Toronto's top urban planner spoke in downtown Hamilton Tuesday night about the urban planning issues this city faces.
Jennifer Keesmaat became Toronto's chief city planner last summer, and the Hamilton native has since become a prominent player at city hall. One publication went as far as calling her "the closest thing the city bureaucracy has to a rock star."
She's well known for her urbanist views — her pro-bike and transit views are often at odds with those of Rob Ford's — and for a public campaign she launched called "Feeling Congested?" that asked for the public's input into Toronto's gridlock problem.
CBC Hamilton reached her on her drive west to talk about a few of Hamilton's urban issues. The conversation is edited for brevity. Here's our Q&A:
CBC Hamilton: You're being driven here as we speak. What do you think about the travel options linking Hamilton and Toronto?
Jennifer Keesmaat: "We have a number of challenges with regional travel, and one of the reasons is that we've underinvested in transit infrastructure. As a result, anyone who travels frequently between Hamilton and Toronto can tell you it can either be a very quick trip or it can be almost double the length depending on the amount of traffic.
We've built very low-density, sprawling infrastructure throughout most of our region that means most people are forced to use a car to take part in their daily activities. That traffic results in a tremendous demand on the system.
Developing more mixed-use communities, from a land use planning perspective, is crucial to solving our transportation problems."
'We're all affected by the way our city is planned in really profound ways.' - Jennifer Keesmaat, Toronto Chief City Planner
CBC: As you know, there's some rivalry between Hamilton and Toronto. What does Hamilton do better than Toronto, urban planning wise?
JK: "I think there's a couple great assets that Hamilton has. One of them is, and talk about hidden assets, a direct link to some of the most beautiful parks in our province and in our region — the inner harbour, the Niagara Escarpment running right through the city. Unfortunately very few people actually have that full image of the breathtaking natural environment of Hamilton. It's incredibly treed, as well.
There's so much attention and recognition of the importance of having what I will call "green infrastructure" in the city, as a backbone of the city, that positions Hamilton spectacularly well."
CBC: And, to be fair, what does Toronto do better than Hamilton?
JK: "One thing we have in Toronto that we don't really have in Hamilton, but I think we could get, is neighbourhoods and main streets. Neighbourhoods and main streets are incredibly important."
CBC: What are the biggest urban planning issues facing Hamilton, in your opinion?
JK: "I think the biggest challenge is that your growth is still on the periphery. We end up unintentionally subsidizing low-density housing. The local government doesn't say 'We're going to subsidize the home owner out on West Mountain,' but then we end up building infrastructure that actually requires a kind of subsidy to maintain and operate, for example, snow clearing areas with a low population per capita."
CBC: You've done a lot to increase the amount of discussion on urban planning in Toronto. How do you get people talking about the topic?
JK: "One of the things I've tried to do is just be very transparent about what planning is and how it affects your quality of life. There's a variety of other things that I have tried, one of which is my Chief Planner Roundtables where we have interdisciplinary discussions. It allows people to be a part of the conversation. People just needed that dialogue. I told them: 'Ask the hard questions. Tell us what we're not doing. Tell us your ideas about how we can make this better.' There are a lot of conversations that we should be having that we're not having.
People want to take ownership of their city. As a planning department if we provide a little bit of access — even kind of open the door even a crack — the ideas come streaming in. People are really, really excited to be a part of thinking about planning for their city.
We're all affected by the way our city is planned in really profound ways. It's pretty frustrating to feel like the city's happening at you and it's not something you're a part of creating."
CBC: What do you think Hamilton will look like 10 years from now?
JK: "That's up to Hamiltonians. It's up to any Hamiltonian with power, and I'm not just talking about politicians, to make decisions that drive city-building, that generate value in the long run."