Q&A: New chief planner Gregg Lintern on kissing the sweet comfort of anonymity goodbye

Q&A: New chief planner Gregg Lintern on kissing the sweet comfort of anonymity goodbye

As Toronto’s new chief planner, your first orders of business are what?
Housing and transit. If you want a short and sweet slogan, it’s this: “Transit connects to opportunity.” That means access to jobs, to housing and to choice—for instance, whether or not to buy a car.

Wow! We’re going anti-car already?
No, I own a car. I love driving. The point is about giving people more choice and better access. The more they have of both, the better off we’ll all be.

What about the Scarborough line, with cost projections seeming to go up and up? The latest is $3.5 billion. Is there a point where we say that’s too much?
Council’s instructions were to make the Scarborough subway part of the ­network—the SmartTrack stations, the subway and the Eglinton East ­extension—so that’s what we’re doing.

Are you saying, “This is the hand I’m dealt, so I have to play it”?
I wasn’t involved in the earlier stages of this project. The bottom line is we live in a representative democracy, and city councillors are the decision makers. As a planner, you give your advice; sometimes they take it, sometimes they don’t.

It must be incredibly frustrating to have the expertise but not the authority.
If I were frustrated, I would have moved on a long time ago. My career started with a couple of tours of duty as a planner in Etobicoke, then downtown and in various neighbourhoods. I’ve worked in the weeds on everything from figuring out where to put a door, to overseeing master plans for Regent Park, the West Don Lands and Lawrence Heights.

You’re taking over for Jennifer ­Keesmaat, who brought a lot of attention to the office. How do you compare?
Jennifer reinvented the role in terms of presence, but in some ways, the groundwork was laid before her, with the rise of citizen planners and social media. ­Torontonians are passionate about their city, which is fantastic. But that passion requires us to communicate differently than we used to.

Is it fair to say that you will probably be less of a celebrity than Keesmaat was? Before her, very few people could even name the city planner.
I’m a long-term bureaucrat, whereas she came from the private sector, so I probably work more from the ground up in terms of building an understanding—which doesn’t ­delegitimize her approach. My proclivity to be out there is not the same as hers. I’ve got only so many hours in the day, and I have to devote my energy to running the division and getting things done.

A lot of Torontonians seem pro-development in theory but opposed when it comes to their backyard. Would you agree?
I think that’s a fair assessment. I don’t adopt the rhetoric of NIMBYism. I think that by choosing to live in the city, whether in a house or a high-rise, you are by default agreeing to be very generous about space. Living in the city is about negotiating space.

The population is booming, but there’s finite space downtown. Doesn’t something have to give?
We’re putting a lot more importance on creating the infrastructure that’s needed to support that growth. If we’re going to plan for people to live and work here, you don’t just plow people in. You focus on transit, parks, pipes, community centres, daycares—the stuff that people need for daily life.

Torontonians have security on their minds following the Yonge and Finch attack. How does making our public spaces safe play into the city planner’s job?
Toronto is known as a safe city. As planners, we plan from the premise of making public space safe, accessible and comfortable.

I was about to ask what you like to do outside of work—but first I need to know: is that a ­Garfield sculpture on your desk?
My daughter made that. Okay, this is the part where I get uncomfortable. Am I allowed to say, “That’s none of your business?” Just kidding. My only hobbies are eating and sleeping. For me, a really good weekend is a long bike ride somewhere, with good coffee on the way out and really good wine on the way back.

You’re a pretty snappy dresser. Slim-cut suit, spread collar, bordering-on-hipster ­spectacles…
You know, when I buy new glasses, I’m usually late on the trend. Maybe I timed it right this time.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.