Keesmaat was the former chief planner of Toronto. NATHAN CHAN/THE VARSITY

Mayoral candidate and former Toronto chief planner Jennifer Keesmaat spoke at a student-led discussion hosted by the Urban Studies Student Union on September 24 at Innis Town Hall.

The event, titled “Our City, Our Future: Students in Conversation with Jennifer Keesmaat” aimed at discussing pressing Toronto issues, including public transit, affordable housing, local arts and culture initiatives, and the importance of local democracy and community engagement.

The discussion was moderated by Anjuli Solanki, an artist and the Director of Community Programs at the Sustainable Thinking and Expression on Public Space Initiative, which provides a creative space for public engagement and community building projects in developing neighbourhoods.

“It takes 20 seconds to get a young person engaged in community politics,” said Keesmaat on student civic engagement. “Mention: one, affordable housing and two, public transit.”

Affordable housing

When addressed with the issue of affordable housing, Keesmaat put forward her strategy of creating 100,000 affordable units on city-owned land, which she said would target both working- and middle-class families.

She also criticized incumbent Mayor John Tory’s housing strategy, saying that during his tenure as mayor, he sold city-owned land to developers to build luxury condominiums, which contributed to the already-skyrocketing real estate market.

Public transit

Keesmaat’s public transit plan was a prominent topic of discussion, especially her focus on Relief Line transit and the development of Line 3 Scarborough.

She added that she wants to develop a long-term transit plan to fix what she sees as the failure of the current state of Toronto public transit.

Keesmaat noted that property closest to transit is the most expensive for families, thus making it inconvenient to find an affordable home with a reliable transit route.

Additionally, she pointed to the overcrowding of Line 1 Yonge-University during rush hour leading to issues such as long waiting times and insufficient subway infrastructure.

Keesmaat was critical of Tory’s SMARTtrack plan, which she said has taken four years to build since Tory’s 2014 mayoral campaign and costs nearly $1.46 billion.

She plans to fund the cost of her transit plan through responsible funding and affordable fares.

The province has granted the city $5 billion for subway development, committing to cover one-third of the costs.

In her transit network plan, Keesmaat plans to reach out to marginalized communities and ensure a reliable transit network, specifically referring to the proposed Jane light rail.

Arts and culture in Toronto

When discussing the local Toronto arts and culture scene, Keesmaat encouraged the expansion of growing cultural hubs and programs.

She referenced the Artscape Weston Cultural Hub, a public space partnered with Artscape and Metrolink providing a creative space for artists and aimed at revitalizing an area in need of renewal. She emphasized that local arts employ 11 million people annually, though it often faces major budget cuts from the provincial government.

Keesmaat stresses that accessing the arts strengthens connections between and within neighbourhoods.

“Arts and culture are a way we build our identity, tell stories, and make sense of who we are as a society,” said Keesmaat.

City Council cuts

When asked about Premier Doug Ford’s decision to cut the number of city council wards from 47 to 25, Keesmaat responded that she “would not have traded democracy,” and emphasized the need for a strong mayor to stand up to the premier. She added that local democracy matters and that Ford needs to “mind his own business,” pointing to the $15 billion provincial deficit.

“Voting matters. Leadership has an impact on the quality of our lives.”

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