“Our cities are a shared project. Conceivably, the most important shared project of the modern age.”
Jennifer Keesmaat’s voice is soothing, almost lethargic. Her voice was made for radio and this line in her new podcast Invisible Cities is said with such passion and dedication that there is no denying her love of city building. There are five episodes of the podcast at the moment, with a new one being released each month.
The goal of Keesmaat’s newest project is to make urban issues more interesting to the everyday audience. The themes vary from green spaces to automated cars to the challenge of density, and each episode begins with Keesmaat’s enthusiastic, yet gentle voice.
This new endeavour is something that Keesmaat is very excited about. Her Twitter page is full of photos from her interviews and her work at the broadcasting studio. Her enthusiasm appears to be contagious, but what is even more contagious is her work ethic. She seems to never sleep—in addition to creating Invisible Cities, she puts in a full day of work at city hall and makes time to appear at public town halls, committee meetings, and local events.
As Toronto’s first female chief city planner, Keesmaat is keenly aware of the importance of mentorship and constant learning. Of the directors she works with, only two are women. This gender gap is difficult to break. As Keesmaat explains, when you are in a meeting and 90 per cent of the people around the table are male, it can generate stress for women.
“From my perspective, there is an imperative that women engage,” she said. “Smart, capable women need to be stepping up and playing a role in confronting some of the greatest challenges we face as a society.”
And Keesmaat is a great example. If you’ve watched city council or a Toronto Transit Commission board meeting, it’s plainly obvious that Keesmaat is comfortable in a position of authority. She always speaks clearly and confidently, using all of her knowledge to field questions from city officials, the media, and the public on a daily basis.
While she has always been interested in city issues, Keesmaat decided to get an undergraduate degree in English and philosophy at the University of Western Ontario. These degrees, she said, would provide a good base for her pursuit of law.
“I was unaware there was a discipline called city planning,” she said. “After I graduated I was living in Vancouver and I became involved with some planning issues relating to redevelopment of affordable housing in the downtown core. That’s when I really started to get a feel of the scope and breath of what planners do.
And I realized that, these things I’m sort of doing in my spare time, they are actually a profession. You can really build a life and an expertise out of this.”
At that point, she went on to get her Master’s degree in Environmental Studies (Politics and Planning) from York University. Keesmaat’s favourite part about her profession is the constant learning, something that’s important for a person who “gets bored easily.”
“You have to understand land economics. You have to understand how to read maps, technical information, zoning bylaws, plans, outputs for models, but you also have to understand things like building types, architectural styles, [and] the heritage of the city. It’s an incredibly broad field.”
Her first job out of school was with a planning and designing firm called Urban Strategies in Toronto as an entry-level planner. Since then, she has developed quite the portfolio.
She eventually founded her own private planning and design firm called Office for Urbanism and became a founding partner for DIALOG, a Toronto-based design firm. She has been recognized by the Canadian Institute of Planners, the Ontario Professional Planners Institute, the Design Exchange, and the +EDRA for her innovative projects across the country, specifically in municipalities like Moncton, Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Mississauga, Memphis, and Toronto. When she was recruited for the position of Chief City Planner, Keesmaat says it was the idea of really sinking her teeth into her own city that made her accept the job.
“That’s when I really started to get my head around the magnitude of the opportunity. It was just too good to pass up, and it has not disappointed.”
For the last four years, Keesmaat has been in the centre of Toronto’s transit transformation. Her motherlode transit plan — a term she coined herself —is completely revolutionizing public transportation in the city, connecting areas of the Greater Toronto Area directly to the downtown core. It is a big challenge to be sure, but one she is aptly prepared for.
The key, she says, is due diligence. Studying transit analytics, travel patterns, and participating in public town hall meetings is a necessary part of democratic planning. Because of that, Keesmaat constantly has to defend her office’s choices, and sometimes this includes making strategic changes to suit the needs of various neighbourhoods in the city. It’s a process she doesn’t find daunting, but rather sees it as a necessary step towards accountability.
“If you have planners gone wild you could end up in a totalitarian type of environment, so the due diligence that comes from the vigour of being questioned by councillors and by the public is an essential part of the planning process from my perspective.”
Her deep-rooted love for the City of Toronto is tangible, and when asked how she feels being part of the transformation of this city, she answered humbly by recounting a moment when she walked through Nathan Phillips Square on her way to work.
“I just stopped,” she said. “And I looked around the square and I was just overwhelmed with this sense of moment — of what we are facing right now in the history of the city. I just stood there probably for five minutes in the middle of the square and I took it all in and I just thought, ‘oh my god I’m a part of this,’ and it was just a great feeling.”
In her free time, Keesmaat spends a lot of time with her family. She is incredibly active and enjoys cycling and skiing on her weekends off.
Tune in to Invisible City every month to hear more about what goes into the planning of a city like Toronto. You won’t be disappointed!