Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for CityLab. He lives in Los Angeles.
As the city finally hires a new chief planner, concerns about politics persist.
Toronto Mayor Rob Ford has not made many friends within the city's community of urban thinkers, designers and practitioners. His first move in office was to reverse course on a planned $8.15 billion light rail system expansion and instead propose a significantly more expensive – and politically controversial – subway system. He even tried to ditch a plan long in the works to revise the waterfront with a proposal for a shopping mall, monorail and Ferris wheel – an idea so hated in the city that more than 100 urban planners and thinkers signed on to an open letter to city councilors pleading to turn the idea down. They did.
Christopher Hume, the architecture and urban affairs writer at The Toronto Star, has written column after column criticizing Ford's policies since taking office in December 2010, from his subway proposal and waterfront scheme to his opposition to pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure. One especially colorful column paints Ford and his politically cooperative city councilor brother Doug as turning the city into a circus.
So when the city's chief planner, Gary Wright, announced last fall that he'd be retiring in March 2012, many there worried that it would be hard to convince somebody to come in to take his place.
After a months-long search, Toronto has found its new chief planner in Jennifer Keesmaat, a principal in the Toronto planning consultancy Dialog. She's a longtime Toronto resident, a member of the Congress for the New Urbanism, and a pedestrian advocate who argues passionately in this TEDx presentation about the importance of children walking to school. In an interview shortly after her new position became official, Keesmaat tells Atlantic Cities she isn't worried about being able to do good work within the city's current political climate. She argues that there's a "necessary tension" between the long-view of planners and the politics-driven actions of politicians, and that her role is to try to develop more alignment between those two sides.
Keesmaat contends that the politics of the city are more complicated than one person. Canadian cities don't have the strong-mayor system common in many U.S. cities, so the mayor has just one vote on a 44-person city council. The city also operates under the Ontario Municipal Board, an appeals board that acts as a check on the council. But despite the seemingly limited power of the mayor, Ford has proven effective at developing factions within the council to support and push forward his ideas.
"Toronto, to say the very least, is a city that is extremely divided now, with very troubled politics," says Ken Greenberg, a veteran Toronto planning consultant who for ten years worked as the city's director of architecture and urban design.
The prime example of this division is the story of Gary Webster, the chief general manager of the Toronto Transit Commission who was fired in February after voicing his opposition to Ford's subway plans.
"He gave the city council his professional advice in a very careful and attempting to be objective way over an issue of some transit decisions and he was fired for that," says Greenberg. "And I think that sent a real chill. It sent a message that, 'We don’t particularly want your professional advice. We want political advice.'"
Speaking before the announcement of Keesmaat's hiring was made, he worried that message had turned away some of the more outspoken planners who might have considered pursuing the chief planner job.
"As a senior civil servant, you want to be in an environment where your professional advice is valued, and where you have an opportunity to give it directly," Greenberg says.
Paul Bedford, Toronto's chief planner from 1996 to 2004, calls Webster's firing "disgusting," but worries less about it dissuading people from wanting to do good planning in the city. He says that the role of the planner is to offer professional advice, not to try to win a popularity contest.
"People expect the chief planner to say what he or she thinks. That's what I did, and that's what I'd expect the next person to do," Bedford says. "You're there not as a bureaucrat, you're there to make a difference."
But volatile politics could potentially get in the way, making it much more difficult for a planner to make a difference. Two high-profile planners who were approached about the top planning job in Toronto suggest that the city's politics under Ford would have limited the amount of good work they'd have been able to do in the position.
Rollin Stanley, a former planning director in St. Louis and Montgomery County, Maryland, was under consideration for the job earlier this year. Originally from Canada, Stanley spent 21 years working for the city of Toronto before heading to the U.S. He says that there's always been what he calls a "we know best" attitude within Toronto government that has limited it from learning from other cities enacting more progressive urban policies, such as New York. He says that attitude persists.
"I read quotes from some of the council members and particularly the mayor, and I'm thinking, 'People, you need to get out more. You really need to see what's happening in other places and learn from those things,'" Stanley says.
He recently took a different top planning position in another Canadian city, Calgary. With a booming population, a growing economy and a popular new mayor in Naheed Nenshi, Calgary offered the opportunity to make a significant impact on a place, according to Stanley. The mayor's politics and ideas – seen widely as progressive – were big factors in Stanley's decision to take the job.
"It's always best to be in a room where the smartest guy in the room is the leader. And this guy is smart. When I say smart, I don't just mean the IQ kind of smart. He gets it," Stanley says. "He embraces ideas. That's what you want. I couldn't see that happening down in Toronto."
Brent Toderian, the former planning director in Vancouver whom we profiled in February, says he was dissuaded from Toronto's top planning job mainly over concerns that, like the TTC's Webster, his professional opinions would not be heard or considered by the administration.
"There were several reasons why I ended up not being the right person for it, nor wanting to take it, but one of them was that I think a city planner has to ask themselves, can they function properly in a city if they have a fundamentally different perspective on cities than the city mayor?" Toderian says.
Toderian's answer turned out to be no. He's since opened a private consulting firm in Vancouver.
Bedford, the former chief planner, is skeptical that politics were the determining factor in Toderian's or Stanley's decisions, suggesting they simply "didn’t make the cut."
"The notion that those two guys shied away from this opportunity because of Mayor Ford is just bullshit," Bedford says. "I think it's an amazing job, notwithstanding who the hell the mayor is."
It's a more hopeful outlook for the city's newly appointed chief planner, Keesmaat, who takes office September 10. She acknowledges that politics have bled into many of the city's planning efforts recently, but that ultimately Torontonians and elected officials alike want their city to change for the better.
"There's, I would say, 100 percent consensus across the political spectrum that we need innovative new solutions to addressing our traffic and congestion woes," Keesmaat says. "How we do that? Yeah, that gets complicated, but it gets complicated everywhere. There's some really important things that need to be negotiated, and some really important values, quite frankly that need to be negotiated."
Keesmaat isn't lighting any fires, at least not before actually starting her new job. But she does say that she wouldn't have taken the job if she didn't think she'd be able to help Toronto become a more mixed-use, multi-modal city.
"Will it be tricky? Absolutely," Keesmaat says. "Will it demand a high level of effort? Absolutely."
Photo credit: Mark Blinch / Reuters