The suburbs versus downtown, bikes versus cars, affordable housing versus gentrification—Jennifer Keesmaat will certainly have her work cut out for her when she steps into her public-sector post next month. We sat down with Toronto’s newly tapped chief city planner to talk megacity, Mayor Ford, and why forcing your kids to walk to school is such a big deal.
A recent post on the Atlantic Cities website asked whether Toronto’s current mayor is a barrier to good planning. Care to comment?
I guess you could say that all politicians could be perceived as a barrier to good planning. People don’t realize that city planners don’t just walk into a room and get our way. That era is long, long gone. Now it’s about negotiating, which is difficult in any political environment. And this environment is pretty tricky. A lot of that goes back to becoming a megacity, which was basically about shoving together a whole variety of cities with different strategies.
So if you had a time machine, would you try to talk Mel Lastman out of the megacity?
That’s neither here nor there. The key is in figuring out how to work the megacity to our advantage. Right now, we tend to think of the city as urban versus suburban, which really isn’t helpful. The reality is that all of us use different parts of the city for different reasons. It’s not as simple as cars versus bikes: Many of us bike, drive, walk, use transit, and take cabs.
How might things be different if you had become the city planner during the Miller administration?
That’s a bizarre speculation. Of course it would be different. That’s like asking if the city would be different if we hadn’t amalgamated.
But your own values relating to planning issues like transit and a bike-friendly city seem to be more in line with the previous mayor’s. That doesn’t matter at all?
What matters more is whether I think the ideas and plans I put forward will align with the interests of council. I wouldn’t have taken this position if I thought we couldn’t generate that alignment.
Do you worry at all about voicing opinions that aren’t in keeping with the current administration? TTC chief Gary Webster was sacked after publicly standing up against Rob Ford’s transit plan.
I would be naive not to be conscious of the fact that I’m going into a politically charged environment that will involve a tremendous amount of negotiation. That means there will be times to push and times to step back. Sometimes good ideas take time.
I noticed you weren’t one of the 100-plus city planners and thinkers who signed an open letter objecting to Doug Ford’s infamous ferris wheel and shopping-mall proposal for the Port Lands. How come?
I’d prefer not to comment on that.
Would you comment on what you thought about the actual proposal?
I guess I would say that I think we have moved pretty far away from that idea, which is a good thing for the city.
You recently gave a very impassioned speech on the subject of walking to school. Why is the issue so important to you?
At a very basic level, walking to school is a good indicator of what kind of culture we have in our communities. Today, only 12 per cent of kids walk to school, whereas in the previous generation there were only 12 per cent who didn’t. These are American stats, but we’re not much better in Canada. In one generation we’ve almost wiped out a practice that is so important. Walking to school helps kids develop autonomy, combats childhood obesity, and reduces our environmental footprint.
Do your kids ever pull the “But mom, all the other kids get a drive to school” routine?
Absolutely. “I’m too tired, the weather is bad…”
And then you retort with something about how back in your day you had to walk to school without shoes or something like that?
Exactly! The thing is that my kids give me the same kind of excuses about doing their chores because they just want to go lie on their beds and read Archie comics.
I guess there are worse things they could be up to.
That’s true. Listen, the fact that there’s going to be pushback from kids—so what? Go do it! I’m lucky, though; my daughter has really joined me in taking up the walk or bike to school cause. Last year, she wrote a persuasive speech, asking for better facilities for students to lock up their bikes.
Sounds like a city planner in the making. What do you like to do when you’re not on mom duty?
This will sound clichéd, but I really love to see cities.
Any current favourites, or a place that’s on your all-time wish list?
I absolutely loved San Francisco. I went recently and there is just so much grassroots excitement in that city right now. Copenhagen is at the very top of my wish list. The way they have made their city bikeable is just amazing. I’ve read about it, studied it, now I just have to go there.
Prince Harry or Prince William?
Favourite Olympic sport?
With my children in my arms.
Wonderland or the Ex?
Who would play you in a movie?
Favourite TV show?
I don’t really watch TV.