Speaking at ULI Toronto’s Electric Cities Symposium, Jennifer Keesmaat, Toronto’s chief city planner since 2012, said, “We have a running joke in the city planning department that we’re waiting for the lull.” With the unprecedented level of growth the city has seen in the last five years, the pace of development continues to ratchet up, creating both new opportunities and challenges for Canada’s largest city.

The “Design for Unprecedented Growth” presentation and panel discussion was a fitting end to the symposium—which addressed important city-building questions revolving around mobility, placemaking, and technology in April—as it zeroed in on Toronto, taking stock of planning successes and failures over the past several decades while looking forward and presenting a vision for the future of a city whose groundwork is already being laid.

Keesmaat has since announced she would be leaving this role for other opportunities, but for any city planning department that is grappling with challenges related to accelerated urban development, there was much to learn from Keesmaat and the three Toronto-based presenters—city planner Lorna Day, landscape architect Adam Nicklin, and architect Brigitte Shim—who followed her. Here are four takeaways from the presentation.

1. When making day-to-day planning decisions, don’t lose sight of the overarching vision for the city.

“What kind of a city do we want to become?” asked Keesmaat. “If we are becoming something different, we need to continue to draw ourselves back to this higher question and think about the vision.”

Keesmaat said in this approach it is key to align policy with that vision and to ensure that the city continues to deliver with results on the ground.

For Keesmaat, two tenets of Toronto’s vision are keeping the city green and developing infrastructure to help people move across it. In practice, this means creating management plans for the city’s massive system of ravines and combatting congestion with complete-streets guidelines that will improve accessibility and provide more transit options for residents.

2. Urban regeneration is difficult to manage. If you don’t have the planning tools to accommodate it, you need to create them.

From an economic standpoint, Toronto was undergoing significant change in the mid-1990s. Manufacturing jobs were leaving what was once a regionally important employment hub, resulting in swaths of empty factories and disused infrastructure near the core of the city.

Lorna Day, the city of Toronto’s director of urban design, said the question for Toronto’s planners at the time was what to do with all the unique public spaces and historic buildings that were no longer in use.

In what Day called a radical approach for the city in the 1990s, city council passed a plan that loosened restrictive land use controls and encouraged the development of new buildings that would be compatible with the existing built form. She said there was plenty of opposition on city council, but Chief City Planner Paul Bedford and Mayor Barbara Hall were instrumental in pushing this risky new approach forward.

Visitors to the city can best see the impact of this by walking along King Street, west of Spadina Avenue. Historic factory buildings have been preserved and successfully converted into commercial spaces while new condo buildings have been constructed to give the neighborhood a live/work component.

3. An excellent park system is a vital part of a competitive city. But in the face of rapid densification, unconventional thinking is required when envisioning public realm projects

Reconciling the need for both open spaces and density in successful cities is something that Adam Nicklin, principal of Public Work, a Toronto-based urban design and landscape architecture studio, spends a lot of time considering.

Nicklin presented examples from his firm that embody this unconventional approach to public space that he believes is the answer to these two seemingly contradictory requirements. The most salient was the Bentway—over a mile (1.6 km) of park space being constructed underneath a section of Toronto’s elevated Gardiner Expressway.
The Gardiner is often criticized as an eyesore and viewed as a barrier between the city and its lakefront. With the Bentway, public trails and community spaces will be brought to a section of the Gardiner that is impressive in its scale—at five stories, Nicklin described it as “cathedral-like”—but has long been an area through which people pass quickly.

“We call it a missing link—or a hidden terrain—because a lot of the time we move past this place but we don’t notice it,” said Nicklin. “It’s hidden only because we haven’t imagined what it could be. And, when we looked at it, it’s actually an incredible space.”

4. Having the right planning tools is important, but they don’t necessarily portend great architecture. Both developers and architects need to rise to the challenge of building a culture of design excellence.

“[Toronto’s] development community has done good and competent work, but I would say that if it were to step up, it would also make a huge difference to the quality of architecture in the public realm,” said Brigitte Shim, founding partner of acclaimed Toronto firm Shim-Sutcliffe Architects, during the panel discussion following the presentations. “We have okay buildings that follow general rules, but we could do better,” she added.

Keesmaat, who also took part in the panel, agreed with Shim but spoke of the need for the architectural community to “stiffen its spine” instead of reflexively shifting the blame to their clients for subpar work.

“There is a role for the architectural community to be pushing back with respect to what they’re willing to produce and what they’re willing to accept from their colleagues,” said Keesmaat.