Jennifer Keesmaat, the Chief Planner for the City of Toronto and one of the fifty most influential people in Toronto, is directing attention to the importance of walkable neighbourhoods. Unlike the focus of most development hype, she is concentrating not just on the prosperous, mixed-use downtown and surrounding area, but also on the car-oriented, former suburbs that are beyond the reach of the subway. Keesmaat is sparking constructive debate about the former suburbs, an important step toward the future of Toronto as a cohesive city rather than a strongly divided one.
The downtown versus suburbs mentality has pervaded Toronto ever since six smaller cities and boroughs amalgamated in 1998 to create the “megacity.” Although it is one city according to geopolitical boundaries, it remains divided among citizens both in terms of regional identity and future development plans for Toronto. For example, while Old Toronto wants bike lanes, nicer pedestrian avenues and more reliable and efficient streetcar and subway service, Etobicoke, North York, and Scarborough are still without subways or any light rail transit. Getting each side to see the other is a challenge.
Keesmaat is attacking this divide head on with her Chief Planner Roundtables. At these public forums, she brings together developers, politicians, academics, professionals, and other stakeholders to present and discuss specific challenges Toronto is facing – such as resilient cities, urban fabric and form, and mobility. With her stress on community participation, she engages the audience to ask or tweet their questions and listens to their concerns. After the first three roundtables, Keesmaat realized the need to focus the following series specifically on the suburbs, which she believes is “[Toronto’s] next great opportunity.”
These discussions have revealed issues she hopes Toronto’s City Planning Department can address. For instance, the divide is not simply geographical and related to transportation, the street grid, and the built form. It is also deeply tied to social and economic factors like income, race, ethnicity, employment, health and living conditions. With the existing culturally diverse communities, the more affordable suburbs serve as the arrival point for many people immigrating to Toronto.
By creating this dialogue, Keesmaat is soliciting ideas about how to create the required change. At the most recent Chief Planner Roundtable, focused on mobility in the suburbs, the following specific actions emerged:
1. Get rid of fences that create barriers to walking;
2. Capture pedestrians in circulation data;
3. Prioritize active transportation within the suburbs;
4. Connect walking and cycling infrastructure to transit;
5. Relax zoning by-laws to allow organic community development; and
6. Find political champions to drive the needed change.
After just over a year as Chief Planner of Toronto, Keesmaat has made definitive strides toward finding solutions to the challenges in this divided city. In Toronto, we are looking forward to how she will implement them.
What is your city planning department doing to engage citizens and solicit their input? What issues are there in your city that need to be raised and discussed?
Credits: Photograph by Lindsay Vanstone. Map and data linked to sources.