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Vol. 19 No. 40


Professional-political divide

Addressing Torontos challenges



By Geordie Gordon

By Leah Wong

City of Toronto chief planner Jennifer Keesmaat told an

audience of planning professionals that planners need to
reclaim their role as experts and not be swayed from their
professional opinion in the interests of political expediency.
The profession needs to refocus itself on planner as expert,
and away from planner as facilitator.
Speaking to members of the Ontario Professional Planners
Institute at its annual conference this week, Keesmaat talked
about the relationships between planners and elected officials.
She called on planners to not let the work that they do be
compromised by what she called the professional-political
Speaking with NRU after her keynote address, Keesmaat highlighted the often contentious work environment that planners
have to navigate.
Planners are immersed in an environment that, by necessity,
is fraught with constant tension. Our opportunity is to bridge
the administrative-political divide by embracing evidence, data,
negotiation and leadership in our planning practice.
Ward 27 Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam agrees that planners
often work in environments where

City of Toronto leaders are seeking a federal partner that

will help address its biggest challengesaffordable housing,
transit, gridlock and preparing the city for the impacts of
climate change.
The federal leaders are paying attention to Toronto. Given
the citys shift away from being a Liberal stronghold in the
2011 federal election, the parties all see opportunities to win
seats in Canadas largest city.
With changes to the federal ridings shaking up the downtown boundaries, candidates from all parties are looking to
take advantage of changing demographics in three key ridings:
Spadina-Fort York, Toronto Centre and University-Rosedale.
With the creation of new downtown ridings Toronto is getting
an additional representative in this election.
While Liberal MPs Chrystia Freeland and Adam Vaughan
won their ridings for the Liberal Party in recent by-elections,
the boundaries have changed significantly since then.
Freeland is running in University-Rosedale against broadcast
journalist Jennifer Hollett (NDP), lawyer Karim Jivraj (Conservative) and lawyer Nick Wright (Green Party). With Freeland
running in the new University-Rosedale

Economics Matters

Dollars and cents
Transit funding

Steve Paikin
When planning
and politics collide

Height reduction
Board rules on
LuCliff Place


p3 >

p 11 >

construction economics
planning impacts

real estate markets

expert testimony

416-641-9500 1-877-953-9948




consensus on a particular topic is never a certainty. But they

should remain committed to their professional opinion,
regardless of what end result of the political process may be.
If [the chief planner is talking] about ensuring that
planners uphold their professional opinion and stand by the
integrity of their professional opinions regardless of what
may or may not happen on the floor of council, I think thats
what they should do. They should always adhere to their core
planning principles, recommendations informed by good
planning, regardless of what direction the political winds may
send them in, she told NRU.
Keesmaat warned that planners, when focussed on what
they think can realistically be accomplished, may be losing
sight of what their professional opinion should be.
In some instances, weve gotten so used to [the
professional-political divide] that we dont even begin with
recommendations that are rooted in the idealism of creating
great communities, weve actually become a bit trapped. We
lessen our own aspirations for our city, for our planning
work, because we dont have the confidence, the belief that
the gulf between professional practice and politics will ever be
bridged, Keesmaat said.
Wong-Tam says that occasional disagreement between
council and planning staff is part of the framework in which
municipal planning takes place. Furthermore, political
decisions are not made based solely on planning evidence.
I have over 100 development files, and I can tell you that
the planners that I work with in downtown, midtown Toronto,
are extremely professional, extremely intelligent, they
know exactly what theyre talking about, and we have, more
often times than not, agreement on where they land on their
planning decisions.
And then there are times that we may disagree. But Ill tell
them, you write the report that you need to write, because its
the right thing to do, because that is what you honestly believe
in your professional opinion, and perhaps I may need to make
a different political decision, she said.
Wong-Tam also says that the prospect of an OMB hearing
has a significant impact on the relationship between planning
and politics. She characterizes the OMB process as problematic
when it comes to land use planning and development in
Ontario and the threat of an appeal is often used by developers

as way to get what they want.

Whatever the context, Keesmaat stressed the importance of
bridging the divide but not blurring the lines between planners
and politicians.
Id like to suggest that this political-administrative divide
does exist, and we do have tools to bridge the gap. But the
most common tool weve used, myself included, is the least
effective: We loosen our grip on our vision, we loosen our grip
on our idealism, on our belief that achieving something great
is in fact possible. That is one way to bridge the gap, but, my
oh my, its dangerous. Its consequences are far reaching and
fundamentally undermine the overall integrity of our expertise
as professionals. In fact it is a way of bridging the divide that
simply blurs the lines, she said.
In some instances, weve gotten so used to [the
professional-political divide] that we dont even begin
with recommendations that are rooted in the idealism
of creating great communities, weve actually become
a bit trapped.
Jennifer Keesmaat

If planners go too far in adjusting their positions, Keesmaat

warns, We begin as planners to resemble politicians. Politicians
have a critical and important role in our democratic process,
but it is not [a planners] role. If were going to act political
instead of acting professional, we might as well be politicians,
we might as well run for office. nru