News / Toronto

Will city planners survive the politics and keep on calling the shots in Toronto?

It’s a new era. In the past, transit plans have often emerged from places like the city manager’s office or the TTC.

Jennifer Keesmaat.

Torstar News Service

Jennifer Keesmaat.

Six months ago, it looked like Toronto chief planner Jennifer Keesmaat was on her way out at city hall. At odds with Mayor John Tory after endorsing the removal of the eastern section of the Gardiner Expressway, her job security was a question mark.

But a lot can change in six months.

Keesmaat hasn’t just stayed on the job, she and her planning department have taken on new prominence. These days, the planners are calling the shots.

Over the last month, Keesmaat has signed two well-received reports on major transit projects. Her report on SmartTrack’s western section brought about major changes to Tory’s signature campaign promise. Her report on the Scarborough subway was an even bigger bombshell, recommending significant changes to a plan that has been the subject of endless debate and lots of repetitive sloganeering.

Going forward, Keesmaat’s office will be pushing forward designs for the downtown relief subway line, the project that has been Toronto’s real transit priority for, like, a hundred years.

It’s a new era. In the past, transit plans have often emerged from places like the city manager’s office or the TTC.

In bad times they’ve come from the whims of politicians who looked at certain areas of the GTA and thought, “Gee, wouldn’t a subway look really nice here?”

Having planners, not politicians, leading the way on transit is a welcome change.

But will it last?

There’s reason to be cynical. When it comes to big picture stuff — subways or LRT routes — it’s easy for elected officials to defer to the expertise of urban planners.

Things get harder when it’s time to talk about the planning decisions needed to support those subways and LRT routes. That’s when the conversation shifts to things like increasing density by allowing sky-high development near stations. That’s when it comes time to start talking about narrowing roads to allow for surface transit and bike and pedestrian infrastructure.

And that’s when the NIMBYs start looking at their backyards and saying, “Hey, not here.” That’s when people start yelling about the “war on the car.” And, in the past, that’s when politicians have folded.

The reality is that good planning principles are often unpopular. In his interview with Metro last week, planner and urban designer Ken Greenberg highlighted this tension. “We’re trying to figure out as a city how we move to a world where we’re less dependent on the car,” he explained. “But the politics of that is complicated.”
It sure is.

So, while the newfound power of Keesmaat’s planning department is a welcome change, the challenge will be making it compatible with politics — and the real trick will be making it last.

Matt Elliott lives and writes in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter @GraphicMatt

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