In 2018, Toronto’s scrappy chief planner, Jennifer Keesmaat, ran for mayor on a platform of creating a more affordable, sustainable, livable city — one experienced at “the scale of a neighbourhood,” as she puts it. Last year, the pandemic largely confined us to that scale, whether we liked it or not, and significantly curbed our environmental footprint. Now Keesmaat has launched Markee Developments, a company focused on the third element: increasing the stock of affordable housing.
Given the year city hall has had, is part of you relieved you didn’t get the mayor job?
Well, I wouldn’t go that far. This has been a critical time for city leadership around issues that are my sweet spot: public transit, the way we use streets, even the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and the opportunity for police reform. All these things have cracked wide open as a result of COVID.
What do you think of John Tory’s leadership through the pandemic?
It’s dangerous to comment when you’re on the outside and don’t know the pressures. I may have done things differently, but my hat is off to every leader who has tried to wade through this profoundly difficult period.
We have to confront how to live in a more sustainable way. Reducing our carbon footprint is linked with many things we saw accelerate, like the surge in cycling as a fundamental form of transportation. This crisis has also demonstrated that we can expedite building social infrastructure. We don’t need new funding or technology to transform cities, we just need to act decisively. The King Street pilot demonstrates this concept and, based on the gains in transit capacity, it’s the most successful transit project in the city’s history.
During the pandemic, we built more affordable housing than anyone dreamed was possible. It’s not even close to the magnitude of the response we need, but nothing was happening before. We built 40 kilometres of bike lanes. We created a massive amount of public space along the lakeshore. We took away parking spots to create expanded patios. We began to demonstrate that we could create a city that prioritized public space and infrastructure over, for example, driving a car. Once you’ve experienced living at the scale of a neighbourhood, why would you go back to congested streets and a long commute?
Do you believe these shifts will be permanent? The sales of vehicles have risen, for example, as people shun public transit.
The public support for these changes is astronomical, which is critical when you have timid political leaders. And let’s face it, Toronto has a very crowded public transit system. We have underbuilt our transit infrastructure. But the choices we make in a pandemic are completely different from the choices we will make when we’re not.
If people continue to work remotely, do our public transit needs change?
The mistake we’ve made historically as a region is that we assumed everyone wants to go downtown. Yet we’ve known for almost 20 years that the majority of commuting trips are from Mississauga to Vaughan or from Oshawa to Mississauga. The rationale for this everywhere-to-everywhere network becomes strengthened in a post-COVID world.
You live around Eglinton and Yonge and were involved in planning the Eglinton Crosstown. What do you think of this seemingly endless construction project?
People seem to forget that as the shovel was going in the ground, Rob Ford got elected and changed the project. It became a massive exercise in building below-grade stations and infrastructure. We don’t do well on those projects. Our colleagues in Asia are much better at building them in an expedited manner. I’ve ridden transit in China and it’s beyond phenomenal. But once the Crosstown is built, it will transform our city, particularly with the extension to the airport. My kids have spent their entire childhood in a massive construction zone and when I show them the holes in the ground, I say, “This is the gift you’re giving your children.”
You’ve talked about Canadian cities shifting from being suburban to urban. Given the recent signs of an exodus from downtown, do you see this pattern changing?
There is absolutely no reason to believe that the things we love about cities have vanished. It’s a little like when 9/11 happened and everyone thought we would never fly again. Of course, we all did. But there are critical choices we have to make that will determine what that future looks like. For example, we could open up our greenbelt to housing, which would have environmentally disastrous implications, or we could create better urban places.
Housing doesn’t just magically get built in suburban communities. It’s a choice we make. And when choices have a cost to society, those costs should be borne by the person making the choice. If I choose to live downtown and walk to work, I should not be subsidizing someone who wants to live on a ranch in Vaughan, but the way we price infrastructure and development incentivizes the things we don’t want. As chief planner, I saw how the urban core subsidizes suburbs infrastructure like roads and water. In most suburbs, the cost is almost 10 times what it is in the urban core. A simple example is the cost of roads. You want a rural lifestyle and lots of space? Power to you to do it, but you should bear that cost.
What are the most important priorities for the Toronto region in the coming years?
The Canadian government has said it will significantly increase immigration coming into the country following the pandemic, which is good because immigrants are the lifeblood of Toronto. But they need strong social services and access to affordable housing. There is also a direct relationship between quality of life and being able to attract businesses. When I assisted in the Amazon bid, it was clear that access to housing was an incredible deterrent to Amazon coming to Toronto.
Which brings us to Markee, which you launched in December. What’s the vision?
Markee is born of a recognition that we can take the best of private sector expertise and integrate that with delivering a public good. Access to housing is one of the critical issues of our time if you believe housing is a human right. My partner and I have access to large amounts of capital and while there are amazing not-for-profits building 10 or 40 units, but we are building units in the hundreds or thousands, which is the scale at which this challenge needs to be addressed. One thing the pandemic has highlighted is that the essential workers for whom we have been banging our pots and pans are not adequately cared for in our cities. Whereas 50 years ago the average house cost double the average salary, today it is 12 to 14 times the average salary. There is an incredible mismatch.
What do you think about the Sidewalk Labs debacle?
Most planners thought the whole thing was almost funny. Urban land development is profoundly complex and just because a tech company has a lot of money doesn’t mean it has the expertise to deliver development. It also reinforced the importance of a clear understanding of what you’re seeking to achieve, because that was unclear from day one. Is this about tech and AI? Is it about city building? Is it simply speculating on land?
Do you still have political ambitions?
I’m happy with the work I’m doing today and don’t see entering the political ring… well, I’ll say in the near future. But I’m still pretty young.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.