The Canadian Urban Institute has been the country's non-profit urban policy organization for 25 years. Raising awareness of local and international planning issues through education and applied research, the CUI's Urban Leadership Day, held on Friday at Artscape Sandbox, included the 19th Annual Meeting with Toronto's Chief Planner, Jennifer Keesmaat. The event was held in collaboration with urban planning-based news service NRU Publishing

Chief Planner Jennifer Keesmaat, image by Marcus Mitanis

Keesmaat described how Toronto is in the midst of a transition and a shift towards becoming "unapologetically urban". Much of this shift has been driven by young people she says, who are more likely to walk, cycle and take transit. The development boom is at least partly driven by youth who have a desire to live in an urban environment with its accompanying conveniences. To efficiently serve the influx of people making the jump from suburban to urban, transit becomes "the backbone of city building." Keesmaat told the audience of about 100 people that Torontonians are waking up to the potential the city has. "There is in fact a profound optimism because we've begun to realize that city building, place making, the design of space in our land uses in fact fundamentally matters," said Kessmaat. 

Toronto's development boom is evident in the downtown core, image by Marcus Mitanis

As condominiums continue to alter the skyline, Keesmaat poses the question: "Are we becoming too dense?" She argues that compared to world-class cities like New York and London, Toronto still has a long way to go. Indeed, there is a "profound opportunity to densify across the city", not just in the downtown core. Keesmaat gives the example of transit subsidies being needed as a result of insufficient density. Many transit lines could become viable if "we get the density right." Pointing to New York's Highline, which has quickly become one of the city's top tourist attractions, Keesmaat notes that this particular public space works because of, not in spite of, density. The forest of buildings enveloping the Highline emit the trademark Manhattan experience. "The safest places are our densest," said Keesmaat, so with density, comes safety. She tells us that people generally feel more secure and comfortable when there are eyes on the street. 

Keesmaat then presented a number of slides depicting some of the transformative projects Toronto is undertaking. Eglinton Connects, as an example, plans to turn a nondescript suburban arterial into an urban oasis, complete with bicycle lanes, higher-order transit, wider sidewalks and greenery. The transportation plan of yesteryear is no longer valid, she argues, as it had focused on "moving cars, not people." 

Under Gardiner, image by Public Work

She also pointed to several other urban initiatives. The City's Ravine Strategy provides a vision for what represents 18% percent of Toronto's land mass. The Laneway Project aims to transform pedestrian unfriendly spaces into vibrant cultural corridors. Public realm projects along John Street, Yonge Street and under the Gardiner Expressway all hope to provide pedestrians and cyclists with a safer sense of place. These city building initiatives are vital throughout Toronto, especially in high-growth areas like North York City Centre and Yonge and Eglinton, where the pace of development is exceeding the provision of public spaces. "The way we design our city has a profound impact on quality of life," said Keesmaat. 

The four panellists, image by Marcus Mitanis

Following the Chief Planner's presentation, Keesmaat joined an enlightening panel discussion with Chief of Police Mark Saunders, the City of Toronto's Medical Officer of Health Dr. David McKeown, and City Librarian Vickery Bowles. The discussion marked the first time many of the panellists had interacted with one another, with Keesmaat noting that this type of collaboration is what needs to happen to create a successful city. Hosted by Mary Wiens of CBC Metro Morning, the influential speakers described how Toronto's growth is affecting their respective fields. 

Chief Planner Jennifer Keesmaat and Chief of Police Mark Saunders, image by Marcus Mitanis

Chief Saunders spoke about the need to take security into account when designing public spaces. "We can have great design but if people are afraid to move in public spaces, then it's all for naught," said Saunders. The fundamental shift taking place, as cyclists and pedestrians continue to outnumber vehicles on many city streets, may also demand a change in the police fleet. Keesmaat and McKeown both agreed that seeing police physically on the street, whether on bicycles or walking, is important to both the health of the individual police officer and the safety of the public. 

Medical Officer of Health Dr. David McKeown, image by Marcus Mitanis

Dr. David McKeown brought the connection between city building and health issues into focus. Residents living in walkable neighbourhoods generally demonstrate better health compared to their suburban car-oriented counterparts, where obesity and diabetes are more common. Picking up on the healthy city theme, Vickery Bowles stated that libraries revitalize municipalities. The belief that libraries are becoming obsolete has been continually disproven in Toronto, where attendance is on track to exceed last year's 18 million visits. 

City Librarian Vickery Bowles, image by Marcus Mitanis

The conversation shifted to the Paris attacks and its impacts on city living. Keesmaat noted that the attack not only targeted people, but public spaces that are meant to be places of congregation. Terrorism seeks to divide and separate, she said, and the "need to be together" was threatened that day. Saunders pointed to the connection between people who feel disenfranchised and terrorism, but noted that Canada does a better job of assimilating people than most countries. Saunders also explained that terrorism should not influence urban design. McKeown agreed that "inequity sows the seeds of conflict", and Bowles saw the attacks as a "challenge to democratic principles." Bowles also explained how libraries became a place of refuge during the riots in Ferguson and Baltimore. Despite schools and retail outlets closing their doors, libraries remained open, serving the community. 

Transit is key to building a truly urban city, image by Marcus Mitanis

The panellists agreed that more collaboration between City departments was needed, and events like these can act as a learning exercise for all involved. Owner of NRU Publishing Ian Graham remarked that ten years ago, no one would think of having a meeting of minds like these. As Torontonians recognize the interconnectedness of their city however, its becoming clear that disciplines are overlapping, requiring a coherent approach to city building and urban planning that brings all stakeholders to the table. 

Do you think more opportunities for city leaders to meet and discuss the challenges Toronto faces are needed? What did you think of the panellists' comments? Let us know by leaving a comment in the field below. 

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