Kathryn Firth profiles one of the most notable urban planners in the world, Toronto Chief Planner Jennifer Keesmaat*, to find out why grassroots politics is still important and how she’s tackling the challenge of the suburbs.
In the four years since Jennifer Keesmaat was appointed chief planner for the City of Toronto, she has won admiration from fellow Torontonians for her refusal to shy away from controversial issues, and gained a reputation as someone who gets things done. She is a proponent of densification, prioritising pedestrians and cyclists over private vehicles, reduction in carbon emissions and true mixed-use neighbourhoods, principals that fit happily into the framework of Toronto’s 2002 official plan, based on the principles of Jane Jacobs, who made Toronto her home for the last 38 years of her life.
From bureaucrat to advocate
When Keesmaat took up her position in September 2012, the Mayor was Rob Ford who was busy putting Toronto in the news for all the wrong reasons, his tenure being characterised by a series of scandals. The urban form of the city was barely on his agenda, allowing Keesmaat to seize the opportunity to engage in direct negotiations with developers and set in motion initiatives that regulated and informed building height and density. Under Ford's successor, John Tory, elected in 2014, freedom to implement her vision may have been curtailed, with his office imposing more scrutiny over the planning department, but Keesmaat is shrewd enough to know how to navigate the political system.
When asked specifically about the relationship between the planning department, chief planner and the Mayor, Keesmaat highlights the inherent tension between the role of the public servant, the person put in place to provide professional advice, and the elected official who calls on that person to realise a vision for the city that may, or may not, embody good urbanism.
The vision of the Mayor may come laden with an agenda that does not entirely align with what the planning department believes is best for the city. Keesmaat balances pragmatism with a more philosophical view, noting that, in the name of democracy, bureaucrats need to be given room to do due diligence, analysis and report their findings in the public domain, however, ultimately they are required by their job definition to serve their municipal leaders, perhaps implementing plans that represent a compromise. This sounds disheartening, but Keesmaat clearly enjoys the challenge. 'Planners occupy an interesting territory,' she says.
Keesmaat posits that the influence of a mayor is, not surprisingly, highly dependent on how she or he is regarded by councillors, or how much 'soft power' they wield. In Canada, unlike the US and perhaps more like the UK, the mayoral system is, on the face of it, weak – the Mayor only constitutes one vote of 44 on the city council, although they can, of course, lobby and cajole other members to vote with them. An unpopular Mayor will have less clout and that single vote won’t go far. In the end, influence is down to the style and popularity of the sitting Mayor – something Londoners can relate to perhaps more than they would like to admit.
In the spirit of the democratic process, Keesmaat is a firm believer in grassroots politics. She recognises that public opinion can hold great sway with politicians so it's essential to ensure communities have a clear understanding of planning principles and the rationale behind specific initiatives. This, she says, is the key to both good democracy and good planning practice; without it a city will lack the political constituencies to advance progressive ideas.
She sees planning as presenting opportunities to bridge the gap between complex city-wide issues and neighbourhood concerns, stating: 'Progress fails when there is a disconnect between constituencies at the grassroots level and political decision making.'
Recognising the extent to which she must, and can, build constituencies at the grassroots level underlies a number of Keesmaat's initiatives. As cliched as it sounds, she firmly believes that unless people take ownership of ideas they will not advance – or certainly not without resistance.
Her proactive outreach is evident in a programme launched four years ago called PIPS – Planners in Public Spaces. Believing that the best way to engage people is to go to where they are already gathering, she sends her planners out to public spaces and places. This may be where a community event is happening, or it could even be an underground platform. In these public spaces, conversations happen about people’s future vision for the city, disaggregated from specific initiatives.
She describes this process as 'tilling the soil' – a form of engagement that is most productive when done before an issue that will be over-shadowed by self-interest is even on the table. She has great faith in transparency and building trust, believing that if people understand the principles behind decisions and how planning can work effectively, they will take a more rational and considered view when a project appears on their doorstep.
Communication is clearly central to Keesmaat’s approach to achieving momentum and consensus around city building. Common to all cities is the simple fact that public engagement seldom reaches all sectors of society. As the most vocal citizens tend to be white homeowners aged over 55, Keesmaat's Growing Communities youth engagement strategy, completed a year ago, takes into account that the fastest-growing demographic is mixed ethnicity under 35, of which 50 per cent live in rented accommodation. She believes in enabling people to engage in ways in which they are familiar – namely, social media – and launched a podcast called Invisible Cities. She also blogs and has published a series of highly accessible brochures about the city and how planning is working to improve Toronto.
However, she warns that in order to facilitate effective engagement, the planners need to do the research and set the scene. She cites as an example an initiative to restrict private vehicles on the busiest surface transport route in downtown Toronto, King Street, allowing access only to streetcars, pedestrians and cyclists. is was originally seen as a war on cars – Toronto has a very walkable city centre but its roots are still as a North American, predominantly car-based agglomeration.
Again adopting a grassroots approach, data was collected as to who uses the street, when and why, and who avoids the street and why. Sharing this information, a collaboration was formed with seven business improvement districts. By bringing key stakeholders in early, they have taken up the mantle as advocates of the project, helping to build support across all constituents in an area slated for incredible growth.
The challenge of the suburbs
When it comes to implementing higher densities and public transport, urban dwellers everywhere are seen as easier to win over than suburbanites. When asked about her approach to tackling these issues in Toronto's vast hinterland, Keesmaat again emphasises the importance of separating out the city-wide vision from the local, where vested interest tends to prevail.
She is fully aware that, left to their own devices, communities never want change.
This brings Keesmaat back to the topic of leadership. If you have a strong politician on side who can convey the holistic vision and explain to his/her constituents the advantages and direct gains of intensification or a new transport line, communities can be brought around. at dynamism and 'so power' she speaks of with respect to the Mayor needs to be present at all levels of the political pyramid. She does not claim that there have been only easy wins but says once projects get realised and people see the bene ts, subsequent projects are easier to explain and implement.
For Keesmaat, the best communities to work with are, not surprisingly, the ones who understand the official plan and how to read proposals, but to achieve that level of discourse requires a concerted effort on the part of the planning department. More than that, ideally the Mayor and his councillors will help champion initiatives the chief planner is promoting on the front line.
Kathryn Firth is an urban designer
*This feature appeared in the Autumn/Winter 2016 edition of The Journal of the London Society in January.
Jennifer Keesmaat is a Canadian urban planner who served as Chief City Planner of Toronto from 2012 to 2017. On August 28, 2017, she announced that she would resigned her position as Chief Planner, effective September 29 of the same year, and subsequently accepted a teaching position at the University of Toronto