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2013 Hero: Jennifer Keesmaat

Nominated for: taking city-building mainstream.

Torontoist is ending the year by naming our Heroes and Villains: the very best and very worst people, places, things, and ideas that have had an influence on the city over the past 12 months. Cast your ballot until 2 p.m. on January 1. At 4 p.m. we will reveal your choices for Toronto’s Superhero and Supervillain of the year.

hero jennifer keesmaat jeremy kai

It was the job no one seemed to want, but Jennifer Keesmaat is making it her own.

After Gary Wright retired in late 2011, Toronto went lonely months without a chief planner while headhunters did their thing. News leaked of people turning down the job, forcing some introspection: Why wouldn’t someone want to oversee the growth of Canada’s biggest (and best!) city? Was it the one-of-a-kind appeals board that can unilaterally overrule all the work you’ve done? Was it the then-new administration’s, um, unique way of doing things, including firing a senior staffer with a mind of his own? Who knows.

Whatever it was, there was a sigh of relief when Keesmaat took the job, leaving the private sector firm where she was a founding partner to do so. Before she even got settled in her office, we were inundated with articles about how the York University grad was breathing fresh air into stuffy City Hall and otherwise making it clear her goal was to take city-building mainstream.

City staff aren’t typically cool enough to warrant an appearance in one of Toronto Life‘s Q&As, but Keesmaat is a bona fide multimedia star with magazine covers, a Twitter presence, a TEDtalk, and enough other videos to make you forget she’s actually one of those typically faceless bureaucrats who keep the city humming.

Her first full year on job has brought major tests, especially the Mirvish-Gehry development on King Street, which she’s taken a lot of heat for not immediately approving. Ditto the casino debate, where she stood her ground pointing out development concerns in the face of Ford’s great enthusiasm for the prospect.

When she speaks it isn’t just about the technicalities but also about the broader goals those details can feed into: walkability, complete communities, and opening up processes often seen as inaccessible. Two rounds of Chief Planner Roundtables provided a forum for academics and experts to put their heads together on some of the city’s most pressing issues—but they were also streamed and publicized, in an attempt to make the public more aware that these conversations were going on.

It’s a little early to start really assessing how much she’s done, but with all the dark vibrations surrounding City Hall lately, the light Keesmaat’s been trying to shine on what it really means to have a great city is very refreshing.


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