City planning lessons Auckland could learn from Toronto

The new city

Toronto’s chief planner Jennifer Keesmaat steered her city through a period of rapid population growth, housing shortages, transit upgrades and serious urbanisation – the very same challenges facing Auckland right now. Good thing she’s heading our way to tell us how it’s done.

Dismissed as a celebrity bureaucrat when she took over as Toronto’s chief planner, Jennifer Keesmaat quickly established herself as a force to be reckoned with, taking a stand against the mayor over demolishing a crumbling, old motorway, and pushing through her bold, progressive vision of a liveable, affordable city with great public transport and tons of green space. Her mantra is “liveability, walkability and sustainability” – a talk she walks, or rather cycles, on a “virgin-white, seven-speed Norco with a fawn leather saddle” that she parks in her office so it doesn’t get stolen. A champion of social equity and diversity, many think her greatest achievement will be a legacy of transparency and accountability at City Hall. Charismatic and relentlessly positive, Keesmaat is in Auckland next week for Auckland Conversations to school us in urbanism and how to make sure our growing city remains inclusive.

We’re facing a housing crisis – much like the one gripping Toronto. Property prices have doubled in the last decade. Families are living in cars. They can’t afford escalating rents. Help?

Jennifer Keesmaat: The biggest opportunity in cities that have very high housing prices and international appeal is to build purpose-built rentals that are meant to be long-term housing for families. That is the great opportunity, because if you do have some kind of rent control in place then you can moderate the prices to make sure they’re stabilised in relation to wage growth. Once they detach from that, which is what’s happened in Toronto over the past 12 months, then… it’s a pretty simple calculation. On an average salary, people should be able to pay an average rent. And the government can control that through rent controls to ensure there’s a relationship between those two things. When those two things get broken, that’s when you start ending up with a situation where people are employed but they can’t afford to pay rent, and that’s a problem.

Toronto has rent controls?

We do have some rent controls that were put in place 20 years ago but we have new policy coming in to limit the price increase on an annual basis to inflation plus two percent. So there’ll be a maximum rent increase permitted on any rental of 4.5 percent as a way of protecting the rental from being too much above inflation. But we also have something else. A decade ago we brought in a rental replacement policy. So let’s say a developer wants to redevelop a three-storey building that has 16 units in it, and turn it into a tower; they are required to replace those rental units at the same level of affordability. It’s been very successful at protecting the existing rental stock.

Trouble is we don’t have a culture of renting for life – or any regulations to support it.

There’s a shift in thinking that has to happen around rentals as offering a high quality of life. This is one of the things that Toronto is struggling with as a city right now, because the Canadian dream is very similar to the American dream, which is that you’ll grow up and buy a single-family home, have two kids, and that you will live in a home on a ground-related property. But there just isn’t enough space. We’re not building any more ground-related housing. Almost 90 percent of new buildings in the city are multi-family residential condo towers. We know that we need density to make transit work, which we need to create a sustainable city. The other thing is that if we look at the demographic shift, we know that people are living on their own for longer, and you need a housing typology that is better suited to people living on their own than a single family home. One of the challenges we have is a large boomer population. Children have moved out of the house but the boomers are staying in the three or four-bedroom house and you have this situation where the boomers are overhoused and younger generations, young families, are underhoused. There’s been a term that’s coined here. People talk about boomers as “hoarding housing”.

Oh yes. We have that too. How do you address intergenerational disparity?

Well it’s very tricky. Boomers say, ‘I don’t know where I would go, where I would have such a strong sense of community as I have in my neighbourhood now.’ It comes back to providing housing choice in an existing community, so you can live in different types of housing at different stages of your life, in the same neighbourhood.

One of your big wins for Toronto was the creation of a long-term transit network plan. How do we make sure we get the best-quality transit in the shortest amount of time for the least amount of money?

I would hope that you’re driving your growth to your existing main transit corridors. Connecting up the land-use planning and transit planning is the first big move. It’s not just about transit – it’s about where you’re directing growth as well. So that’s the first critical question to ask. In Toronto over the past five years anywhere between 86 and 89 percent of all of our new projects have been on the Rapid Transit Corridor, and that’s not a coincidence, that’s strong public policy to direct new growth to existing transit corridors as a way of best using the existing infrastructure.

Great idea. Only we’ve tended to build satellite suburbs and now there’s no way to get there except by car.

Exactly. I often get asked, ‘how do we get transit out to these towns?’ To which I say, ‘it’s a loser’s game’. The subsidy required to deliver high-frequency transit – you just don’t have enough population density to ever make that transit successful, which is one of the reasons why building out high-density corridors is so critical, because it needs to link in with your transit strategy.

You worked tirelessly to increase public engagement in Toronto, bringing marginalised communities into the decision-making process. How?

A critical part for us has included doing non-traditional things [and] engaging with children and families who wouldn’t necessarily feel empowered to participate in the planning process. We learned that most youth in impoverished communities just don’t see the relevance of planning. How do we connect the dots for people who don’t see that planning actually plays a really important role in ensuring that there is housing and that we have the right transit in the right neighbourhoods to provide the access to jobs?  We held a civic lottery, and of thousands and thousands of people, 28 people were selected that represent the ethnic diversity of the city, the ages in the city, the tenure in terms of owner versus tenants, and all the geographies of the city. It became a really important sounding board for other divisions, not just city planning.

What did you discover these communities wanted in their city?

The biggest tangible input was a much stronger social equity perspective. We had discovered that frequently 90 to 95 percent of people at council meetings were homeowners, even though 51 percent of the residents of the city are actually tenants. As a real tangible example, consulting about the Light Rail Transit project in the west end of the city, the participants at the public meeting overwhelmingly opposed the project, but it turns out they were mostly white homeowners over 55, even though the fastest growing demographic in the city is under 35. We used other consultation techniques: texting, online surveys, polling, and when we got a broader representation we discovered there was huge support for Light Rail Transit.

We have suburbs, such as Ōtara, Glen Innes and Northcote, with fantastic civic spaces planned in the 1960s that have fallen into disrepair. How do you revive those suburbs for the communities that live there?

The way we’ve been doing that in the Toronto context is we’ve identified key avenues where we’re adding density, and transit, and so the objective within these suburban neighbourhoods is to revitalise them by adding new housing, new housing choice, new housing typology, as well as transit. That can result in the regeneration of the entire area, and this is sort of our secret sauce right now.

The objective is to put enough density in these suburban areas that we create new destinations within walking distance from home for the existing neighbourhoods. By creating these corridors that have more density, a mix of uses, they add a new character, they add a destination in the suburbs, and then they also add the density that makes the transit a viable choice.

Auckland has its share of gentrified suburbs and hipster destinations, but how do you make sure impoverished neighbourhoods don’t get left behind?

You have to lead with public investment. You’re going to need private sector investment on a grand scale, but the public sector investment can be the impetus, and it might be excellent transit, it might be by adding new housing typology. For me, a really great example is an impoverished area in Toronto called Regent Park where, through a private and public partnership, we were able to add new parks, new community centres, new housing – both affordable and market – and in these areas, that’s really what you need to do, and come up with a strategy. We need to see the revitalisation of more of these communities. The challenge is you need the political will to invest in the public infrastructure that’s required; that’s the starting point.

We’ve had to lift the cap on our definition of affordable housing to $650,000 to keep up with rising construction costs. Meaning it’s no longer affordable.

We’ve had a very big debate about this in Toronto. To summarise, affordable can be different in different parts of the city and different parts of the region. What’s affordable in downtown or the waterfront versus what’s affordable in a suburban neighbourhood is a different definition. In part the land values are different, and we’ve taken very much a one-off approach. We create an assessment on a project-by-project basis and we work with a developer, and then we have subsidies that are provided by both the municipality and the provincial government, sometimes as much as up to $250,000 to the developer in order to bring the cost of the project down to keep it within the affordability envelope.

You’re stepping down from your role as chief planner at the end of the month. Twitter speculated you were going to fill the Auckland Transport CEO vacancy, or run for public office?

Political office won’t be the direction I’ll go in but I’m going to explore a whole variety of opportunities [none of which involve moving to Auckland]. Because of the decision-making authority I have in my role, there are certain partnerships and possibilities that I couldn’t engage in pursuing within the role because it would put me in a conflict position. I wanted to step down before I confirm what I’m doing next.


Toronto Projects

Urban renewal projects that have changed the streetscape of Toronto

Watch Jennifer Keesmaat’s talk livestreamed from 8.30am, Fri 22 Sep, or on demand at  Or register your place to hear Jennifer in person, on Fri 22 Sep, by clicking here.