A ‘Fresh Approach’ to City-Building

Jen Keesmaat at CUI urban forum.

Jen Keesmaat and the CUI urban forum panel.

I woke up extra early Friday morning to help set up and attend a presentation hosted by the Canadian Urban Institute. It was titled ‘A Fresh Approach to City Building: Toronto’s New Chief Planner Opens Up’ and its premise was simple: Jen Keesmaat has been Toronto’s chief planner for less than three months, so… What has she brought to the table so far? What is she planning (no pun intended) to achieve in the coming years? And what can we, the city-builders in the audience and our colleagues, do to help her?

Keesmaat was joined by a planner (former chief planner Paul Beford), a developer (Howard Cohen), an architect (Marianne McKenna) and a lawyer (Jim Harbell) in a panel discussion about city-building after her presentation. My take-aways:

  • The planning department is at least talking about climate change and what being a resilient city means, although it wasn’t clear what initiatives are being undertaken to plan for it. Either way, resiliency was a key point of Keesmaat’s presentation and that’s a good thing.
  • City Planning is working on a new model for the city’s public consultations that tries to not mislead the public into thinking their opinion is the sole input going into a project, and that research, forecasts, long-term studies, visions, plans, etc. are all taken into consideration. She’s considering a short, standardized video to be shown in the beginning of each meeting that explains the role of the planning department, and the role of public consultation in the planning process. Very interesting.
  • The City could theoretically accommodate half of Canada’s population just in its Avenues in mostly mid-rise development, and could accommodate all of its 2031 growth targets just on Eglinton Avenue in mostly mid-rise development.
  • The biggest barrier to implementing the Mid-Rise City is speculation. Even though the mid-rise guidelines are very clear on what can be built and where, developers are still proposing inappropriate buildings (mostly high-rise condos), or mid-rise buildings just outside the boundaries of the Avenues, assembling land on speculation and paying prices that assume condo development will eventually happen.
  • We need to recognize that not every developer should be treated the same. Some people share our interest in city-building and others don’t.
  • Celebrate Yonge “looked like hell” (said McKenna) – a piecemeal attempt at place-making – but it planted a seed. It showed that if every land-owner invested a little bit in the built environment we can make improvements. More of these events are needed to engage people in the city-building process.
  • We need to prioritize local transportation. We’re spending billions of dollars on regional transportation under the assumption that we should be able to zip across the vast Greater Toronto and Hamilton region daily, and still maintain a high quality of life. Regional transportation is important but focusing on the reasons that lead people to live so far from their workplace is even more important. The reasons?
    • Lack of affordable housing.
    • Poor pedestrian environment.
    • Dangerous cycling environment.
  • Four issues the city should tackle:
    • Get rid of flat development charges across the city. DCs should vary based on location and could be waived in some areas to spur development – on the avenues, for example.
    • Focus on the public realm, but our main streets don’t need parks. They need public space.
    • Get the Ontario Building Code changed to allow stick construction of 4-6 storeys as in BC. Stick construction is significantly cheaper and will encourage the type of development the city wants.
    • Tax incentives need to be provided in certain areas, perhaps by waiving or delaying property tax payment for 5-10 years.
  • Paul Bedford believes that you should make “passionate love to your city.” Couldn’t agree more.

Watch the entire talk including the panel discussion here: https://ryecast.ryerson.ca/37/watch/2728.aspx?startTime=0

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