Lessons From Toronto – Jennifer Keesmaat On Complete Communities

This image shows Jennifer Keesmaat at a Toronto mayoral debate.
Keesmaat (centre in blue) running for Mayor in 2018.

Jennifer Keesmaat was once Toronto’s chief urban planner and ran for mayor of the city in 2018 (she lost badly). These are notes from a presentation Keesmaat delivered on “complete communities”.

  • Toronto is the third largest region in North America by population. It’s one of the largest tech hubs outside Silicon Valley and the financial capital of Canada.
  • Over 50% of Toronto is foreign born. Immigration and refugees are seen as central to the city’s character and economic growth. It’s “a beacon”.
  • The hook that brings together every single planning decision: vibrant neighbourhoods and complete communities.
  • This opposed to a live/work view with “super fast highways” that take you from one place to another.
  • Affordable housing will be achieved by planning for it and recognizing it as part of every complete community.
  • Toronto has the unfortunate honour of making the list of the most expensive cities. There’s been a complete seperation between local wages and house prices.
  • “The market can no longer provide affordable housing for all.”
  • Housing has become commodified, an asset to be traded, something to generate wealth vs. a vision of housing as a home (where families “eat dinner”).
  • If we don’t get this right (housing), who cares about walkability, who cares about complete communities, who cares about sustainability, if we’re only designing for a small and lucky portion.
  • An affordable high quality transit system is the backbone that allows complete communities to be connected. It enables the option of never needing to own a car.
  • A vibrant downtown designed for connectivity and innovation that can attract and facilitate stable and high paying jobs is essential to the overall health of the city. The complete community vision has the creative economy in mind.
  • All nine of our beaches in Toronto are “blue flag beaches”. Clean air and water right where people live is a part of the complete community vision.
  • Green spaces of a variety of different sizes and public squares that bring people together. When we design public spaces right they provide for spontaneous interaction that expands the humanity of everyone in our cities.
  • Options for recreational activities should be provided. The notion that you have to leave the city for outdoor recreation is an old model. With complete communities you can walk out your door and undertake recreational activities in close proximity to home.
  • How we design and plan our waterfront is critical to ensuring that our waterfront is a shared asset, not an asset only developed for the super wealthy which was the old model in Toronto (the wealthier the closer to the waters edge). The waterfront should be a shared resource where we can all come together.
  • Cultural facilities that celebrate the best of city living are an important part of complete communities, they help us tell our story and understand ourselves.
  • When we get architecture and urban design right that becomes a magnet for people and we astonish/inspire as part of everyday life. Complete communities are intentional about design and don’t leave it as something that’s superfluous but rather essential to how we live together.
  • All growth isn’t good but when we get the design right, have mixed-use and attend to streetscape we can deliver places that are livable.
  • The greenbelt is a matter of emphasizing where growth WILL NOT go in order to assert where growth will go. The greenbelt is the policy framework for the transition from sprawl to density.
  • One of the other drivers of change in the GTA is shifting consumer preferences. Millennials have a fundamentally different preference and want to walk to work (either driven by experiences with commuting or environmentalism).
  • We want to attract the 16-34 demographic because Toronto’s vitality is contingent on attracting young people into the core.
  • When we paint this vision of the future, of complete communities, the vast majority of the public put their hands up and says “I’m in”.
  • Very few people in the overall Toronto region can walk to work. In the downtown core its 75%. But when we scan the entire region and give people choices many would take a smaller house adjacent to transit (36%).
  • Queens Quay makeover: generous public realm, separate bike lanes, prioritizing the transit corridor.
  • Recent adapation of taking the cars off a transit corridor (King Street).
  • Private investment is responding to the opportunity of providing walkable communities where people can live work and play right within their neighbourhood.
  • The Greenbelt has driven growth into the core. The area of the city that’s the most walkable with the best transit and the best parks is growing four times faster than elsewhere. If we can create walkable communities everywhere can we attract investment everywhere? Can we begin to adapt the city in a variety of different places? Growth follows consumer preference and sustainability increases.
  • But this only happens when we link employment with residential growth. The two must be linked together to deliver on this option/opportunity (of complete communities).

How Toronto Switched From Buildings And Infrastructure To People And Complete Communities

1. Detailed Precinct Planning

The details matter. We have to deliver on the ground level. Prioritizing the public realm is essential if we add density. We have to think about public space and pedestrians first rather than the character and quality of individual buildings.

2. “Extreme” Mixed-Use (The Distillery District)

In the distillery district over forty buildings are linked by an exclusively pedestrian realm. These are Victorian era buildings. It’s a college campus, there’s light industry, it’s an event venue, there’s a brewery, it’s a residential neighbourhood, an employment district, a district for artists, a place for children and senior citizens. We broke all the rules and it’s a place people want to be.

3. Strategic Site-Specific Infill

A big part of planning is urban repair. Neighbourhood example of Sheppard and Don Mills: we added new density to a poorly serviced suburban area, added buildings to create main street retail, added community and social events, added a library, a school and community centre. There were no clear public spaces and places for pedestrians. The “beacons” (public art) draw pedestrians into the site and terminate in the neighbourhood where theres a new school, pool, library and community hub. This is urban repair and not “one use” thinking. There’s a new subway station at this location. Adapt the urban environment and deliver the dream of walkable communities.

4. Urbanizing Avenues: Adding Density And Creating Main Streets

The Golden Mile: repairing and transforming the environment. A new LRT will serve as the backbone for how people can move. Also adding cycling infrastructure and widening sidewalks. Adding green infrastructure, new mid-rise buildings and a mix of uses. An old suburban street transforms into a complete new community.

5. Urbanizing Classic Suburbs (Gentle Density And New Housing Types)

Humbertown: a 1950’s strip mall, the adjacent area is very green with ranch-style 1950’s suburban homes. There’s nowhere you can go within walking distance of your home. Transformed: all parking put underground, green roofs, new public square in the centre. You can downsize by moving into a new multi-residential unit of seniors housing. New retail has been added to complete the hub.

6. Adaptations In The Public Realm

We’ve wanted to link together the public spaces in Fort York and the waterfront. Adapting the infrastructure below the highway that currently creates a barrier between eight different hoods and the rest of the downtown core.

7. Transforming The Discourse

We need to talk about the city in a different way, talk about about how we might live differently, why this matters and how we can elevate quality of life. We’re changing rapidly and the risk is that people will resist change if they don’t buy into the rationale of why this is good and valuable.

None of this matters if we don’t get affordable housing right. We’ll be designing places that only get more and more exclusive.

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