In Conversation With… Gregg Lintern, Chief Planner, City of Toronto
Gregg Lintern, for those in the urban planning field, has one of the most desired gigs in all of Canada – chief planner of the City of Toronto. But heading up the planning department of the largest city in the country, indeed, one of the fastest growing in the world, is no cushy assignment. Managing growth, housing development, transit and cycling infrastructure… the list of tasks is endless and the critics plentiful and often harsh. And in a COVID world, everything is that much more complicated.
Lintern opens up about his vision for the city, his department, and the challenges of the development approvals process.
You’ve been in the chair a few years now… What have you learned or come to appreciate about the job?
Growth and change in a city of three million people is complex. The job is about managing that complexity to focus finite energy and resources to influence positive outcomes – usually in partnership with public and private interests. I’ve learned that is not easy – and it takes people and your ability to inspire people to get things done.
How would you describe your philosophy as Chief Planner for the City of Toronto?
Be values driven – I ground my thinking in values such as humility, empathy, generosity, perspective and resilience – and be people-centred. Think about the outcomes – the city we want to be in 20 years, and work backwards. What choices can we make now that will get us there and have our children and grandchildren say we made good decisions?
The city as we know it is a consequence of evolutionary change, driven by internal and external forces. Part of my role is influencing change for the better, understanding mistakes and showing a willingness to change direction, and push for beneficial outcomes.
The tensions that exist within the system of evolution are many, including things such as cars versus other modes of transportation, and exclusivity of land use versus mixed use. These tensions often result in incremental compromise, even as the general direction is clear.
Change doesn’t happen overnight, but COVID has seemingly accelerated and clarified both our opportunities and challenges. Ideas with long-standing support, such as increased cycling infrastructure, have moved forward quicker than they otherwise might have. But just as quickly, existing issues such as access to housing and social and health inequities have an increased urgency and visibility around them.
If we remain grounded in our values, I do think we can use this moment of clarity, even if it feels overwhelming at times, to make some lasting changes for the better, particularly for our most vulnerable groups.
What do you hope to accomplish in your tenure?
I set out a simple goal at the beginning of my tenure, and that was to build on past accomplishments and leave the Division and the City in a better place than I found them. I see that as the contribution everyone should make – in service to their family, friends, community and city – is to add, to enrich, to get it ready for who comes next as an intergenerational responsibility. In that sense, the city having more housing available and affordable for more people and better mobility than they have now – to have that access to opportunity that people across the city require. Toronto has landed on many top 10 lists across many measures of success; my job is to keep us there and to grow the list.
What changes would you like to make, or are making, from the way your office has operated in the past?
I would simply emphasize communication with staff and stakeholders. I know you can’t get things done alone – the more we communicate in a way that resonates with people, the better off the results of the services we provide and the outcomes in the community.
What are the top priorities in the planning department these days (such as improving the approvals process, addressing the need for “missing middle” housing, cycling infrastructure…)?
While we are looking at improvements to the approvals process, we are very much focused on improving the outcomes of the process – ensuring that new development contributes positively to the idea of complete. That’s really our main priority and much of what we do is aligned with this objective. In addition to the construction of new housing and commercial space, expanding and improving transportation infrastructure, cycling connections, expanding and making better use of our public spaces are all elements in the process of building complete communities.
Building a more livable, equitable Toronto is also a top priority. The City’s recently approved Housing Now projects are examples of smart density, building complete, mixed income, mixed-use communities with housing accompanied by child care facilities, open spaces, pedestrian connections and new streets, and retail and office space in various configurations. It’s about developing a broad range and mix of uses, combined with good urban design, to support daily life. Missing middle housing, and expanding housing options in neighbourhoods, is part of that work and city planning has a considerable role to play.
The home building industry is lobbying various levels of government to make the approvals process faster and simpler. How do you see this issue, and how are you addressing it?
The City conducted an End-to-End Development Review, which provided recommendations to improve the development process for both applicants and the City. To implement the recommendations, the City has established the Concept to Keys (C2K) program – a dedicated, multi-divisional team that will guide this work and will modernize how the City of Toronto attracts, facilitates and regulates development activity. C2K is working to create more predictability, efficiency, transparency and collaboration. Early areas of focus include a revised operating model and governance structure, enabling online applications and evaluating options to enhance backend technology to more effectively manage the development review process from start to finish.
New home supply and affordability, some say, are at or near crisis levels, and that we really need to approve and build more new housing, and more quickly, in order to meet demand and address affordability concerns. What’s your take on all this, and how realistic is it to expect your office to “fix” this problem?
Affordability and access are major challenges facing Toronto and many other growing North American cities. Council adopted the HousingTO 2020 – 2030 Action Plan in December 2019. It recommends a host of actions to improve supply and affordability across a whole spectrum of need. It’s a tool kit approach because there isn’t one fix for the housing challenge. About 20,000 units of housing are approved every year in Toronto, but a greater variety of housing more targeted to specific needs is required. Ideas such as expanding housing options in neighbourhoods, and more ground related housing such as laneway suites and secondary suites in homes, are gaining interest, for example.
What other cities, either in Canada or elsewhere in the world, have planning departments, systems and processes that you believe work well, and that we could learn from, and why?
We are always looking toward other cities, and encourage other cities to look to Toronto, to seek out and share best practices. No two places are the same and local context is always important, but there absolutely are lessons to be learned from work being done elsewhere.
Many cities in Canada and around the world are contending with the same challenges, though perhaps at different levels of intensity, as Toronto. Expanding housing options and providing for some that of “missing middle” are one such example, where cities are looking at what other jurisdictions are doing and then developing a suite of tools that work for their communities.
How did the early days of the COVID-19 shutdown impact your office? We’ve heard a lot about approval processes slowing, and submission backlogs…
Like any other organization, the pandemic disrupted core business in the very early days but the initial disruption was short-lived. Staff pivoted to work from home over the course of eight weeks, and that transition limited backlog and enabled staff to perform duties normally undertaken in the office.
One of the challenges posed by COVID has been hosting community consultation meetings. We host hundreds of these meetings in communities throughout the year to consult on new development applications and the development of new planning policy. What used to occur in person has moved online, and there has been a period of adjustment in adapting new consultation approaches. These new approaches to consultation present an opportunity for us to reach a broader audience and incorporate more constructive feedback into the planning process.
How have things progressed since then? Is the planning department back up to full capacity?
Since the initial weeks of the shutdown, we have provided staff across the Division with resources to continue processing development applications and new policies remotely. We have been running at full capacity for several months now.
What has your office learned, or changes you’ve made, since the pandemic began?
We focused initially on keeping the economy going with development approvals, introduced temporary use bylaws to expand cafes, supported new housing initiatives for vulnerable people such as modular housing, moved consultation online with virtual consultation meetings and workshops, reformatted services including holding Committee of Adjustment hearings online. We have adapted our processes to work better remotely and provided our staff with resources to continue managing development review applications.
Additionally, the pandemic provided a renewed sense of clarity and urgency to certain areas of work, including the need to expand housing options and build local resilience right across the city.
And on a personal note:
What part of town do you live in (from your Twitter account, it looks like you’re a west-ender…)?
In Toronto, you are either east or west of Yonge. I’m west of Yonge – actually grew up in Rexdale and have lived in the west end ever since. But I love the east end too, of course!
What is your favourite thing about Toronto?
When I get asked this I usually say – it’s a good place to call home. I often think of the people who were here before European settlement, of the waves of immigrants who have come here and of the people who desire to come here. It’s grown into a big city, but remains a place people want to call home.
When you’re not at the office (real or home office), you’re:
Walking or cycling in my High Park neighbourhood.
If you weren’t a city planner, you would:
Cook for people.