Jennifer Keesmaat, Toronto’s controversial former Chief Planner, to speak at IMCL

She is outspoken, articulate, and controversial. And she believes that survival of our cities – and our planet – requires a massive culture shift. Jennifer Keesmaat, Toronto’s Chief Planner for 5 years, “a passionate champion for bike lanes, pedestrian-friendly streets, and improved transit” (CBC News) will be keynote speaker at the 55th IMCL Conference on Healthy, 10-Minute Neighborhoods in May. 

Her sound planning vision has not infrequently brought her into conflict with elected officials who prioritize the automobile and modernist large-scale projects that yield quick financial returns. Keesmaat believes in community-oriented values, evidence based planning, and planning for the long term. Most notably, Ms Keesmaat disputed with the late mayor Rob Ford over the choice between a seven-stop light rail system to replace an old Rapid Transit, or a one-stop subway system, the cost of which was skyrocketing. This was the same Rob Ford who didn’t approve of bike lanes and justified spending $300K to remove a stretch of bike lane to save car drivers a couple of minutes’ commute, saying (like another notorious elected official of today) – "I am doing a very good job" as mayor!

Keesmaat advocated for the Complete Streets Guidelines to help make Toronto more pedestrian, bike and transit friendly, and, in her words, to “ensure the most vulnerable users – the cyclists and pedestrians, are prioritized” in future street design or redesign.

She is aware of some of the problems faced by residents, especially families with young children growing up in high-rise towers and has tried to get developers to rethink how to make high-rise housing more livable with amenities such as stroller parking and access to daycare. Whether they can solve the larger problem of social isolation of elders and children endemic in high-rise housing is another matter.

Like fellow Torontonian Jane Jacobs, Keesmaat believes in mixed-use with neighborhood-based businesses at street level that enliven the street, and a residential population above that provides “eyes on the street”. She believes that every neighborhood needs to be a complete community offering a high quality of life for all, poor as well as rich. And most remarkably, she has promoted mid-rise, 5-6 story, mixed-use continuous urban fabric, such as the Saint James Condominiums, designed by Quadrangle Architects as possibly the most successful model of development in Toronto.

The IMCL community is eager to hear Jennifer speak at the 55th IMCL Conference in Ottawa in May, and will follow her next steps – whether professional or political – with great anticipation!