What will the city's high-profile chief planner do next?
News of Jennifer Keesmaat’s resignation, effective September 29, has fuelled speculation of a possible run in municipal or provincial politics. After all, the federal Liberal party unsuccessfully courted her to run in the 2015 election. But before considering what might come next, it’s also worth celebrating her five years at City Hall.
Not everyone appreciated Keesmaat’s approach or high profile—she is by far the most prominent bureaucrat at Toronto City Hall—but in her role as chief planner, she raised the profile of planning in general, and championed projects such as new bike lanes, the King Street Pilot, and Raildeck Park. New programs such as Planners in Public Spaces helped to engage the general public on planning issues; she was an articulate and approachable expert. She is well liked by her staff and many others at City Hall.
Yet there also remain serious challenges to sound urban planning in Toronto. The city planning division is understaffed and underfunded—the inability of City staff to respond to the high volume of application proposals in a timely manner is one reason why so many decisions are made at the Ontario Municipal Board.
The same staff have also been charged with guiding Toronto’s transportation plans, which have changed as each successive mayor comes into office with their own vision—be it Transit City LRTs, “subways, subways, subways,” or SmartTrack. Planning staff can provide expert advice, but at the end of the day, City Council determines policy. Keesmaat supported the Scarborough LRT and the demolition of the Gardiner Expressway east of Jarvis Street; Mayor Tory and Council did not.
In 2015, the Gardiner East debate was a notable point of friction between the chief planner and the chief magistrate. There were unconfirmed reports that Tory instructed Keesmaat to stop taking public positions that went against his agenda. Since then, Keesmaat has helped to guide Tory’s transportation plans and their professional relationship has appeared publicly more cordial.
Keesmaat has denied having political ambitions, so what will she do next?
Keesmaat was hired from the private sector—returning would pay well, and be far less stressful than seeking public office. Academia is another possibility. Paul Bedford, the first chief planner for the amalgamated City of Toronto who is credited for the creation of a modern, harmonized official plan, teaches part time at the University of Toronto and Ryerson University.
But resigning now gives her time to assess her chances for a mayoral run, find out if she can raise enough money, and get enough prominent supporters. It also gives some distance between her staff role and a more political one. So a mayoral bid remains possible.
Another municipal election pitting John Tory against Doug Ford could mean a race between two conservatives without a strong progressive challenger. Another option is a run for a council seat (and there are several potential council seats that are either vulnerable or without an incumbent), which would allow a potential mayoral candidate to stay involved at City Hall and then run in the 2022 election.
But for now, despite the temptation to speculate, it’s best to recognize Jennifer Keesmaat’s valuable contributions to urban planning and civic engagement. The challenge now is to find a worthy successor, one that continues to engage the public and champion progressive planning policies for Toronto.