonymous. But it wasn’t always so. Some of the great city builders of the 20th century were civil servants. The most famous of these was New York City parks commissioner Robert Moses. In Toronto, we had works commissioner R.C. Harris from 1912 until 1945, who built our sidewalks and sewer system, and created the precursor to the TTC. His name is on the palatial water treatment plant in the Beach, a monument to the expansive infrastructure whose construction he oversaw. His most famous triumph was probably the Bloor Viaduct. He oversaw the design of the steel-girder construction and insisted on roughing in a subway corridor underneath it, even though Toronto wouldn’t have a subway until decades after it was finished. Harris faced resistance from the politicians of the day, who often thought his projects were unnecessary and too expensive. But he was a public figure in his own right, attending residents’ meetings and talking regularly to the press. He didn’t depend on mayors and councillors to run with his vision.

I ask Keesmaat about the Harris model of bureaucrat-as-visionary—the civil servant who builds a political base of their own. “It’s about building constituencies for ideas. That’s exactly my planning approach. What’s important about R.C. Harris—who’s a really inspiring figure for me—is everything he achieved. He worked really hard, and there was a lot of fighting, a lot of back and forth,” she says. “We shouldn’t be surprised that we need to have these conversations, and we shouldn’t be surprised that it’s sometimes challenging and we have differences we need to negotiate. We shouldn’t be overwhelmed by that—I think we should embrace that.”

Even with that historical precedent, Karen Stintz says the very public role Keesmaat has embraced is a change from recent City Hall practice. “I do see Jennifer Keesmaat pushing the boundary of a typical bureaucratic role into the areas that have perhaps been more the purview of politicians. But, given that the topics she’s talking about have citywide impact, it’s perfectly appropriate that she would be advancing some of these discussions.”

Former chief planner Paul Bedford agrees. “Planning is political. Don’t ever pretend it isn’t,” he says. “For anything to happen, a chief planner needs to have political support. You have to get a majority vote at council.”

Keesmaat is careful to say that she respects and defers to the role of elected representatives and is not trying to supplant their role—and to point out that she’s learning as she goes along. Councillor Carroll thinks part of the learning might involve balancing her public advocacy and appearances with direct council relations, for the sake of effectiveness if nothing else: “You have to reach out.”

Carroll has been disappointed by the level of personal attention the issues in her North York ward have received from Keesmaat. Still, she sees the upside of the chief planner’s approach. Carroll notes that constituents are now calling her about urban-planning–related articles they’ve read in the paper—not a subject in which they’ve previously shown much interest. “That’s not so bad,” she says. “[Keesmaat’s] branding exercise has generated a lot of conversation.”

Keesmaat admits she’s still figuring out how to balance the various demands of the job. (“The learning curve is huge in every regard, and there’s no guidebook.”) Meeting with councillors and working well with them is her top priority. “The extent to which councillors are my colleagues will determine our success, and the success of our city.”

Among the things it was hard to appreciate before she took the job was the sheer magnitude of the city. She’d hoped, in her first months, to go on a tour of each ward with every local councillor, only to find that the number of fixed meetings in a month, plus the number of wards, made this pure fantasy. She’ll soon be hiring a “stakeholder engagement specialist” to work in her office, adding to the more than 20 new staff she’s already added to the department. “The first job of that new person will be to come up with a council engagement strategy.”

I mention that we commemorate city builders by naming things after them—Fred Gardiner has an expressway, R.C. Harris has that big waterworks. If she were to imagine the city 50 years from now, after her contribution is clear, what would she like to see named after her?

She laughs, and tries to dodge the question. She says she doesn’t spend time thinking about how she’ll be memorialized, noting that she’s too focused on keeping up with the demands of the job itself. Still, I press Keesmaat to think about what she’d like named after her. Finally, she takes a stab. “As we continue to evolve, inevitably we’ll have pedestrian-only streets.” She says this will necessarily be a long process. Often, enthusiastic politicians and residents want to pedestrianize a street and she tells them they can’t just do that—the street will be empty if you remove the cars. You need to build the landscape around the street, the residential density, the business mix, the streetscape, so the neighbourhood evolves into a place where walking becomes the best way to get around. “It would be pretty cool to have a street that was transformed like that named after me.”

By Edward Keenan/The Grid/April 2013