Since becoming Chief Planner of Toronto a year ago, Jennifer Keesmaat has been a shining star of the city, putting herself out there in a manner that we don't normally expect from public servants, especially under Mayor Ford's tight regime. Aside from embracing social media tools such as Twitter, she's also led the way through initiatives such as “Feeling Congested?” 

Jennifer Keesmaat, TorontoJennifer Keesmaat talks to the participants during her first ever roundtable in February, image from City of Toronto website

One of the more interesting endeavours that sprang forth earlier this year was the creation of the “Chief Planner Roundtables,” which bring professionals from across the industry together to discuss problems and potential solutions to some of the tough challenges that our city has been and will be grappling with as it continues to evolve.

“Our suburbs are our greatest challenge, and our greatest opportunity” — Jennifer Keesmaat

Jennifer Keesmaat, chief planner roundtable, TorontoA view of the participants during the third roundtable held last April, image from City of Toronto website

The genius of the Chief Planner Roundtables is that they bring a lot of expertise, including developers, City staff, scholars, and political celebrities together to provide insight, direction, and advice that might otherwise be missed while working within the silos of the planning profession. Last Spring, Keesmaat brought distinguished individuals such as Anne Golden, David Crombie, Margaret Zielder, and John Tory together in order to discuss issues such as public space, climate change, and aging infrastructure, and how the city might do a better job at meeting such challenges. Keesmaat's role in these discussions is not to lecture, but instead to listen, and this dynamic has allowed some amazing conversation to take place.

For her next series of roundtables, Keesmaat made both the format more intimate (there are now half as many guests), as well as chose to devote each to a singular topic: Toronto's suburbs. This past Monday, Keesmaat held the first of three roundtables, called 'The Shape of Toronto's Suburbs', which focused on the built form of the suburbs. The next roundtable on October 28th will deal with the suburbs as an arrival place for new immigrants, with the last one dealing with transportation on November 25th.

Jennifer Keesmaat, chief planner roundtable, TorontoKeesmaat leads the discussion about the form of our suburbs last Monday, image from Rogers Television

Joining her on Monday were:

John van Nostrand, planningAlliance, chief planner roundtable, TorontoJohn van Nostrand makes the case that small renovations are an important investment, image from Rogers Television

While there was a lot of great conversation, several key points stood out above the others:

John van Nostrand noted that the most successful suburban communities in Toronto have been those that have been able to adapt to their changing demographics, while “the ones that have been designed not to change are the ones that have led to poverty.” In the discussion afterwords, he also stressed the need to focus on more than introducing large developments in improving these neighbourhoods. “Home Depot is not selling to developers,” he said, suggesting that home renovations are an important piece to consider.

Graeme Stewart suggested that the underlying zoning by-law in many of these communities makes adaption difficult. But he had hope that some upcoming changes — including the recent creation of a new “RAC” zone — ould give some much-needed flexibility to many suburban communities.

Pamela Blais's presentation was a call to think about how we create incentives (or disincentives) through tools such as development charges, and how urban planning might benefit by bringing them into the conversation. “[Municipal finance] is something we tend to underestimate in its impact” Blais said, “but development takes place in a market. Municipal finance tools play an important role in shaping our city.” Blais suggested that many financial tools might conflict with planning policy objectives, such as the revitalization of our suburban communities. “Our financial drivers are talking, we need to know what they're saying,” said Blais. “These are de facto planning tools, so we might as well get them working with us.”

Leona Savoie, Hullmark, chief planner roundtable, Toronto Leona Savoie, talks about the private nature of the suburbs last Monday, image from Rogers Television

Leona Savoie's talk was perhaps the most interesting, given that she was coming from it from the perspective of the private sector. She stressed that the market realities, coupled with the absence of a strong planning framework (such as an Official Plan secondary plan) is what makes new investment in many suburban communities difficult. She also said that an important piece was getting communities to understand why change is necessary. “We developers love predictability,” Savoie said in the discussion that followed the presentations. "The less speculation we have, the less tension we have with the public.”

Laurie Payne talked about the huge role Toronto Community Housing (TCH) plays as a stakeholder in any discussion about the suburbs. She highlighted that the housing stock that TCH operates is aging, and attracting investment is a key challenge. “The debate is not about urban vs suburban, but where are areas prospering and where they are not,” Payne said. But she also stressed that it's important to make sure that the residents are involved with any change to their neighbourhood.

The last presentation, by Leo deSorcy, presented a case study of Parkway Forest, a neighbourhood built in the 1960s near the Don Mills subway station, which is redeveloping. In addition to the new residential units underway, a new community space is being created, as well as public art by Douglas Coupland. But deSorcy cautioned that there were several factors, including the proximity to higher order transit and scale of development that will allow such a remarkable transformation for the neighbourhood. “What's going to happen to the thousands of other neighbourhoods in the suburbs without that investment?”

Graeme Stewart, E.R.A., chief planner roundtable, TorontoGraeme Stewart talks about how the many suburban communities want change, image from Rogers Television

Despite all the discussion and ideas that were tossed around on Monday, Graeme Stewart ended on a positive note, suggesting that there is a lot of untapped opportunity in Toronto's suburbs, not only due to the comparatively high density that currently exists (compared to other major cities), but also in the opportunities the city has to capitalize on the immense amount of open space available.

“This is the future of the city. This is the post-amalgamation city. I firmly believe we're lucky to have the built form we do.”

Did you attend or watch last Monday's Chief Planner Roundtable? If you missed it, you can watch it online at Rogers TV. What did you think of the presentations and discussions that occurred? Leave a comment below!