By Robyn Brown and Emily Graham
Updated on June 28, 2017
Leslie Woo, Chief Planning Officer at Metrolinx, sees evidence of her work every day when she looks out her office window at the construction going on at Union Station.
As part of the Senior Management Team driving realization of The Big Move, Leslie’s portfolio spans the long range vision for mobility in the region to capital project scoping to service planning for GO Transit rail and bus. Leslie ensures that the $35 billion in public investments are guided by good planning evidence and robust policy research. Her leadership in tackling the integration of the $13.5 billion GO Regional Express Rail with local transit initiatives, along with championing the need for a more integrated transit fare system in the Toronto region and her determination to deliver planning that is built on strong business case has been recognized nationally. She was named the 2015 Outstanding Leader by Canada’s Women’s Infrastructure Network. She is also a champion for driving corporate sustainability, innovation, design excellence and leads Metrolinx’s network for women in management.
Formally trained in architecture, environmental studies and urban planning at the University of Waterloo, Leslie has held a variety of senior roles at the Ontario Growth Secretariat, Toronto Waterfront Regeneration Trust, and the Toronto 2008 Olympic Bid. Most recently, she has been focusing on stretching her knowledge base to leadership, and women’s leadership in particular.
“It’s exciting to be at a stage in my career where I am able to support, mentor and coach young women in the industry of city building. Having stretched my muscles around my professional disciplines, I now get to explore deeper into areas like leadership and mentorship.” Leslie points out that leadership is something that is often discussed but seldom exercised. “We’re so busy doing day in and day out, we don’t always take the time to pause and reflect but it’s important.”
She is also candid about what her experience as a woman in the industry has been like. “In an environment and an economy where collaboration, personal relationships and networking are key to getting anything done, being not only a woman, but a woman who looks different is an issue that I have to navigate,” she says. Leslie grew up in Trinidad (West Indies) before moving to Ontario to attend university. She emphasizes the need to always be deliberate by having clear strategies about how to get ahead. “It’s helped me recognize that it’s not just about knowing the “business,” what’s also important is knowing people. For example, the networks I create are not just PNL (profit net loss) transactional exchanges. It’s about building a relationship.”
“I also try to shine a spotlight on other female leaders, especially our unsung heroes, whenever I can,” Leslie explains. “To me, that’s how we’re going to shift the view of the style of leadership we need, and the diversity of leaders we need in this industry and in the city at large.” It is why she launched her blog shebuildscities.org to showcase women leaders around the world who are transforming cities.
Leslie admits that while she may often adopt too many causes, there is one consistent theme in all her volunteer efforts. “Everything follows the thread of wanting to make places for everyone to have better lives,” she says. “Growing up in Trinidad, I witnessed the disparity between having and not having. I went to a school where that divide existed.” Leslie is transitioning after eight years off the Board for the YMCA GTA and beginning a new term on the board of Women’s College Hospital. Both have a strong physical urban presence and provide a wide array of services they provide (employment, health and fitness, child care). “They both practice that holistic idea of community.”
Leslie was introduced to the Urban Land Institute, through her mentor, Marilee Utter. Their mentorship was created through the fellowship program of the International Women’s Forum. Marilee then introduced Leslie to the global Women’s Leadership Initiative (WLI). Leslie became fascinated by the mandate and the diversity of the network and co-founded, the Toronto chapter with Godyne Sibay. Leslie is now a Governing Trustee of ULI Global and a member of the Public Development and Infrastructure Product Council.
Reflecting on recent developments in the industry, Leslie recalls the confrontational nature back in the early 90s between policy makers and developers. “I’ve seen a shift in terms of understanding of how planning can actually help create value for the development industry. It’s proven itself in spades; Greenbelt concerns around growth have seen higher value impacts,” she explains. “We know parks and open space create value in real estate, proximity to public amenities and community infrastructure also creates added value to land.”
“I’ve also seen products come to market that couldn’t have been imagined as tenable in this region 10 or 20 years ago,” she declares. “Creativity has emerged out of necessity and more forward-thinking developers generally reap financial benefits sooner. Bringing wide-lots to residential to create more pedestrian friendly streets; LEED certification and sustainability on projects; and interest in building communities for the long-term — that is where the industry has matured positively.”
As short term development and long term city building have a push and pull nature, Leslie encourages building for community with the future in mind. “Adaptability and resiliency is critical for developers and purchasers when investing in community — not just square-footage. Though we haven’t seen any significant downward dips (in the market) for a while, we need to be prepared for the long-term,” she says.
When reflecting on her path, she admits she may have done some things slightly differently. “For example, going to graduate school 10 years after you finished your undergrad also with a four-year-old and a nine-month-old in tow? Crazy!” she says, laughing. “But that said, I don’t know if I would change anything, because I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for those steps. I have acted impulsively at times but it worked out in the end. There is something to be said for blind ambition and a curiosity to learn.”