Jen Keesmaat is a Hamiltonian who is changing the way citizens interact with their cities. After growing up in Hamilton, she went away to school, and has moved across the country, before coming closer to home and taking on the role of Chief Planner for the City of Toronto. She has made city planning accessible and inclusive, invited citizens to be involved, and encouraged discussion and participation.
She came to Hamilton a few years ago when Keanin Loomis and the Hamilton Chamber of Commerce invited her for the inaugural Ambitious City event. I knew that evening that I wanted an opportunity to sit and chat with her about cities, life, and anything and everything else. Fast forward to April when I hopped on a GO train with giddy excitement and met with her in her office in the Toronto City Hall. In a day where she was being pulled in a million directions (which happens everyday I’m sure), she generously carved out time to sit with an editor from Hamilton and answer questions about cities, life and everything in between. To say this was a career highlight is an understatement. Grab a cocktail and enjoy!
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
When I was in first year university, I struggled to choose my major. It was a toss up between English and Philosophy. My mother asked “Do you think your future career might require you to think critically?” “Well, yeah” “Do you think strong writing and communication skills might matter?” “Well, yeah” Those two questions put a fine point on the value of a liberal arts education. Being able to communicate clearly, to write succinctly, to create a logical rationale; these are all invaluable skills that I developed as a result of my mother’s advice.
Who is on your guest list for your ideal dinner party and why?
There are a couple of different answers to that. Because I’m not home for dinner often, my gut reaction is my kids! I want to sit down and have a nice, long, eight-course dinner with my kids. They are awesome company and I don’t get to eat dinner with them enough. That’s my first answer.
I admire Al Gore. An Inconvenient Truth broke through a lot of jargon that was holding us back from really transforming the way we think about how we live on the planet. The film An Inconvenient Truth created a seminal moment for city planners. It changed the discourse we were having with the public about cities. An environmental imperative for planning differently started to become more main stream. I think he is fascinating; he has a science background and he is a great communicator, and of course he has war wounds from his time the political sphere.
I would also love to have dinner with Hillary Clinton. A long dinner, eight courses, no media! Just Hillary and I and a few bottles of wine. I would ask her what it was like 40 years ago, what she has seen change, and what she believes needs to happen today. How has she been resilient in the face of all that she has seen and done? I can appreciate that political life wears people out. I’d like to understand how she has managed to stay strong; how she hasn’t been crushed by it all. I would be fascinated to have that conversation with her.
We’re 5 months into 2016, what has been the best part so far, and what are you most looking forward to?
On January 1st, I woke up and went downstairs and I made a cup of coffee. My husband looked at me and said “Are you ready for this?” I felt his question zing through my whole body because I knew what he was talking about. I brought forward a new Optimized Scarborough Transit Plan and a new Transit Network Plan in January. This file has been one of the most contentious in the city, for many years. I knew I was going to have to work really hard and build some bridges and capitalize on the groundwork that we had laid over the past 3 years in my new Transit Planning unit. So, for me, the best part so far has been seeing all of that work come to fruition in a 40-1 vote by city council where they supported advancing the transit planning network, based on that due diligence. So, that was a great start to the first quarter of the year. But there is still a ton of heavy lifting to do.
What’s the best thing about what you do?
I get to work with great people. I also get to meet the most interesting people – who do great things, and care passionately about this city. I’m grateful for that all the time, that I cross paths with people who are passionate, who care about the future, who care about their communities and who care about leaving a better world for their children. I am inspired every day by the people I meet and the people I work with. I am confident I work with some of the best planners on the planet.
Who or what has been your greatest influence in your career and why?
There are many answers to that question, depending on what aspect of my career I look at. I had some spectacular colleagues who I met in grad school who became my best friends. They influenced my thinking and built my confidence in my ability to do the work that I do. One of them is Antonio Gomez-Palacio, a partner at my old firm, Dialog. Another is Harold Madi, who is now my Director of Urban Design. They were my two partners. Without them, I would never have been able to start Office for Urbanism and work on fascinating projects across this country. They had an incredible influence on the opportunities that I have been exposed to.
I also have people in my life that have shaped my ideas, my planning philosophy. Larry Beasley, the former co-director of planning from Vancouver, has probably influenced my thinking the most. Jarrett Walker, who is a transit planner in Portland Oregon, has definitely shaped my thinking about transit in a really profound way.
And then I’ve got some people in my life who have really encouraged me. My mother, who always said that I could do anything I set my mind to. She not only said that, she believed it, she made my sisters and I believe it and as a result, I always believed that if I worked hard enough, I could do this. So, I’ve always been willing to work really hard, so that’s influenced my work ethic. My husband, Tom Freeman, fits in this category too. He’s always believed in my work, and in the importance of my work. This has really made the life we have together possible.
How did coming from Hamilton influence your career?
When I did the Ambitious City event, I talked about riding my bike down and carrying my bike up the mountain, and how I remember vividly, standing at the bottom of the mountain, holding my bike on my shoulders and looking up and wondering “Am I really going to do this?” I was exhausted and yet I would hike my bike up on my shoulder and go up, and I did it all the time. The geography of this city built resilience in me, quite frankly. Also, I grew up in a neighbourhood, and I knew people in my neighbourhood. I grew up in a community, and so I had high expectations for cities in general, where people could know their neighbours. It wasn’t until I left Hamilton and lived in other places, that I realized this. I didn’t know any of my neighbours when I lived in Vancouver. And then I moved to Toronto and I know all of my neighbours, and it’s common in Toronto to know the people who live on your street. I think I had high expectations in terms of what the city could offer in terms of community life as a result of growing up in Hamilton and having been part of a strong community.
If you could wave your magic wand over Hamilton, what three things would you want to accomplish?
I don’t want to speak out of school on this, because I don’t work there every day. So this answer is qualified by that caveat. I think Hamilton has a profound opportunity to urbanize and become an urban place that offers a high quality of life in a sustainable environment, that is walkable and transit oriented. In order to get there, there’s a tension: you need to have the amenities that then draw the investment, and it’s somewhat circular. If you don’t have the amenities, you won’t attract the investment. The first thing I would do is wave a magic wand over the downtown, and sprinkle re- investment in the public realm, in heritage buildings and in infrastructure that gives the city a sense of identity.
Second, one is to address the challenge of critical mass. I would add population density to the downtown, starting along the corridors, building them out to become urban avenues, where you have mid-rise developments, and a variety of housing types. This would be a great way to add affordable housing for families, in walkable communities.
Third, once that density is in place and once re-investment has been kick started, I would give Hamilton the best public transit on earth. That would be an ode to my youth, because I spent so much time on the bus. I spent so much time waiting for the bus! Before apps, before smartphones, before my first watch, I was waiting for the bus in Hamilton. Just standing there, praying to the gods of public transit that a bus would actually come, because I was never quite sure that a bus was actually going to come. Cities that don’t get transit right will be left behind. These three things would create a virtuous cycle. With spectacular public transit would come more re-investment, and more population density that would create a real urban place that would result in a high quality, sustainable urban life.
Pierre Elliott Trudeau once described Canada’s relationship with the United States as similar to sleeping next to an elephant. Could that analogy be applied to Hamilton and Toronto? How do we grow Hamilton with that in mind?
An interesting analogy. Hamilton is a bit of a mystery to me because Hamilton has every attribute and asset that you would expect would attract a lot of investment. Cootes Paradise is beautiful. You’ve got a world class university with McMaster, that’s a critical element. You’ve got industry that’s transitioning right now but you have a pretty good industrial base in the downtown as well. You have wonderful heritage infrastructure and heritage stock. On top of that, you have great proximity; to Toronto, to Buffalo, to Lake Erie. There’s wonderful proximities that add up to many of the critical success factors that you need.
Hamilton is rich in opportunity: an incredible natural environment, an enviable tree canopy in the city. It’s now a matter of massaging some of those big planning moves that I indicated I would like to make with my magic wand. The sprawl on the Hamilton Mountain has hurt the city – its time to reverse that trend. It’s a drain on municipal finances, but it also takes away the critical mass that you need in order to make high order transit work. I think there are some big planning moves that Hamilton missed in the past but, you have the leadership today – particularly under Jason Thorne – that make the future look exceedingly bright.
You have made the work of city planning accessible to the public, and involved citizens through various means. How or why does public engagement help and hurt in the city planning process?
City building is a complex enterprise. The extent to which we can create a window into the thinking that drives great city building, we’ll get better city building outcomes.
You need constituencies in every city that understand the critical ingredients it takes to make a city great. It takes a lot of tenacity to drive all of those ingredients forward. You need a lot of hands on deck and you need civic ownership. If you build those constituencies, they will advance the city vision over time.
I learned this in a profound way when I was a consultant. I was doing some work in Portland, Oregon. I learned that the mayor in Portland is usually acclaimed for a simple rea- son: there’s a high amount of consensus around the vision for the city. It’s not possible for a “new” politician to arrive on the scene and take the city on a completely different trajec- tory. One politician after another continues to implement the vision that the constituents in the city have already bought into – the vision that they already share.
We’ve struggled with this in Toronto; competing ideologies have pulled the city in different directions since amalgamation. When you build constituencies who are really engaged in city building and who understand the complexities of city building, I think you begin to move beyond a polarized approach to city building.
To me, engaging the public is a critical part of embedding a long-term vision of the city deeply in the psyche of its inhabitants.
BEST GIFT YOU’VE EVER RECEIVED? When I was 26 years old, my mother made me a little book for my birthday and it is titled “The 26 things I love about my daughter Jen” and on every page she had something she loved about me. If there was a fire in my house, I would grab my children, and then this book.
HOW DO YOU LIKE YOUR COFFEE? I like a skim milk latte, with half sweet vanilla, extra hot. That’s also how I make it at home too! A double shot now and then doesn’t hurt.
A BOOK YOU PLAN ON READING? Streetfight, by Jannette Sadik-Khan.
WHAT INSPIRES YOU?My children
WINDOW OR AISLE? Always the aisle because I can’t sit still and I need to get up and walk around.
FIRST THING YOU DO WHEN YOU GET HOME? Kiss my children
FAVOURITE BAND? U2
FAVOURITE SOLO ARTIST? Leonard Cohen (I’m old school)
BAGEL OR CROISSANT? Croissant
HIDDEN TALENT? I bake. On the weekend, when I need to come down, I bake cookies. I can’t cook, but I can bake.
WHAT’S SOMETHING NEW YOU’VE LEARNED THIS WEEK? I’ve learned that when you take a big risk, and you believe in the power of the process – you can win
PROUDEST ACCOMPLISHMENT? This may sound cliché, but my two kids. I remember viv- idly the week my daughter was born. I remember think- ing “I did this. I’m a mother now”, with great pride. I was so impressed with myself; that’s when I started having dreams that I could fly.