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Former Toronto chief planner Jennifer Keesmaat talks livability, elections ahead of U of T event

Jennifer Keesmaat holds the John Bousfield Distinguished Visitorship in Planning in U of T's department of geography and planning (Rene Johnston/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

When it comes to city building, change is good, says Jennifer Keesmaat, the former chief planner for the City of Toronto.

This semester Keesmaat is teaching a graduate planning course at the University of Toronto in the Faculty of Arts & Science on exactly that: how to transform cities to make them more livable and sustainable.

“The role of the university becomes so critical, as well as the role of our students, in ensuring that students actually have a paradigm to speak about the city in a different way from how it has been thought about in the past,” she says.

“If you don't have those conversations, you'll just keep doing what you've always done.”

Keesmaat, who left City Hall in September, was – and still is – an outspoken supporter of public transit and cycling in the city, often taking to Twitter to advocate for urban issues and spar with her opponents.

On Thursday, Keesmaat is bringing cities experts together for an event at Innis Town Hall on U of T’s downtown Toronto campus, organized as part of her John Bousfield Distinguished Visitorship in Planning.

The City We Want: Pushing the Boundaries of City Building for Livability will be moderated by Keesmaat and will include a lecture by Jeff Risom, Copenhagen-based partner and managing director of Gehl Architects US.

U of T News spoke with Keesmaat about Thursday’s event, the upcoming municipal elections and her “big” plans for the coming months.


What has teaching at U of T been like for you so far?

The students are very engaged, thoughtful and deeply committed. To stay in the course, you have to be willing to work hard because the objective is one where students can really begin to engage in the process of planning and, of course, I bring a really practical focus to the work.

What are your expectations for this week’s event? Is there anything in particular you’re interested in hearing about or speaking to the panelists about?

I created this event as part of the course curriculum. I did that in part because I wanted to bring an international lens and perspective to this question of how cities transform and become something else over time.

I set it up in part because I wanted my students to have exposure to international best practices and to hear from someone whos engaged in transforming cities across the world on almost every continent. In thinking about that, I realized it would be really valuable and very interesting to make that open to the public.

I then approached the City of Toronto and realized it would be really great if we made it a partnership such that students can be exposed to some of the challenges that planners face in practice and bureaucrats face in practice when theyre actually trying to make the city something different from what it is.

The objective of the event is really about how we take these best practices from elsewhere, learn from them and have a discussion about the Toronto context and what the implications are in the Toronto context. 

This is a municipal election year. Are there any particular issues you would like to see addressed by candidates? 

This is the most pressing question facing the city of Toronto: How do we become more livable and how do we ensure we are a sustainable city where prosperity is shared? A critical part of that has to do with how we invest in and how we use our infrastructure.

The risk, of course, is that we continue to plan our city primarily for cars. Its an unsafe place for walking and cycling, and transit is seen as a use of last resort. We want our city to be the opposite of that. We want it to be inclusive, we want it to be livable, we want it to be accessible and we want it to be sustainable. In order to get there, we really need to plan and design our infrastructure in a fundamentally different way. 

There are some really hot issues in the city right now, such as Reimagining Yonge, which is all about transitioning the northern part of Yonge Street to become a real destination and a real cycling-oriented community. And the challenge, of course, is the risk that it’ll remain a highway in perpetuity. 

How sick are you of people asking if you're running for mayor?

I'm not sick of it – I'm always flattered, but it is a tad exhausting [Keesmaat laughs].

It's very kind that people are constantly appealing to me about running for mayor. 

Do you have any plans in the coming months beyond teaching at U of T?

I'm going to be making an announcement within the next few weeks about, let's just call it my next big thing – it’s very exciting.