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Own our city: Toronto's Chief Planner shares window into ingredients for civic change

Jennifer Keesmaat visited Grand Rapids for the GR Forward Thinking speaker series, to talk to Grand Rapidians about the key elements needed to ensure good growth and change.

/Courtesy of DGRI

Join the next GR Forward Thinking conversation

Next event:

Don Edwards, "Economic Development and Equity"

Thursday, December 4

6:00 p.m.

Kendall College of Art and Design, Federal Building (17 Pearl Street NW)

See the full list of speaker series events here.

"You can't participate if you don't know what's going on," says Jennifer Keesmaat, Chief Planner for the City of Toronto and renowned urbanist. "Building understanding is the most important thing you can do if you want to build a better city."

"It's really important that [learning] is ongoing," she says. "You build understanding where you create a culture where learning is good; where it's recognized that we're going to change and where there is a willingness to be future-oriented. What I mean by that is if you're going to plan a City, you always have to be thinking about the future. Unfortunately what people often bring is what they're overwhelmed with in the present or the way things were in the past. You can't even begin until you start to have that environment where people are willing to embrace a future that's different from the way things are right now- and that's really where the conversation needs to begin. And that's really challenging."

Keesmaat, who works to ensure that the City of Toronto's planning is focused on a key objective of "shared prosperity for all," says understanding is one of the three key factors to making change. Engagement and belief are the two other key factors. 

"You cannot do anything without good faith. So if people don't believe that [your City's plan] is going to result in a transformed city that is in keeping with the vision you discussed, then there's no point in trying to build understanding or engagement. Belief comes first. People must believe that there is integrity to the process, that they are being treated in an authentic way. You have to be able to believe in the future vision of the city," she says. 

Without understanding and belief, Keesmaat explains, engagement will either be low, misdirected or misinformed.

Keesmaat visited Grand Rapids on Thursday, November 20, to speak with Grand Rapids leaders and start off the GR Forward Thinking: Speaker Series lineup with her talk "Planning with a Bold Vision." She spoke about building and implementing a city vision, utilizing multiple examples from her own experience as Chief Planner, heading up a staff of 361 for the City of Toronto, which has a population of 2.7 million people. Approximately 2/3 of her staff are planners, with the other third filling administrative and other roles.

The City of Grand Rapids, by comparison, has a staff of nine lead by Suzanne Schulz, Managing Director of Design, Development and Community Engagement, for a population of approximately 200,000 residents. About half of Schulz' staff hold a planning role. This means that Keesmaat has access to three times as many staff as our own planning department does, with a higher percentage of planning professionals as well. Toronto's growing at an intense rate, and City governance roles between Toronto and Grand Rapids make it difficult for direct numbers to be a full standard for comparison. But growth and governance models are not the only reason a City would invest in its planning department, says Keesmaat.

"A critical part of great city-building is ensuring that you have the talent pool to in fact drive forward great planning practice. If you don't have people doing the job, it's not going to get done," she says. She cites previous citizen complaints about transit issues in Toronto, and her City's need to build a strong group of transit planners to work on those issues. When Keesmaat first joined the planning team, there were four staff working on transit planning, for a transit system that serves 524 million people a year taking public transportation. Toronto's transit system has recently grown to 1.8 million people taking transit every day on street cars, rapid transit buses and a subway system. To build up that transit response and systems, she needed to build up the staff working on policy and growth in transit planning.

"The risk is that if you're growing very quickly and you're not getting out in front of that growth with a vision and a plan and policies and strategies [is] that you have unintended outcomes," she says. "In an era when cities are fighting over growth- and growth can go on into anywhere- it's really critical that all of your growth is contributing to a larger vision."

Keesmaat cites Portland, Oregon as one of the most successful cities for city planning. Portland officials created a city plan 40 years ago, and then- she says- they proceeded to implement that plan over the next 40 years.

"When I first met with the director of planning [of Portland], I walked in and there was a little brochure sitting in the foyer, and it said, 'We planned our city,' and you flip it open and it said, 'And it worked.' That's just a great little story that we all need to be reminded of- that the extent to which we make the effort at the outset to generate clarity as to where it is we are going and to generate a consensus about where it is that we are going- that vision then can drive forward our planning process.

Keesmaat's visit to Grand Rapids comes at a time when city planning, specifically for our downtown and riverfront corridor, builds with the City of Grand Rapids and Downtown Grand Rapids, Inc. working together to gather information and citizen input through comprehensive planning efforts in the GR Forward process. Citizens can attend a meeting to get involved and let planners know their own thoughts and concerns at one of many neighborhood meetings. A list of meeting places and times can be found on the GR Forward website. Local officials encourage all citizens to get involved and have their voices heard, and Keesmaat says that this timing is key as Grand Rapids works to move forward and build complete communities for all.

She believes Grand Rapids is in a "critical moment" for taking city building and planning efforts seriously.                                    

"You're growing, but you're not growing super fast. You don't have exponential growth but you're growing," she says. "So all that growth is really precious. All of that growth has to be linked into your larger city-building objectives. You can't afford, for lack of a better word, to waste any of it."

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