urban-land-institute-meet-the-chiefs-2016 Photo: Patrick Moher

Public transit — and the vast network of roads, rails, bridges and tunnels that supports it — was one of the most prevalent topics at the Urban Land Institute Toronto’s second-annual Meet the Chiefs Gala last week.

“As you all know, infrastructure is the backbone of communities,” said Amarjeet Sohi, MPP for Edmonton Mill Woods and the federal Minister of Infrastructure and Communities, to attendees during the round-table dinner portion of the event.

As the sold-out gathering’s name suggested, senior city planners (as well as other urban development experts) from across the GTHA joined Sohi inside the glitzy eighth-floor Arcadian Loft at the Simpson Tower this past Thursday evening.

The event was the latest from the Toronto chapter of Urban Land Institute, a global non-profit research and education institute focused on responsible development, and followed its Startup City panel in February and last year’s fall symposium.

While Sohi spoke to the infrastructure funds the federal Liberal government has recently pledged — $120 billion over a decade — he also acknowledged the frustrations of commuters using transit networks that are lacking, underpinning the need for that very investment.

“I have seen the frustration of people when they’re stuck in traffic for hours,” Sohi said, adding, “I know how it feels to get to work late.”

The minister’s remarks set the tone for the Electric Cities panel discussion moderated by Jennifer Keesmaat, the City of Toronto’s chief city planner, held following the dinner and an earlier cocktail reception.

Alongside Keesmaat, the panel involved fellow senior planners Mary Lou Tanner, Brian Bridgeman and Rob Horne (of Burlington, Region of Durham, and Region of Waterloo, respectively).

Rounding out the panel were Mary-Frances Turner, vivaNext’s president, and Marilee Utter, executive vice president of the Denver chapter of ULI.

“We essentially missed an entire generation of transit-building in this region,” said Keesmaat in front of an audience of over 300.

“Paris didn’t stop,” Keesmaat continued. “Paris kept building, and building, and building. London didn’t stop. London kept building and building and building. But in our region, we stopped for 30 years,” she added.

At the gala, Keesmaat highlighted the importance of “righting that wrong” and making “dramatic investments in transit.”

She also noted how inaction has left Toronto in a position of needing to get up to speed and that the hardest part of making this a reality may be finding the necessary resources.

“The challenge is the magnitude of the investment required to catch up,” Keesmaat added.

When selling the idea of public transit investment in Denver, Utter emphasized how messaging about job creation bolstered the argument. She also pointed out one way demographics play a part in demand for transit.

“We absolutely have a huge influx of Millennials, which, as a population, is trying very hard to get by without a car,” she said.

The Meet the Chiefs Gala also marked the official launch of ULI Toronto’s multi-year Electric Cities initiative, which the chapter describes as having a focus “on innovative thinking about placemaking, mobility and technology to advance urbanism across the Toronto region.”

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