Designing livable cities key to solving affordability crisis says Jennifer Keesmaat

Urban planning expert Jennifer Keesmaat talks Rising Economy Week 2021 and how to build affordable and sustainable cities.

Jennifer Keesmaat in a downtown street scene
Urban planner Jennifer Keesmaat is a keynote speaker at Rising Economy Week 2021. Photo supplied.

Jennifer Keesmaat has spent her life asking tough questions and pushing for meaningful change in urban planning. The former Toronto Chief City Planner was named one of the “most powerful people in Canada” by Maclean’s and now runs The Keesmaat Group, a team of city-building experts that provide consultation services and public speaking. Despite this, her ideas and visions weren’t always recognized as a top priority but now it feels like maybe the rest of us have caught up. 

“I think there’s a really interesting thing that’s happened during COVID,” says Keesmaat, “Which is an ambition to look to the future and think about how we can approach challenges that we’ve been struggling with for many years in new ways.”

Riding this changing tide is Rising Economy Week, happening November 22-25, which is taking a bold look at Greater Victoria’s future. Keesmaat’s talk ‘Make Canadian Housing Affordable Again’ will focus on designing inclusive and sustainable communities that will thrive long term, as well as examining why she believes now is a moment of transformation. 

“I’ll be linking those ideas together with the hope that this is going to be a conversation that will inspire change,” says Keesmaat. 

The talk will be founded on success stories as inspiration and hope are key tenants in Keesmaat’s process. 

“The big risk that we face in moments like this is that we feel like the challenges that society is presented with are just so gargantuan that there’s nothing we can do and we feel overwhelmed,” says Keesmaat. 

Keesmaat has worked on projects in regions across the country and the world including places such as Vienna, Oslo, Sydney and Melbourne. Recently, through leading a project on behalf of the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation, she’s worked with Victoria as a partner municipality.  

“I’ve had the opportunity to work with planning staff in Victoria and with Mayor Lisa Helps,” says Keesmaat. “That has given me a little window into the magnitude of the challenge that the Victoria area faces from an affordability perspective.” 

Their work focused on missing middle housing and how to transform policy frameworks and land use planning to create better and more inclusive cities. The city of Victoria is currently developing a Missing Middle Housing Initiative and looking for community feedback on proposed zoning changes that would make it easier for developers to build middle housing solutions such as duplexes, and townhouses. 

This intensification of existing areas is important for not only creating affordable housing but increasing sustainability. Constructing denser housing in areas that already have schools, transit, and roads eliminates the high infrastructure costs and environmental damage associated with sprawling communities. Keesmaat believes these changes will require a reimagining of what cities are and can be. 

“We’ve had a static notion in our mind’s eye of both what a family is and what a home is,” she says. “And that has led to all kinds of lofty outcomes, including a policy framework for low-density residential that reinforces a model of housing, as well as an idea of what a family is, that really no longer exists.”

Keesmaat is ever hopeful that we will get there, and that there’s a growing interest in walkable and inclusive cities. For her, much of the solution just comes down to providing choice. 

“We get stuck on a loop of having detrimental outcomes, including not really having a choice other than to own a car and to have a very high carbon footprint. Because well, we designed our city for that,” says Keesmaat. “When it comes to climate change and also affordability, we need to set the stage for people to act in a way that’s going to have an impact and can be transformative.”

Registration for Keesmaat’s November 23rd keynote at Rising Economy Week is free to the public – visit for details. She’ll also be featured in the November 21 edition of Road to Recovery on CHEK TV.