In just over a week, the City of Toronto will bid farewell to its Chief Planner. Gregg Lintern stepped into the role back in 2018. By his own account, it was a fairly natural progression, as he had already been with the City Planning division for some time, and had served as acting Chief Planner in 2012. In the five years since, he has catalyzed some meaningful changes for the city.
During his time at City Hall, Lintern was instrumental in a number of zoning and policy changes that, to this day, allow Torontonians to access a wider range of housing types, such as laneway and garden suites. He also rallied for missing middle housing, and his stance against exclusionary zoning led to the legalization of four-unit multiplexes across the city earlier this year.
Lintern’s achievements certainly don’t stop, or even start, there — bear in mind, he has worked in city planning for Etobicoke, East York, and Toronto in some capacity for close to 40 years — but if you try to give him any praise, he will credit his team, which tells you a bit about who he is not only as a public servant, but as a person.
Nonetheless, Lintern leaves big shoes to fill, and as his time at City Hall draws to a close, STOREYS had the opportunity to chat with him about what it has been like to be at the helm of Toronto’s City Planning division, what the City’s priorities should be in 2024 and the years to come, and his thoughts on who should succeed him as Chief Planner of Toronto.
STOREYS: Talk to me about your rise to Chief Planner, and what motivated you to take on the role.
Lintern: I laugh a little bit at the question. “Rise to Chief Planner” — it sounds like some sort of ascension to the throne or something like that. It’s anything but that.
I had taken on progressively responsible positions in the division over the years, going back many decades. I was acting Chief Planner in 2012 for five months, and when Jennifer [Keesmaat] left in 2017, I thought that it was another opportunity to undertake the role. I felt I had the skillset and aptitude for it, and, certainly, the interest. I am quite motivated by a great team, and I felt like I wanted to lead them, so it just felt like a natural thing for me to do.
S: What have been your main priorities and biggest milestones over the past five years?
L: Just the increasing challenge around housing. I remember, in July 2020, then-Mayor Tory passed a motion directing us to look at expanding housing options in neighbourhoods. And even before that, we had started laneway suites, going back to 2018 and 2019. So we got laneway suites going, and then the Mayor’s motion eventually led to garden suites and multiplexes. It also led to the elimination of minimum parking requirements and official plan changes around expanding the opportunity for local retail.
These are kind of, I’m going to call them, the nuts and bolts of City Planning — the specific zoning and rule changes that we could make to make the system work better and be more responsive to what was going on or what is going on out there. I always say this: opportunity for more people in more places. It’s kind of a simple tagline, but I think that’s what the goal is.
When you look at the city, there’s an unevenness to it. Some areas are oversubscribed, not enough structure. Some areas are quiet and they haven’t changed in decades. So that unevenness suggests to me that we’ve got to expand the opportunities for more people in more places; there’s some way of spreading out the benefit of change to more areas. If the population begins to rise in one of these quieter neighbourhoods, maybe their local retail store stays open, maybe their school stays open, maybe they’ll get new equipment in their park. So there’s this spinoff benefit of thinking and putting planning through through that lens.
S: What do you think is working in favour of Toronto’s growth as a city going into 2024?
L: When you think about the urban fabric of the city and the period of the city that grew after World War II — what I call the post-war city, the 416 suburbs — that was very much about separating land uses and auto-dependency. And I think what’s working in the city’s favour now is that people are realizing that that’s not sustainable. So we’re seeing more development in malls and plazas across the city. I think 60% of the growth that is anticipated in the city is going to be happening in our 416 suburbs. Like Downsview, Cloverdale, Yorkdale, Scarborough Town Centre — they’re all going to be changing, and that’s about improving mobility for people who are living locally and working locally, connecting through the regional transit, and mixing uses. So we’re kind of moving away from the unsustainable way of growing.
I made a comment at a City Council meeting that it’s not a question of whether we grow, it’s how we grow. And I think if we stay applied to a more sustainable form of growth that isn’t just auto-dependent and involves a greater mix of land uses, we’ll be much better off. And I think a lot of that is manifesting itself across the entire city.
In favour of its growth as well is all of the transit that’s underway. The backbone of all of this change is ensuring that we finally catch up from not building transit for quite a few decades. So with the opening of the Eglinton line — and I’m sure it will open — and the Finch West LRT, the Ontario Line, the Yonge Extension, and the rebuilding of Yonge and Bloor, the Waterfront LTR, the Eglinton East LRT, all of this will be a game-changer for the city.
S: Beyond transit, what do you believe should be the city’s priority going into 2024?
L: We have not experienced a market downturn in a couple of decades, since the late ‘90s, in Toronto, and people don’t have experience with this change and higher rates. They’re really not historically that high, but a lot of people are questioning whether or not housing projects can happen.
But the challenge from a housing point of view isn’t going away. The amount of people coming to the country is still very high, and the pressure is on to continue to improve the housing supply. And the focus of the provincial government has been on housing supply, but the affordable housing part has been missing because the market does not build affordable housing. So we need to find ways to incentivize affordable housing. We can’t control the whole show, but when we do have a lever to pull we should be pulling it.
S: Speaking of affordable housing, what are your thoughts on the public builder model that has been approved by City Council?
L: I think the idea has to advance. I think it will be what it was in the past with some sort of partnership model where the public sector and the private sector work together to achieve affordable housing.
The City used to be in the housing construction business — that’s only one way of doing it, though. And I think we still have to develop the actual model, and how much capacity the City can bring to the table. We can bring land, but there’s still a developer role, which may still be in partnership with the private sector. So I think that’s still to be determined exactly how that’s going to play out.
S: What have been your last orders of business as Chief Planner?
L: We had a robust meeting around approving the New Deal. I wasn’t that involved with that, but I think what is important right now is that we are re-establishing a working relationship with the Province. We’ve re-engaged discussion discussions around MTSAs, the major transit station areas, which are still on the Minister’s desk, but they have to be finalized and brought forward in the new year. That has a relationship to the Housing Accelerator Fund from the federal government. And I made the comment to Council that there’s an intersection, I would say, between what the Province approves, what we have in front of them, and what the federal government would like. And I think we’re all in agreement that the densities around transit stations have to make sense, and that that will be an opportunity to enable the delivery of more housing.
So that’s work underway with the Province and the federal government, and I think that’s going to be an important part of the first part of 2024. So part of my role over the last few months has been helping to advance that conversation.
S: What sorts of attributes do you believe the next Chief Planner of Toronto should have?
L: You’ve got to be collaborative, you’ve got to be values-driven. I spoke at the City Council meeting about being empathetic and having some humility around changing your mind because conditions change. And it’s important to bring some imagination to what you’re trying to solve. Oftentimes, the solutions are hiding in plain sight. The Scarborough trails that are being carved out in the hydro corridor, The Bentway under the Gardiner, and famously, being able to build a small home in your backyard instead of just parking a car there — these are all in our imagination and the next chief planner needs to be able to take up the torch and continue with that type of approach.
S: With your retirement from Chief Planner effective at the end of the month, what’s next for you?
L: I’ll continue to play a role in the conversation. I don’t have any specific plans at the moment — maybe a bit of a rest — but I think I’ll find a way to stay involved and continue to make a contribution. And we’ll see what 2024 brings.
These questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.