The exit interview: Jennifer Keesmaat

Toronto’s chief planner is arguably the city’s most popular bureaucrat. She championed Rail Deck Park, the complete streets concept and brought a new era of transparency and public engagement to the planning department. After five years, she resigned from her post, but you can still catch her talk at TEDxToronto on Oct. 27.


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Under your tenure, city planning prioritized public engagement, but aren’t you concerned that everyone is being called a NIMBY?
I don’t think the word NIMBY really applies in Toronto, to be honest. We are the fastest growing city in North America, so Torontonians are not only tolerating change, but they are supporting a tremendous amount of change right now. Do people sometimes oppose a project? For sure. Is that what happens the majority of the time? No. The vast majority of times projects are supported by area residents. Part of that is the conversation we continue to have at the city. When people come out and want to talk about city building, it’s not a good thing for us to be dismissive and not have that conversation. We are moving the dial and having different conversations than we had five or 10 years ago. 

Even Margaret Atwood, when she spoke against an Annex development, was called a NIMBY.
I think it was unfairly applied. She raised issues about trees being cut down. She raised issues about the fact that affordable housing wasn’t being built. She got labelled as being anti-growth. She’s not anti-growth, and she wasn’t opposing growth. So I think what’s important is that we do create the space where we can have conversations in the city about change without suddenly sticking a label on people that is meant to shut down the conversation. And I think that’s what happened in that instance, and I wasn’t impressed. 

You use social media to connect and tell us what you think, but that hasn’t always gone over well. Have you ever felt muzzled at the city?
No, I never felt that I was muzzled. I did feel like there were some invisible lines, and I would discover where they were as I crossed them.

It was suggested the next chief planner would "stick to the knitting.” What are your hopes for your replacement?
I think there is a firm trajectory that has been established over the course of these past five years. I know the mayor is very supportive of that trajectory, and it’s one that is based on a vision-driven approach to creating complete, livable communities. I think we will have a very open environment for growth as long as we continue to have those conversations about the future city we are working to build. At the same time, the next chief planner will have to find his or her own way in this universe.

What is your favourite development in the city?
That is a ridiculously hard question, but I’m going to say Parkway Forest at Don Mills and Victoria Park. There are so many things, I think, that are exceptional about that project.… It’s become this little jewel in the heart of the suburbs where an environment that was once feeling disconnected and desolate now feels like a very urban place with a strong sense of community where families can really thrive. 

 

Proust Questionnaire, Toronto style. 

Describe your perfect Toronto day?
A bike ride through the ravine system with my kids. 

What is your Greatest fear?
That we forget, as Torontonians, that the city needs to continually be nurtured. I believe the city is vulnerable to whims and fads, and my greatest fear is that we take our hand off the rudder. 

What one skill would you most like to have?
I’d love to be able to speak many languages. 

Starbucks or hip indie coffeehouse?
Hip indie coffeehouse. 

Streetcar or subway?
Depends on the circumstances. Sometimes I want to be above ground and see the city, and sometimes I want to just move really quickly. 

Raptors or Maple Leafs?
I’m sorry — Raptors. 

Bicycle or car?
Bicycle.

Where in the city would you most like to live?
I live there, at Yonge and Eglinton. But I could live anywhere in this city, including in Princess Anne Manor in the suburbs of Etobicoke to the Beach to South Core to Toronto Island. I could pretty much live anywhere in this city and be deliriously happy.

What is your most treasured possession
It’s a T-shirt that I got when I attended Obama’s first inauguration, and it has a picture of Obama, and it says, “Hope, Dream, Change.”

Doug Ford or John Tory? 
Please don’t do that to me. Obviously John Tory. 

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Ron Johnson is the editor of Post City Magazines. Follow him on Twitter @TheRonJohnson.

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