Chief Toronto planner discussed urban spaces and achieving a sustainable, healthy city

Jennifer Keesmaat

York University alumna Jennifer Keesmaat, chief planner and executive director of the City of Toronto, delivered a powerful keynote address at York’s Keele campus, titled “Massive Convergence.” She described the Greenbelt Plan as the “push” component of massive convergence, noting that the policies surrounding this plan play a pivotal part in dictating land value.

The “pull” factor, she said, is the housing preferences of the “Echo Boomer” generation that prefers living near public transit – a far cry from the preferences of its predecessors. She noted that as consumer preferences shift, the prices of now-desirable houses with transit access in close proximity rise.

Jennifer Keesmaat 'this is my time' photoKeesmaat, a York University master in environmental studies politics and planning alumna and one of the featured alumni in this year’s “this is my time” campaign at York, was the York University Geography Alumni Association (YGAA) distinguished lecturer and the opening keynote speaker for the annual meetings of the Ontario Division of the Canadian Association of Geographers (CAGONT) on Oct. 24. It was the largest CAGONT meeting on record, featuring 150 papers, posters and roundtables with over 200 participants.

The talk was sponsored by York University’s Department of Geography, YGAA, the Faculty of Liberal Arts and Professional Studies, the City Institute and the Office of the Vice-President Research and Innovation.

Walter Tholen, associate vice-president research at York University, welcomed the York University faculty, staff and students in attendance to the talk. He acknowledged the notable contributions of graduates and alumni, commending the placement of York’s geography program in the top 100 programs in the QS World University Ranking. Professor Linda Peake, director of the City Institute at York, told the audience that Keesmaat was the first woman and youngest person to hold her current appointment. She was also among Toronto Life’s 50 Most Influential People in Toronto in the 2013 rankings and included in the Maclean’s 50 Most Important People in Canada list.

Keesmaat walked the audience through seven key components of massive convergence, saying it was possible to advance urbanism through the union of the overarching ideas encompassed in the following tenets: the Greenbelt Plan, changing consumer preferences, modelling urban spaces where planning policies are being appropriately applied, urbanizing our avenues, urbanizing classic suburbs, embracing urban mid-rise buildings and transforming the discourse about city planning. As she noted that Toronto’s downtown is growing at four times the rate of the entire city, these concepts are crucial to achieving a more sustainable and healthy city.

She discussed the importance of mixed use and walkable communities and outlined several strategies to capitalize on massive convergence to advance great urbanism, such as detailed precinct planning. She also highlighted specific spaces within the city that embody these strategies, including the West Don Lands and the Corktown Common.

Jennifer Keesmaat
Jennifer Keesmaat

Continuing to enlighten the York University audience, Keesmaat delved into the fourth main component, which was focused on urbanizing our avenues and adding density in Toronto. The Eglinton Connects Light Rail Transit system, which has been approved by City Council, is an illustration of this idea.

Urbanizing the suburbs and gently adding density into the city along with new types of houses is equally as important as urbanizing the avenues, Keesmaat explained in the fifth component. Here, she recalled the significant transformation of Humbertown into a more livable and functional space for residents.

Keesmaat’s next area of exploration was focused on embracing mid-rise buildings in the city, completing the urban fabric and enhancing livability. From her perspective, the insertion of mid-rise buildings into cities results in the development of density within them.

Towards the end of the address, she emphasized the final component of massive convergence, centred on the premise that to change the city, there needs to be a change in the conversations about it. According to Keesmaat, this is a work in progress with much more ground remaining to be covered.

Through initiatives such as “ResetTO,” “Feeling Congested” and “Planners in Public Spaces,” she is effecting positive change and active participation and conversation among Torontonians. For Keesmaat, cities represent progress and her ideas demonstrate that, through a massive convergence, Toronto will continue to develop into a more livable city.

By Kate Tschirhart, communications coordinator, Faculty of Environmental Studies