Coronavirus offers a chance to build better cities, says Toronto’s former chief planner

Jennifer Keesmaat is one of 100 prominent Canadians behind a 20-point "national declaration" to repair the damage done by a half-century of bad planning and gentrification

The COVID-19 pandemic provides a “once-in-a-lifetime responsibility” to repair a half-century of bad planning decisions, says Toronto’s former chief planner Jennifer Keesmaat.

Keesmaat has joined 99 other prominent Canadians, including developers, mayors and former mayors, in calling on municipal, provincial and the federal government to support a “national declaration for resiliency in Canadian cities,” as part of an effort to reverse the trends of “unsustainable planning that has compromised our health, access to housing, the quality of our air, and the long-term financial viability of our cities.”

The declaration was officially launched in an op-ed in the Globe on Saturday co-authored by Keesmaat, Wellesley Institute CEO Kwame McKenzie and Martin Prosperity Institute head Richard Florida.

Keesmaat says the declaration, a copy of which was provided to NOW, is “to push for a fundamental resetting of Canadian cities as part of our post-COVID-19 recovery.” Signatories include former Toronto mayors David Miller, Art Eggleton, Barbara Hall and David Crombie.

The document notes that new Canadians, Indigenous people, racialized populations, and lower-income workers “have disproportionately suffered from the effects of homelessness and gentrification.” It also sets out a 20-point plan of specific measures “to thrive as we embrace a ‘new normal’ and a better ‘business-as-usual’” in the areas of land use planning, transit and the environment.

The measures include restricting temporary rentals, removing mandatory minimum parking requirements on new development, and using municipally-owned land to build affordable housing “that remains affordable in perpetuity.”

The goal is to create “15-minute neighbourhoods” anchored by “gentle density” – multi-tenanted housing, co-housing and laneway housing – in which corner stores, local retail, and live-work housing are permitted.

The declaration also calls for a moratorium on development that contributes to “additional, auto-dependent, suburban sprawl.”

The city has recently launched an ActiveTO initiative to open more space for cycling and pedestrians as we emerge from the pandemic-imposed lockdown. The declaration goes further, encouraging the establishment of “a contiguous ‘everywhere-to-everywhere’ network'” of protected bike lanes “that makes cycling a safe mobility choice for every resident, in every neighbourhood.”

The declaration notes the pressure put on public transit by physical distancing measures necessitated by COVID-19 and advocates for “Bus Rapid Transit Priority Lanes” in the short term to deal with demand. In the longer term, the document says a congestion fee should be established with 100 per cent of the revenues to support future transit expansion.

The document says a timetable should be established for the conversion of the city’s bus fleet, as well as taxis and ride-sharing vehicles, to 100 per cent electric, and that an “immediate and permanent” stop be placed on the construction and reconstruction of urban expressways, which would include the billion and change the city is spending right now trying to keep a two-kilometre stretch of the Gardiner up.

The document also calls for “embracing sustainability in our built and natural environments” by ending the dumping of untreated sewage in waterways, investing in the urban tree canopy, and making new office buildings emission-free.

“Does this sound like a dream?” Keesmaat asks. “Well, it isn’t.”

She notes that other centres like London and Paris are already rethinking public spaces post-pandemic – “Canadian cities can do the same” – and that COVID-19 is offering us new ways to look at how cities can be rebuilt.

The declaration notes that municipalities already have the power to initiate many of the changes that are being recommended “immediately,” but states that the changes “should be considered a starting point, not a cure-all.”



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