“Staying connected to York is in many ways a way of saying thank you for the gift that I think I got in terms of the education that was provided to me, the people that mentored me and the people who were willing to advise me.”
As Chief Planner and Executive Director of the City of Toronto, Jennifer Keesmaat (MES ’99) has changed the local dialogue on planning and urban design from frustrations and complaints about planning into an energized conversation full of hope and optimism for North America’s fifth largest city. Her dedication, energy and visionary approach has put place-making on the map for many Torontonians and helped steer Toronto towards becoming a place where all can flourish.
A vocal proponent of walkable, livable cities, she was in high demand as a speaker even before her City Hall days, chairing an annual summit on revitalizing downtowns and holding roundtables on planning practices with students. Pedestrian Jar, a short film she co-produced, satirizing attitudes towards pedestrians, premiered at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival. She had also been invited to give her first TED talk and now that presentation, Walk to School, has been viewed on YouTube over 13,000 times.
While becoming chief planner wasn’t Keesmaat’s original goal, Toronto eventually won her over.
“Once I started to think about the opportunity of sinking my teeth into the complexities and challenges of my own city in a really substantive way, I started to get excited about the possibilities,” Keesmaat said.
Appointed in 2012, Keesmaat’s impact is substantial. From her tireless work to create green space, including championing the Rail Deck Park, to walkability projects like the Fort York Bridge, and her award-winning Eglinton Connects proposal, which reimagines the mid-town avenue with bike lanes and wider sidewalks to complement the LRT that is currently under construction, her legacy includes many initiatives that make Toronto a more functional and enjoyable city.
But just as important as the things she has accomplished is how she got them done, with a strong commitment to transparency and communication, as evidenced by her regular appearances in news media, active Twitter following, popular OwnYourCity.ca blog, and by producing annual reports for the Planning Division.
One of the projects that she is most proud of is a pilot she devised to counteract a trend she identified following an analysis of participation in community consultations.
“Here in the city, we talk to people all the time,” Keesmaat said. “We started to notice that the vast majority of people participating in our planning processes are over 55, white homeowners. So it raised a question about how we in fact could create a more inclusive dialogue so that we’re really building a city for everyone.”
The result is called the Planning Review Panel, 28 citizens selected by a Civic Lottery who are truly representative of the demographics in this city. The members meet six times a year and participate for a two-year term. They receive briefs, hear experts and give their input.
Immediately hailed as a best practise, the Planning Review Panel has now become an important reference point for other city divisions as well, as a means to soliciting input from a broad, representative demographic.
This commitment to transparency, social justice, and inclusivity are also hallmarks of the planning program within FES and part of what draws such a remarkable community to the program.
Keesmaat made excellent use of her time at York. She volunteered with City Councillor Joe Mihevic while conceptualizing her major research paper on Planning, Globalization & Political Space. She undertook an independent study in Limni, Greece with some fellow “MES-ers”, one of whom co-founded the award-winning Office for Urbanism planning firm with her after graduation. She explored her interests in the empowerment of marginalized people, de-industrialization and economic restructuring, and policy-oriented activism. Throughout all of it, she developed a reputation among her professors and peers as rigorous researcher and skilled presenter who was adept at defending her point of view.
Her reputation has only continued to grow.
Keesmaat’s unwavering vision and daring leadership earned her a 2016 Bryden Award from York, recognizing her as an outstanding alumna who has achieved the extraordinary and made remarkable contributions to York University, Toronto, and Canada.
“Staying connected to York is in many ways a way of saying thank you for the gift that I think I got in terms of the education that was provided to me, the people that mentored me and the people who were willing to advise me,” Keesmaat said in accepting the award. “In many ways my connection and wanting to be connected to York is about recognizing what a pivotal moment that was in my life.”
“Many of my best friends I actually met in my very first week at York,” she added. “This group actually became my best friends and still are my best friends to this very day. They are all doing extraordinary things. That is a legacy of our time at York together.”
When asked to give advice to the next generation who are starting their studies or their career path, Keesmaat had a powerfully optimistic message.
“If your vision and your values are your guide, and you have clarity around what it is that you’re seeking to contribute to the world, then you’ll end up in the right place.”