May 19, 2010
IF CITIES CAN'T REGULATE URBAN GROWTH, WHO CAN? A RESEARCH PROPOSAL
In both Canada and the United States, we have largely left urban growth issues to local governments, and many local governments have failed to manage them. Many will never succeed because local councils are not, in general, able effectively to resist development interests.
As a result, the growth of our cities is, in practice, primarily responsive to the interests of developers. These interests are frequently at odds with the considerations that bear on preservation of the environment, maintenance of agriculture, an efficient infrastructure network and a transportation system that serves the population as a whole.
Therefore, in a series of posts on the multi-level governance of land use I've argued that:
• In urban growth policy, unlike many other policy domains, too much local control is a recipe for bad policy.
• The reduction of local control over urban growth - in other words, centralization of power - is entirely justifiable because urban growth is every bit as much a national and global issue as it is a local one.
If local governments can't control land use, the only alternative is a meaningful degree of land use regulation at another level of government. Despite a lot of loose talk in the literature about sprawl being a global phenomenon, Europe has, in general, been more successful at land use planning than North America, and, as I argued in the first of this series of posts, a major reason is that national land use regulations lay down rules that are not as easily revoked by the political clout of developers.
Centralized land use regulation along the lines of the British Planning Policy Guidance Notes and Statements, or the German Raumordnungsgesetz (see article by Andreas Schultze Baing, listed below), are not likely to be an option in North America, but there have been serious attempts at provincial or state government intervention, and this could be a reasonable substitute for European-style national planning. In addition, both senior levels of government can and do attack land use issues in a more piecemeal manner, through such measures as environmental regulations, or conditional funding of transportation facilities.
As a result of these reflections, I am hoping to fund a three-city, international comparative case study to take a closer look at the alternatives that might be available to governments wishing, at long last, to address the issue of urban growth in a serious way. The three cities I have chosen are Portland, Oregon; the Greater Toronto Area, and Hamburg. Here's why:
Portland. The best-known, and probably most vigorously pursued, senior-government intervention in the US is that of Oregon, which is usually identified with Portland's growth boundary, but which in fact goes well beyond the establishment of an urban growth limit line, encompassing a panoply of rules governing urban growth and development. I learned a lot about how the Oregon system works when I did a case study of the politics of growth management in Portland in 1995, but since then there's been a lot of water under Portland's Burnside Bridge, so it's time for another look.
The Greater Toronto Area. In 2005, in Canada, Ontario legislated a greenbelt designed to hem in the expansion of the Greater Toronto Area, to preserve agriculture, and to conserve natural areas. In Toronto, meanwhile, a variety of measures have been undertaken to promote densification of the city; the reversal of some of the separation of residential from commercial development that has been such a troubled legacy of modernist planning; and the development of the transit system. In practice, therefore, the Greater Toronto Area is governed by a growth management regime that has much in common with Oregon's system.
Hamburg. The European case in my three-city comparison will be Hamburg, which I have chosen because it exhibits some of the complexities that have made growth management in North American metropolitan regions complicated: multiple municipalities, sprawling across three Länder: Hamburg itself, Schleswig-Holstein and Lower Saxony.
A systematic comparison of how the growth of cities is managed, considering both political and administrative dimensions of the problem, in Europe, in the Greater Toronto Area and in Portland should make it possible to gain an overview of problems and possible solutions to them.
Specifically, the objective of my research will be a cross-national comparison of different systems of land use regulation. The topic is potentially vast, so it is very important to limit the research in such a way as to keep it manageable and truly comparative. At the same time it has to be broad enough to permit a meaningful look at the question of whether growth is being managed effectively. I propose the following research questions, one of which bears on procedure, with the other two addressing results:
1. What political and administrative steps are taken, and what rules are applied, in deciding on the location and structure of new subdivisions?
2. What is the condition of infrastructure (roads, public transportation facilities and underground municipal services) throughout the urban area?
3. How well-served by public transit is the urban area?
Answers to these questions, with all the complexities they will bring to the surface, should provide a reasonable test of the effectiveness of growth management in these three regions. At the same time they will provide insights into the political, administrative, and regulatory sources of success and failure.
A brief, useful comparison of British and German land use regulatory regimes can be found in:
Andreas Schultze Baing, "Containing Urban Sprawl? Comparing Brownfield Reuse Policies in England and Germany". International Planning Studies 15 (1), 25–35.
The article in which I originally argued that centralized city planning reduces the clout of developers is:
Christopher Leo, "City Politics in an Era of Globalization." In Mickey Lauria, ed. Reconstructing Urban Regime Theory: Regulating Local Government in a Global Economy. Sage, 1997, 77-98.
The major publication recording the results of my 1995 research in Portland, Oregon, was:
LEO, C. (1998). REGIONAL GROWTH MANAGEMENT REGIME: The Case of Portland, Oregon Journal of Urban Affairs, 20 (4), 363-394 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9906.1998.tb00428.x
Here are some other articles I have published on multi-level governance:
Christopher Leo, “Deep Federalism: Respecting Community Difference in National Policy”. Canadian Journal of Political Science 39:3, 2006, 481-506.
Christopher Leo and Katie Anderson, “Being Realistic about Urban Growth.” Journal of Urban Affairs. 28:2, 2006, 169-89.
Christopher Leo and Martine August, “National Policy and Community Initiative: Mismanaging Homelessness in a Slow Growth City.” Canadian Journal of Urban Research 15 (1) (supplement) 2006, pp. 1-21.
Christopher Leo and Mike Pyl, “Multi-level Governance: Getting the Job Done and Respecting Community Difference.” Canadian Political Science Review, 1 (2) 2007, September. Accessable at http://ojs.unbc.ca/index.php/cpsr/issue/view/2/showToc.
Christopher Leo and Todd Andres, “Unbundling Sovereignty in Winnipeg: Federalism through Local Initiative.” Canadian Journal of Political Science, 41 (1) 2008, pp. 93-117.
Christopher Leo and Martine August, “The Multi-Level Governance of Immigration and Settlement: Making Deep Federalism Work.” Canadian Journal of Political Science, 42 (2), 2009, pp. 491-510.
Christopher Leo and Jeremy Enns, “Multi-level governance and ideological rigidity: The failure of deep federalism. Canadian Journal of Political Science, 42 (1), 2009.
Richard Lennon and Christopher Leo, “Metropolitan Growth and Municipal Boundaries: Problems and Proposed Solutions.” International Journal of Canadian Studies, 24 (Fall), 2001, 77-104.
Christopher Leo and Wilson Brown, “Slow Growth and Urban Development Policy.” Journal of Urban Affairs, 22 (2), 2000, 193-213.
Christopher Leo, with Mary Ann Beavis, Andrew Carver and Robyne Turner, “Is Urban Sprawl Back on the Political Agenda? Local Growth Control, Regional Growth Management and Politics.” Urban Affairs Review, 34 (2) 1998, 179-212.
Christopher Leo, "Global Change and Local Politics: Economic Decline and the Local Regime in Edmonton." Journal of Urban Affairs, 17 (3), 1995, 277-99.
Christopher Leo and Robert Fenton, "'Mediated Enforcement' and the Evolution of the State: Development Corporations in Canadian City Centres". International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 14 (2) 1990, 185-206.
April 7, 2010
DOES WINNIPEG HAVE TO KISS RAPID TRANSIT GOOD-BYE? A TWISTED TALE
The seemingly endless rapid transit debates in Winnipeg have taken a strange turn. Mayor Sam Katz, who began as a firm rapid transit opponent, relented in 2008 when he and former premier Gary Doer announced the Southwest Rapid Transit Corridor, connecting downtown to the University of Manitoba. As recently as 2009, a second leg of the rapid transit system, eastward to Transcona, was on the city's wish list of infrastructure improvements.
Many Winnipeggers have probably concluded that, after more than 30 years of dithering, a rapid transit system is finally a done deal. That conception may have been reinforced by Mayor Katz's more recent declarations that he would prefer a much more expensive rail system to the bus rapid transit line now under construction.
Before you stand and cheer,
remember that the city has only committed itself to the first half of the first rapid transit line, and take a look at the rest of Katz's statement. He wants to spend the money earmarked for construction of the second half of the first rapid transit line on roads instead.
Say what? He wants a much more expensive system, but he also intends to divert rapid transit money to roads? No problem, the Mayor says. We can have both rapid transit and roads. He offers no suggestions as to how that might be accomplished, beyond the suggestion that the federal government might be persuaded to pay for it. The federal government, however, wants Winnipeg to finish the southwest line, not spend the money on roads.
If the money is diverted to roads, we will be left with an amputated half-leg of a rapid transit line, in effect a line to nowhere. A complete rapid transit line can draw new passengers to transit and provide lucrative new opportunities for development near the transit stations. New development increases the city's revenues and can turn transit into a paying proposition. A half rapid transit line has little potential to draw either passengers or development.
Money spent on half a rapid transit line is money wasted. Dreams of future rail lines are no substitute for an actual rapid transit line now, but, for more than 30 years, our experience has been that whenever it seems within reach, it slips just beyond our grasp.
Posted by leo-c at 2:35 PM
January 30, 2010
DOES MIXED-INCOME HOUSING AMELIORIATE POVERTY?
One of the most troubling features of the way North American cities have developed in the past quarter century is social isolation, as our own desires and the dynamics of the real estate business sort us into spaces exclusive to ever-narrower slices of humanity. Separate spaces for people of different incomes, places reserved exclusively for the elderly, spaces from which children are barred, and more.
There is much to worry about in this trend, but most worrisome of all is the social isolation of the poor - the formation of neighbourhoods largely or wholly populated by people who live there only because they cannot afford to live elsewhere; ghettos, defined by poverty and often race, and marked by deteriorating public services and facilities, as well as limited opportunities for jobs, recreation and education.
Small wonder then that policy-makers have devoted thought and effort to attempts to recapture the social diversity that once was an essential feature of cities and that, even today, is a big part of what we mean by the word "urbanity". In part this has been done by dispersal programs whereby residents of low-income neighbourhoods are offered an opportunity to collect rent subsidies and use them to move to other neighbourhoods.
Another approach has been to redevelop large-scale public housing projects that have become fearsome ghettos, and turn them into mixed-income neighbourhoods. The biggest of these efforts is the massive Hope VI scheme, which provides funding for the rehabilitation of low-income housing estates throughout the United States. A similar effort is underway in Toronto's Regent Park neighbourhood, a public housing project that has gained considerable notoriety.
These programs have met with widespread opposition. Dispersal schemes have been criticized for depriving already distressed neighbourhoods of their most capable residents, on the grounds that it is they who are most likely to be motivated or able to take advantage of opportunities to move to other neighbourhoods. Opponents of public housing redevelopment programs have pointed to statistics that show a relatively small percentage of original residents returning to the redeveloped areas as proof that redevelopment is tantamount to gentrification and displacement of the poor.
Proponents of income-mixing schemes, whose pedigree goes back at least to Jane Jacobs's Death and life of great American cities, have offered a variety of reasons why mixed income neighbourhoods are better places for the poor: a middle-class presence builds social capital; middle-class people provide salutary role models; they know, and can teach others, how to take advantage of education and job opportunities; a middle class presence deters criminals, and makes it more likely that a good level of public services and facilities will be provided by the municipality.
There are plenty of arguments on both sides, and public discussion has resolved itself largely into a left-liberal ideological debate, with maximum opportunity on both sides for rhetoric and minimum enlightenment. A recent article in the Urban Affairs Review, therefore, blows over this tired controversy like a breath of fresh air. Authors Mark L. Joseph, Robert J. Chaskin and Henry S. Webber offer a careful examination of the theoretical underpinnings of the various arguments for mixed-income neighbourhoods and draw on a large literature to assess the evidence for each theory.
The outcome of their assessment is a specification of the benefits we might reasonably be able to expect to gain from mixed-income development and those that are less likely to materialize. The authors find, for example, that personal social ties between low-income and middle-income residents of mixed neighbourhoods are unlikely to develop. This largely puts paid to the notion that less well-off residents can expect to get advice regarding job or education opportunities from their better-off neighbours, and casts doubt on the idea that the affluent will provide role models for the poor (a dubious notion to begin with, given the frequency of personal problems, bad habits, and social discord throughout society).
At the same time, the evidence the authors find gives credence to the idea that a middle-class presence can provide a bulwark against social disorder and support for the provision of a high level of public services for the neighbourhood as a whole. The authors go on to point out that, if we start with a specific and realistic set of expectations for mixed-income development, we will be in a better position to make intelligent decisions about such things as the design of neighbourhoods, the mix of populations, the level and types of public services provided, and the procedures followed in implementing programs.
In three other posts, "Thinking a little harder about urban crime", "Are you tired of the sprawl game?", and "Fixing sprawl would be a lot easier if we'd focus on the problem", I provided examples of how the fixed ideological positions we love to argue about tend to defeat our intentions of improving our lives and those of others. We imagine ourselves to be standing up and fighting for what is right, but often we are in fact substituting slogans for thought, and putting up obstacles to the improvements we seek. Big ideas are well and good up to a point, but we have plenty of them. What we need more of is critical questions and smart research. Authors Joseph, Chaskin and Webber thought of a good question to ask, and have assembled answers we can use.
Want to ask some critical questions about mixed-income neighbourhoods, and do a little smart research, of your own? The points briefly summarized in this blog entry are subjected to careful analysis and thorough documentation in:
Joseph, M., Chaskin, R., & Webber, H. (2007). The Theoretical Basis for Addressing Poverty Through Mixed-Income Development Urban Affairs Review, 42 (3), 369-409 DOI: 10.1177/1078087406294043
Joseph et al also provide lots of citations of other good research, as does:
Susan J. Popkin, Bruce Katz, Mary K. Cunningham, Karen D. Brown, Jeremy Gustafson, and Margery A. Turner. 2004. "A decade of Hope VI: Research findings and policy challenges." Washington, DC: The Urban Institute. Accessed at www.urban.org.
Posted by leo-c at 3:40 PM
February 16, 2009
UN-CITYING OUR CITIES
It started as a sensible idea: workers' housing shouldn't be located next to smoke-belching heavy industry. But it has turned into an obsession with separating everything and everyone from everything and everyone else, a denial, on a massive scale, of community and of the bedrock urban reality of mutual interdependence.
Today we find ourselves with, not only separate neighbourhoods for the rich and the poor, but a fetish for spatial segregation that defies rational explanation: One area for $250,000 houses, another one for $350,000 houses, a third for $450,000 houses. Housing for old people where young people aren't welcome, family neighbourhoods where housing for the elderly isn't welcome. No housing where there is commerce, no factories (even clean ones) and no offices where there is either housing or retail trade, wide swaths of wasted land to ensure that everything is well and truly separated from everything else.
All these different forms of separation create many problems of isolation and dependency: old people who are trapped in their apartments, having to wait for rides before they can go anywhere; children who are trapped in their back yards except when their parents drive them somewhere else; parents who are forced to waste countless hours acting as chauffeurs for their children, and for workers, punishingly long commutes, often to low-wage jobs.
As usual, it is the most vulnerable who pay the heaviest price, the poor and the marginalized, who, in growing numbers, are relegated to those areas of the city that have been abandoned by everyone else. Being poor anywhere is a big problem, but it's a much bigger problem yet if you're living in a neighbourhood where there may be no good jobs, no opportunities for a good education, a neighbourhood that is likely to be terrorized by street gangs and assorted criminals. And, for good measure, the neighbourhood may be besieged by the threat of gentrification, facing residents with the prospect that they will be forced to trade their meagre refuge for absolute homelessness.
Last Saturday's Globe and Mail carried a series on one of the worst of such neighbourhoods, Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. The series is honest journalism that asks the right questions and doesn't shrink from the answers. Robert Matas calculates that Canadian taxpayers have paid out something on the order of $1.4 billion since 2000 without achieving any real improvements in the neighbourhood, and Gary Mason takes up the cudgels on behalf of Vancouverites who share an apparently growing determination to find a way of putting an end to the misery.
We can get some sense of the size of the challenge by reflecting on the depth of the problem. It began with a long-standing unwillingness of wealthy people to live near poor people, proceeded to a growing unwillingness of better-off people to share space with anyone less well off, and ended with a distaste for any kind of human diversity. If cities are anything, they are places where many different kinds of people live and work at close quarters and cannot avoid the reality of mutual interdependence.
We have tried to deny that reality, to un-city our cities, and blind karma has repaid us with places, like the Downtown Eastside, that are a devil's brew of abandonment, misfortune, drugs and crime. There have, of course, always been places in cities where marginalized people live, but the obsessiveness and relentlessness with which the fortunate separate themselves from those who need help is probably unique to our times.
There is no simple fix for such problems, though a stronger social housing policy could bring hope to many marginalized people, and, with changes in zoning rules, commercial areas could become excellent locations for the cost-effective creation of affordable housing. But in the long run, we all need to reflect on the folly of believing that we can, at one and the same time, enjoy the benefits of city life and separate ourselves from those who are different from us.
Want to give some thought to this problem? Here are suggested readings:
Jane Jacobs, Death and Life of Great American Cities. New York: Random House, 1961.
Peter Marcuse, "The Enclave, the Citadel and the Ghetto: What Has Changed in the Post-Fordist U.S. City". Urban Affairs Review 33 (2), pp. 233-43.
Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck, Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream. New York: North Point Press, 2000.
For other discussions of land use issues, check out these links:
December 13, 2008
IKEA: DOING WINNIPEG A FAVOUR OR LOOKING FOR A SWEETHEART DEAL?
The perennial "Is IKEA coming to Winnipeg?" story recently took a new twist. According to the Winnipeg Free Press, an IKEA spokesperson characterized Winnipeg as "the market that we are taking the most serious look at right now for expansion." She said IKEA has identified a location, but refused to say what it was and fed the air of mystery that has surrounded this story from the beginning by adding: "It is very premature for us to say anything at this point."
Still, it was enough to leave Winnipeg's legion of IKEA fans bubbling with enthusiasm. A typical comment on Skyscraper.com: "The fact that this city is even on the radar shows that we are not some deadwater city with no potential, as these kinds of stores don't set up in places like Sudbury."
IKEA's strip-tease approach to announcing its intentions one tantalizing detail at a time has all the earmarks of development strategists who are savvy in the ways of exploiting the collective inferiority complex of a slow-growth city. Many Winnipeggers feel bad about their home because they consider it to be, not the excellent place to live that it is, not a great place for dining out and enjoying every variety of the arts, which it is as well, but a backwater, not worthy because it is not as big as Calgary, Edmonton and Toronto.
Inferiority complexes offer excellent opportunities for head games, and nobody plays them better than developers. If IKEA does come to Winnipeg, the first step in preparing for the move will be negotiation with the city about the terms and conditions for locating here. IKEA, we may be sure, will be seeking concessions: possibly cheap land, tax concessions, a good deal on the cost of infrastructure, or maybe favourable terms regarding design and location of the store.
Every concession the city grants IKEA extracts costs us, financially or in other ways. By letting representatives of the company, and our political leaders, see how avidly we desire one of their stores, and how deeply that desire is tied to our sense of self-worth, we put pressure on politicians to make concessions. Let's hope that Winnipeg doesn't join the ranks of those who, notoriously, are born at the rate of one a minute.
29 December 2008
I returned from a business trip to Tokyo to find that IKEA is already a done deal. From news reports, it does appear that some substantial concessions may have been made in the cost of infrastructure needed for the new development. News reports are unclear regarding other possible concessions.
Posted by leo-c at 5:56 PM
November 13, 2008
WHAT HAPPENED WHEN UTICA TURNED WATER SERVICES OVER TO A REGIONAL AGENCY
Here's an excerpt from an article that ought to be required reading for anyone who is involved or interested in the proposal to turn Winnipeg's water and sewer services over to an independent regional water utility. It raises questions that require careful consideration. The complete article is available at http://strikeslip.blogspot.com/2008/11/wrong-regionalization-oneida-county.html
Thanks to Tom Christoffel for pointing this out to me.
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
Wrong Regionalization: The Oneida County Sewer District
[This article was originally published in the October 2008 "Utica Phoenix":]
Over 40 years ago Oneida County made the first "regionalization" effort in Greater Utica by forming the Oneida County Sewer District to serve 12 area municipalities. The goal was noble: build a system of sanitary sewer interceptors, pumping stations and a treatment plant to clean up water pollution in the Mohawk River, and make it affordable by spreading the cost over all system users by charges attached to water bills. The goal was accomplished, but flaws in the scheme have produced harmful results.
Dilution of representation: One flaw is that sewer district residents ceded control of the system to many disinterested parties, specifically, the county legislators from places untouched by the sewer district. This meant that decisions would not necessarily be made from the perspective of the customers receiving the service and paying the bills, but rather by many people who would not be held accountable for their actions - people who could use their controlling position to advance other agendas.
Uncoordinated decision-making: Another flaw is that decisions over sewers are made by people with no responsibility for other municipal services, making it unlikely that decision makers will be aware of how their decisions could adversely affect the supply of other services.
Diluted representation and uncoordinated-decision making have contributed to urban sprawl, the county's violation of water pollution laws, and the people of Utica subsidizing suburban growth.
Utica is geographically small, with most of its land previously developed. In an older age when people gravitated to cities for convenience, as structures aged and fell into disuse, they were replaced with something bigger and better. Utica was no different. With the automobile and improved highways, outlying areas also became convenient to reach. Since it usually is cheaper to build on undeveloped land ("green fields") than tearing down an old structure and rebuilding, both people and businesses started to migrate to the suburban areas as city structures aged, paying to extend the city's water and sewer services.
With the advent of the Part County Sewer District and its interceptor lines, far-flung localities were able to tap into the treatment plant located in Utica. These places could never have afforded on their own the level of service that they received. Since the vast bulk of the population lived in Utica, Utica residents paid for most of the cost of this system. In effect, Utica residents were financing suburban growth while encouraging the rotting of their city from within.
(Click here for the complete article from the Utica Phoenix.)
Posted by leo-c at 1:11 PM
November 8, 2008
A REGIONAL WATER UTILITY: BUSINESS-LIKE GOVERNANCE OR A WAY TO DODGE RESPONSIBILITY?
Mayor Sam Katz wants to create a regional water utility, to run Winnipeg's sewer and water systems, possibly taking over garbage disposal and recycling as well. The agency would operate independently of city council and, if it wished, market Winnipeg's water to adjacent municipalities.
The agency would set rates for the services it provides, applying to the provincial Public Utilities Board for permission to raise rates. Katz told the Winnipeg Free Press that "Handing this power over to the board would take politics out of the process." Good idea, eh? No more interference in these services from low-life politicians: just good, honest, business-like governance.
Wait a minute: It was a politician that proposed this. Why would a political leader want to hand over a substantial chunk of his responsibility to someone else? The answer can be found in the city's most recent six-year capital budget, which sets out the money that the city must invest in maintenance and improvement of its services.
The biggest liability on the list is $826 million for sewage disposal projects, a consequence of the provincial government's order to the city to clean up the water it dumps into the river system. Not far behind is $164 million for the water system. Imagine how much easier the mayor's life would be if future sewer and water rate increases, as well as sewage and water supply problems, could be blamed on the Public Utilities Board and the regional water agency.
Anyway, everyone seems to love the idea. The Winnipeg Free Press referred to it as "branching out". In a radio interview, a couple of political leaders in municipalities adjacent to Winnipeg voiced their strong support, and expressed their impatience with nonsensical arguments about sprawl.
Sprawl? Does this have something to do with sprawl? In trying to answer that question, it helps to bear in mind that industrial and commercial development requires the kind of generous and reliable water supply that only a municipal water system can deliver. Already all the municipalities surrounding Winnipeg are able to build their revenues by offering opportunities for residential development at substantially lower tax rates than the ones Winnipeg can offer.
Wouldn't it be nice if those municipalities could compete on similarly favourable terms for the Winnipeg region's industrial and commercial development? Indeed it would, for them. And for Winnipeg?
As it happens, I can draw you a picture of what the regional marketing of Winnipeg's water might hold in store for the city, because there is at least one precedent. After World War II, decision-makers in the thriving city of Detroit thought they had hit on a wonderful opportunity for revenue generation: Market their excellent municipal water supply regionally. In the years that followed, Detroit lost its mainstay, automobile manufacturing, in part to municipalities in the region. Residential and commercial development joined the exodus.
Today a visitor to Detroit can, if she ignores warnings from tourism advisors - as I did a few years ago - walk for hours through the empty streets, past the abandoned buildings of what remains of one of America's most dynamic cities. It's actually quite safe. The streets are so empty that, if you do meet someone, they'll probably stop and talk to you, and they may tell you stories about the grand hotels, and the tycoons, the jazz musicians and factory workers who used to jostle each other in the crowded streets of Detroit.
Of course, Winnipeg is not Detroit. No two city histories are identical. But what we can learn from Detroit is how rapidly and completely a city can be devastated by growth beyond its boundaries, even a major city like Detroit, never mind a medium-sized or smaller city like Winnipeg, Camden, N.J., East St. Louis, Illinois, and numerous others whose downtowns have been similarly ravaged. Given that potential, it makes no sense for Winnipeg voluntarily to give up one of the few development tools it controls, and turn it over to an agency that will have every incentive to meet its costs by promoting growth wherever possible, and no real incentive at all consider the city's ability to maintain its own viability.
It has been suggested that the sale of Winnipeg's water might be in the city's interest if adjacent municipalities were required to pay a substantial premium for the same service Winnipeg gets at a lower price, or that it might be all right if water were supplied on the stipulation that the adjacent municipalities could not use if for commercial or industrial development. The thing to remember is that, once water supply is turned over to an independent agency, such decisions will be out of the hands of either the citizens of Winnipeg or city council.
The independent water utility would be free to sell water to any municipality that wanted to buy it, and would have every incentive to do so at every opportunity. The setting of the price for the water service would be in the hands of the Public Utilities Board, also entirely beyond the control of Winnipeg's citizens or city council. The PUB would be unlikely to agree to differential rates for the same service.
You can find a detailed account of the evolution of water policies in metropolitan Detroit in:
George M. Walker, Jr., and Norman Wengert, Urban water policies and decision-making in the Detroit metropolitan region. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1970.
July 28, 2008
STOP TRASHING SUBURBS, FOCUS ON SPRAWL
Suburban sprawl threatens the viability of our cities, the health of our environment and even the viability of commercial agriculture. There are a lot of commentators making that case, but many of them do it from the viewpoint of an urbanite, attacking the fundamentally anti-urban culture of the suburbs. This is a self-defeating approach to the problem.
It’s easy to make fun of suburban development. Here’s James Kunstler, a past master of the art: “We drive up and down the gruesome… suburban boulevards of commerce, and we’re overwhelmed at the… awesome, stupefying ugliness of absolutely everything in sight…”
And an excerpt from his blog: “…one of the reasons that Americans are so anxious to get away on a holiday weekend… is because we did such a perfect job the past fifty years turning our home-places into utterly unrewarding, graceless nowheres, where the private realm of the beige houses is saturated in monotony.”
Kunstler, and other rhetoric similar to his in numerous books, articles and film documentaries, get a lot of readers and viewers, because roughly 20 to 30 per cent of North Americans agree with him, and a few others love to hate him. However, though I agree with both quotations, they represent a really unhelpful way to combat the environmental, physical and social damage caused by sprawl, because of the other 70-80 per cent. If we’re serious about dealing with sprawl, we shouldn’t seek to abolish conventional suburbs, for three reasons:
We can’t. True, suburban commercial strips are surpassingly ugly. Stand at the corner of Dakota and St. Mary’s Road in Winnipeg, or any of many other, similar intersections, and do a 360-degree turn. Unless you happen to catch a glimpse of a tree, you won’t see a single thing that isn’t ugly.
But the suburbs aren’t just the ugliness of commercial strips and the monotony of residential districts, they are also places where people can have homes on quiet streets, surrounded by greenery once the trees have matured, and where, rightly or wrongly, they feel safe. They can’t walk anywhere, but they have a two-car garage, and they can travel where they want in privacy, to the accompaniment of their favourite music.
This is the life a majority of the buyers of residential real estate seek, and that is unlikely to change, even if the rising price of oil forces them to trade their gas guzzlers in for electric cars, and forces a reduction in the number of trips they take. And suppose circumstances do force them to abandon suburbs: Hostile rhetoric will have had little or nothing to do with it.
We shouldn’t. Spitting in the majority’s eye is a good way to sell books, but it’s political suicide. You won't get better legislation by ridiculing people whose support you need. Try persuasion, try to modify behaviour, try to calm fears of change.
Above all, consider that diversity is a bedrock reality of 21st Century life. The physical and social mobility of the world we live in demands a politics of accommodation and compromise. Rhetorical bludgeoning is not so much wrong as it is wrong-headed. It won’t work.
We don’t have to. We need cities to be more densely settled, and we need more mixing of residential, commercial and light industrial developments, in order to reduce our dependence on automobiles; stop stranding disabled people, the young, the old, and people who can’t afford cars; bolster the viability of rapid transit, and tread more lightly on the earth. But that doesn’t mean we can’t have single-family homes, and it doesn’t even mean we can’t have exclusively residential districts – though it wouldn’t hurt to try to persuade people that a restaurant within walking distance won’t necessarily destroy the value of their houses!
So what should we do? Going into the details would take me far beyond the scope of a blog entry, but for starters, here are some modest suggestions:
Put a stop to leapfrogging. It’s expensive to extend roads and municipal services past empty fields to more subdivisions beyond. Fill the empty fields first.
Locate higher-density developments where they will support the transit system. For example, don’t put isolated apartment buildings in the middle of single-family residential neighbourhoods. Locate them along transit routes.
Deal with the free-rider problem. People want roads and municipal services extended to wherever they happen to want to live, but they don’t want to pay the real cost. Anyone ought to be able to see that that’s not right.
Don’t make it so hard for developers to locate houses near stores and workplaces. There’s a good market for such neighbourhoods, and a major obstacle to its exploitation is rigid bureaucratic regulations.
Posted by leo-c at 9:18 PM
May 27, 2008
CITY HALL TAKE NOTE: PUBLIC-PRIVATE PARTNERSHIPS WON'T FIX THIS PROBLEM
Everyone agrees that Winnipeg's spending on infrastructure maintenance is seriously short of what is required to maintain the streets, sewers and water lines in good condition. Anyone can confirm this by taking a drive or a walk around some of the older neighbourhoods and observing the potholes and cracks in the streets. Winnipeggers who keep an eye on the news will observe more fundamental ills, including sinkholes that open up suddenly, sometimes swallowing automobiles or construction machinery, because of the deteriorated state of underground sewer lines.
The causes of this problem are obvious, if you think through what's happening, and they can be fixed. This is a tad complex, so bear with me.
Within recent years the infrastructure deficit - the amount needed, but not being spent, on maintenance - has been estimated at $1 - $2 billion, and that was before recent, very substantial increases in construction costs. You can get a more concrete sense of how serious the under-spending is by looking at some sample figures from the most recent, detailed study of the matter.
That study was published in 1998, but changes since then have not been for the better, even though both federal and provincial governments have put new money into Winnipeg's infrastructure. The reasons for this are complex, but the most fundamental one is that Winnipeg can't break the habit of spreading itself too thinly, spending so much money on new horizontal infrastructure - roads and the underground municipal services that go with them - as to undermine its own viability.
Not only infrastructure, but other city services - from transit, policing and fire-fighting to mosquito and weed control - cost more if equipment and people have to be moved over longer distances. The city sprawls out across bald prairie, but is settled so thinly that there are not enough property tax payers to cover the costs of its services. This happens because the city builds roads generously, and exercises no real control over the location of new development. By default, the choice of location falls to developers.
In choosing locations for new development, one of the most important considerations for developers is access to the rest of the city. As the city expands the road system, the areas available for development multiply. A developer's primary obligation is to his or her shareholders so, quite properly, development proposals focus on the potentially most profitable locations. Those locations are not the same as the ones that the city would choose if it were ensuring the most cost-effective expansion of its network of infrastructure and services.
The developers are doing their job of focusing on profit, but the city is not serious about doing its job of regulating location. In practice, the city is highly reluctant to say no to any serious development proposal. The result is that perfectly developable parcels get by-passed because they don't represent a priority for developers. Therefore, the city straggles across the countryside, all the while straining to cover the costs of infrastructure and services.
Transcona West (click on the picture) is only the most conspicuous parcel in a large inventory of land located well within the city that is suitable for conventional suburban development, meaning developments in the same style as the fringe neighbourhoods of Whyte Ridge and Island Lakes. In 2004, according to the city's Residential Land Supply Study, land usable for conventional suburban development amounted to 20,300 lots, while the most optimistic population growth projections yielded an estimated maximum demand of 19,618 for lots by the year 2011.
At that point, the Manitoba Homebuilders' Association stirred up a panic about a so-called "critical lot shortage". At the same time, the Manitoba government was anxious to secure revenue from the development of a large tract it owned at the southern edge of the city, in the area known as Waverley West. (Other parts of Waverley West are owned by a developer, Ladco, and the University of Manitoba.) As a result the city was browbeaten into changing Plan Winnipeg in order to open up the 2,900 acres of Waverley West, making enough agricultural land available for more than 13,000 additional single-family suburban homes.
As the city scrambled to do the planning work necessary for this fringe development, Transcona West, and other substantial parcels of land available within the city, languished undeveloped. Meanwhile, the development of Waverley West will require the extension of Kenaston Boulevard to the Perimeter Highway. (See diagram below.) That extension, the other infrastructure required for this development, and the full panoply of city services to follow, will add further to the city's costs, spreading it more thinly yet, making it still more difficult to cover its costs.
What's more, the extension of Kenaston provides improved access to land outside the city, in areas where property taxes are substantially lower than taxes in Winnipeg, for the very good reason that largely rural, gradually urbanizing municipalities can get by with a much lower level of services than those a city has to supply. In other words, by extending Kenaston to the Perimeter, the city is creating improved access to areas outside the city, thereby enabling the development of new suburban neighbourhoods in adjacent municipalities. The residents of those neighbourhoods will make frequent use of Winnipeg's over-stretched services, but not have to pay Winnipeg property taxes.
To get a taste of where that can lead, take a look at McGillivray Boulevard (click on picture above), most of which crosses an area of farmland in the south-west corner of the city, an area served mainly by gravel roads. For reasons best understood by city planners and decision-makers, McGillivray became a paved highway to the perimeter. That stretch of pavement has drawn little development within the city. But just outside the city is Oak Bluff, a conventional suburban development surrounded by farmland.
It's a safe bet that most of the residents of Oak Bluff travel regularly up and down that nice stretch of highway, thoughtfully provided by Winnipeg taxpayers to make it easier for them to enjoy Winnipeg services while evading Winnipeg taxes. Similar situations prevail on all sides of the city, and in all directions access is being improved to municipalities with highly competitive cost structures, hungering to compete with Winnipeg for new development. Each time they succeed in attracting a development that might otherwise have been located in the city, Winnipeg becomes a little bit poorer.
In short, the city's expenses are already out of control, and our decision-makers are bending every effort to drive them still farther out of control. How will we bring the cost of infrastructure development under control? Ask the decision-makers in City Hall, and they will tell you that the solution is public-private partnerships.
Instead of borrowing money to build bridges and other infrastructure, we are told, the city will sign contracts with a private companies, in which a company agrees to construct a facility and lease it to the city. Somehow, by paying a company to borrow money and build a bridge, the city, it is implied, will save enough money to resolve the infrastructure crisis.
Suppose, for the sake of argument, that a company is actually able to deliver infrastructure at a lower cost to the city than the city itself would achieve. (Studies suggest that it is a controversial proposition. See citations below.) It should be obvious that such savings cannot possibly make up for the ills of a city stretched too thinly to cover the costs of its own services. There is, in fact, no way this problem can be resolved in the short run.
In the short run, we will have to choose between higher taxes to cover the costs of services, or continuing deterioration of our services. In the long run, the city, and the provincial government, will have to screw their courage to the sticking-point and exercise their legal control over land use, at the risk of saying no to developers from time to time.
The alternative is further decline in our older infrastructure, and in municipal services. We have already gone a good way down this road. A rapid transit system - conceived on the lowest possible budget to begin with - has been cancelled. Recreation facilities in low-income neighbourhoods, widely acknowledged to be key in the battle against gangs, are being shut down and razed. Mayor Sam Katz's so-called Economic Opportunities Commission, reduced to grasping at straws, has suggested the city consider privatizing golf courses and swimming pools, and turning the delivery of municipal services over to business organizations and homeowner associations.
Ultimately, the question is this: Will the city take control of land use, or will it go the way of Camden, New Jersey (below), and many other American cities that have been unable to find the courage to take their fate in their hands.
Photos by Camilo José Vergara. To see more of Camden, and other cities, go to a beautifully constructed web site entitled Invincible Cities
For more detailed discussions of the causes of urban decay, and means of addressing it in Winnipeg's context, take a look at;
Christopher Leo and Lisa Shaw, with Ken Gibbons and Colin Goff, “What causes Inner-city decay and what can be done about it?” In Katherine Graham and Caroline Andrew, eds., Urban affairs: Is it back on the policy agenda? Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 2002, 119-47.
Richard Lennon and Christopher Leo, “Metropolitan growth and municipal boundaries: Problems and proposed solutions”. International Journal of Canadian Studies, 24 (Fall), 2001, 77-104.
For briefer discussions addressing various elements of the problems of a straggling city, see:
On public-private partnerships, see Jean-Etienne de Bettignies and Thomas W. Ross, "The economics of public-private partnerships". (Canadian Public Policy / Analyse de Politiques, 30 , pp. 135-154). Also, watch for a forthcoming book by John and Salim Loxley, entitled The economics and financing of P3s: Theory and Canadian policy and practice.
The detailed assessment of Winnipeg's infrastructure deficit, referred to above, is in City of Winnipeg, Strategic infrastructure reinvestment policy: Report and recommendations. City of Winnipeg, 1998.
January 13, 2008
KISSING FROGS: BUILDING COALITIONS FOR CHANGE IN CANADIAN CITIES
Coalition-building is the essence of politics. If you want to get things done in the political arena, you have to deal with people who have different views from your own on some issues, or maybe many issues, find objectives you can agree on, and work out a way of combining forces to achieve those ends.
This forces everyone concerned to make compromises they are less than happy with, and occasionally to keep company they would rather avoid, but the alternative is to allow others to set the political agenda. In democratic politics, there is no such thing as perfection: There are no princes, but if we wish to have a say in the making of public decisions, we still have to kiss a lot of frogs.
All these observations are true of politics generally, but at the moment, perhaps particularly germane to Canadian city politics, where, for a century or more, one coalition in particular has repeatedly dominated local decision-making and other potential political influences have frequently been sidelined, at least in part because they have found it difficult to make common cause with anyone except those whose views coincided very closely with their own.
The generally dominant group in Canadian cities is a business coalition, usually led by the largest locally-based businesses, together with a broad cross-section of large and small players in various branches of the land development business, including development companies themselves, as well as people involved in real estate, construction, and real estate law. We would have to delve deeply into the history of Canadian urban politics and municipal government, not to mention political economy, to get to the bottom of all the reasons for this group's recurring dominance, but one very obvious reason is that business people are good at cutting deals and not worrying too much about differences of opinion regarding matters peripheral to whatever is being negotiated. Any business person who can't manage that much is unlikely to stay in business.
The willingness to undertake the kind of compromise and deal-making that is essential to coalition-building is less in evidence among those who are most likely to find fault with the business agenda. Among potential opponents of a typical business agenda, two groups show up again and again: liberals, who take a particular interest in land use, transportation and environmental issues, generally from a moderate perspective; and leftists, whose main focus is on such issues as poverty, affordable housing, racial discrimination, radical environmentalism and community development in low-income areas of the city.
While business people like to be thought of as keen and entrepreneurial, political people like to think of themselves as principled, and sometimes their principles override their common sense. In fact, the left-liberal divide barely scratches the surface of the divisions among those who are broadly of like mind regarding the direction of city politics. In Winnipeg, there are at least two leadership groups, two groups of advocates for cycling, a transit group, a social housing coalition, a number of groups concerned with a variety of urban development issues, and more. A community coalition has been formed to try to build a common front, but, at this writing, the groups, including the coalition, continue to operate largely in isolation from one another.
Some of this division is simply a matter of inertia. People stay with old habits and old associations because forming new associations takes a lot of time and energy. Some of it has to do with the well-established and long-standing left-liberal divide. There is a strong tendency among liberals to view leftists as ideologues, volatile, divisive and out of touch with political reality. Leftists, for their part, may see liberals as elitists, more concerned with aesthetic issues than poverty and hunger. To both sides, trying to forge a common front often looks too much like kissing frogs.
In fact, it is the rare person on either side of this ideological divide that even remotely resembles either stereotype. More to the point, there is no apparent reason why it should be harder for leftists and liberals to negotiate compromises than it is for business people. The differences between, say, a poverty agenda and an environmental agenda, or an agenda favouring public transportation and one calling for social housing, are not likely to be more difficult to overcome than those between condominium developers and developers of suburban housing, or industrialists and retail trades people.
Sometimes it may not seem so, but liberals and leftists can overcome their differences to make common cause on points of agreement. Although business interests are usually dominant in Canadian city politics, there have been conspicuous periods during which leftists and liberals exercised serious influence, but in all cases, the agenda in question was neither exclusively left, nor exclusively liberal.
Examples are the period from the late 1960s to the early 1980s in Vancouver when TEAM (The Electors' Action Movement) was dominant in Vancouver politics; a number of years in the 1970s, when David Crombie, Toronto's "tiny, perfect mayor" very successfully walked a tightrope between right and left factions on city council; and, in Montreal, the era, in the 1980s and 1990s, of the Montreal Citizens' Movement. In all three cases, influences countering the business agenda involved some combination of left and liberal policies and in all cases, the eras in question left legacies, consisting of both concrete accomplishments - such things as affordable housing, heritage preservation, and more rigourous and thoughtful development practices - that have continued to exercise influence in the years since then.
I began researching and reading about Canadian municipal politics and political history more than 30 years ago, and in all those years I have not encountered a case that contradicts what I like to call the iron law of Canadian municipal politics: Either the business community dominates the political agenda absolutely or there is a coalition of forces that push in a different direction. I know of no other possibilities that have demonstrated their viability. If those who find a business agenda problematic wish to have a serious influence on municipal politics, they must learn to work with people who disagree with them on some issues. Good governance of our cities depends on it.
To be sure, there is nothing wrong with the business community having a strong influence in city politics. We all rely on the jobs and the goods created by successful entrepreneurs, but we also need many other things, and an agenda dominated by a single set of interests is by definition self-regarding and in practice ultimately self-defeating. It is heartening, therefore, to note that, in a number of Canadian cities, oppositional political activity is beginning to become visible. The Centre d'écologie urbaine de Montréal and its proposed Montreal Charter of Rights and Responsibilities; People for a Better Ottawa; a revitalized Coalition of Progressive Electors in Vancouver, as well as the municipal coalition still in its infancy in Winnipeg: All of these are straws in a wind that may be blowing some new ideas into the governance of Canadian cities.
Canadian cities face many challenges that are not being adequately addressed: the deterioration of the environment; the isolation of the poor in marginalized, low-income neighbourhoods; the high cost of housing; the deterioration of municipal infrastructure; the need to develop a 21st Century urban transportation system, and much more. They will only be addressed if a diversity of influences is felt in political decision-making. Moreover, community coalitions in different cities may well be able to increase their effectiveness if they combine forces and learn from each other.
I like to end my blog entries by citing academic and other sources for my research, but when it comes to the broad sweep of Canadian urban history, there is really nothing to cite. Various individuals, including John C. Bacher, Warren Magnusson, Jon Caulfield, John Weaver and I, have contributed to the documentation of bits and pieces of this history, but a magisterial history of Canadian cities has yet to be attempted. The closest we can come is two well-written and informative texts on Canadian local government:
Mary Louise McAllister, Governing ourselves? The politics of Canadian communities. Vancouver, UBC Press, 2004.
Richard and Susan Nobes Tindal. Local government in Canada (Sixth edition). Toronto: Thomson Nelson, 2004.
December 30, 2007
TALKING TO EACH OTHER INSTEAD OF SHOUTING: A DIALOGUE ABOUT SPRAWL AND URBAN DEVELOPMENT
Peter Holle, president of the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, a conservative think tank, responded to my comments in another blog entry with some remarks of his own about sprawl, and other issues of urban governance and development. In this entry, I reproduce most of his comments, in boldface, and follow them with my responses in italics.
I submit this entry as a beginning of what I hope can be a more extensive dialogue. Those of us who disagree on important questions of city politics have too often been self-indulgent in preaching to the converted, and ignoring our opponents. Genuine dialogue is much more likely to produce good policy than rigid adherence to set points of view.
PH: Sprawl is natural outgrowth of dispersing economy (communications and car technology, rising wealth levels). Policy makers largely waste time and resources trying to stop this.
CH: Whether that statement is true depends on what you mean by "sprawl". If you mean any extension of a city or metropolitan area that includes single-family residences, you're right. It's true globally that cities are growing and that many affluent home-buyers are looking for spacious homes and grounds as far from the city centre as possible.
However, there is room for a considerable proportion of low-density, single-family development, even with land use regulations aimed at limiting sprawl. Sprawl becomes toxic when low-density development gets preferential treatment so that it is, in effect, subsidized, and when low densities are combined with rules that require strict separation of land uses - keeping residential, commercial and industrial tracts of land strictly separated from each other.
That kind of development has the effect of limiting choice, by putting developers in the position of having to make financial sacrifices and fight bureaucratic battles if they wish to provide an alternative to conventional low-density, land-use-separated development. It puts home buyers in residential districts that are strictly separated from work and shopping in the position of being completely dependent on their automobiles for transportation. And it makes it impossible to provide convenient bus service except with unsustainable levels of subsidy. Finally it often strands the elderly, youth, poor people and disabled people, or makes them dependent on others for their transportation.
Land development is very strictly regulated, down to very small details. The suggestion that it represents the untrammeled operation of market forces is simply wrong. In fact, a true free market in land is an impossibility, because free markets presuppose, among other things, unlimited supply and the supply of land is by nature limited. Land use is always regulated and we have sprawl because our regulations require or encourage it.
PH: Insofar as we have sprawl it is artificial, an outgrowth of old style government policy. Our recommendations for curbing artificial sprawl include the measures set out in boldface below:
Tax land not improvements. The existing property tax system penalizes density.
CH: Your point, I take it, is that, since we tax buildings, and the improvement of them, development of land incurs a tax liability, while land that remains undeveloped and sparsely developed is very lightly taxed. That greatly weakens the incentive to develop the land and thereby works against density. It has long been advocated that either only land be taxed (the single tax), or that the tax on land be raised, while that on improvements is reduced (the split tax). If it becomes expensive to leave land lying idle, its owners will be more interested in developing it, so that it produces revenue.
These proposals are well worth considering. The split tax has been tested in a number of Pennsylvania cities, and there is a good case to be made in favour of it. As well, it could be argued that the main problem is that the split tax does not go far enough - that a single tax would have produced a better result. In practical political terms, some powerful oxen would be gored by either change. Perhaps we should be forging a left-right coalition to advocate for a reform of the property tax.
PH: Fund services with user fees not property taxes to catch free riders.
CH: Free riders are people who cause problems, but do not pay for them, and therefore have no incentive not to cause the problems. The classic free rider case is air pollution. Each automobile driver and each factory contribute to air pollution, but they do not pay to clean up the dirty air they have produced. As a result, virtuous citizens and companies that seek to reduce air pollution pay for their virtue, while those that continue to spew pollutants do not pay for their wrong-doing. The virtuous ones pay for cleaner air but continue to breathe dirty air.
Even the most starry-eyed market utopians - those who believe that virtually all political and social problems are best solved by the application of free market principles - agree that the free rider problem requires some kind of intervention from government. An obvious solution is to find a way of charging the polluters for their pollution, so that they are forced to pay for their sins.
That line of reasoning makes perfect sense for air pollution. It is more difficult to see how it applies to public parks, zoos and public libraries. Typically, these have been paid for initially and maintained with funds collected from taxpayers, and available for all to enjoy. Restricting access to them with user fees makes them available only to those who can afford to pay. Everyone pays taxes. To bar some of them from the use of public services that they have helped pay for seems unfair.
As for the free rider problem, it is difficult to see what harm is caused to public parks, community centres and public libraries by opening them to the public at large, without restriction. By the same token, there is a potential public benefit in providing opportunities for recreation and literacy to people who cannot afford to pay. And sprawl? Will the proceeds of user fees be used to finance anti-sprawl measures? My advice to readers is not to bet the farm on that proposition.
PH: Increase efficiency of city services using modern delivery models.
CH: I'm in favour of that as long as it's not a fancy way of saying "cheap labour". Following on the publication of Osborne and Gaebler's Reinventing Government, many improvements have been made in the delivery of city services by using newer administrative techniques, including some that involve methods imported from private enterprise. The result has been both increased efficiency and lower cost.
Unfortunately, some of the lower costs have been achieved by forcing wages down, typically by exposing unionized city workers to competition from private contractors who pay lower wages. As a result, workers who had enough money to be able to buy the many things their children needed in order to get a good start in life are now less able, or entirely unable, to do that.
Low wages - not only in the delivery of municipal services, but generally - are a good way of reducing the life chances of the next generation, by putting today's parents in the position of not being able to afford to give their kids the care and education they need. This is a very short-sighted policy, which, in the long run, incurs both economic and social costs.
PH: Remove rent controls and target assistance to low income earners in order to make housing affordable for them.
CH: I agree that the case for rent controls is weak, because it involves a transfer of wealth from landlords to tenants, which is not at all the same as a transfer of wealth from the wealthy to the poor. In addition, it may reduce the incentive to maintain rental dwellings. But we shouldn't kid ourselves that removal of rent controls will free us of the need to make some public provision for affordable housing, and social housing. Affordable housing is not what developers make money on.
As for targeting housing money to low income earners, that's one of several ways of dealing with the fact that, in most cities, even some people who work hard may not be able to afford shelter. We can't do justice here to this complex issue. Let's take it up another time.
PH: Encourage development in the centre city, with the objective of supporting it more as an interesting living place and less as a shopping and working place.
CH: I don't think that downtown needs to be less a working and shopping place than it is now, but I do agree that we need to place heavy emphasis on housing, including affordable housing, in the development of the commercial heart of the city. That, in turn, will open more possibilities for retail trade - in other words, shopping. For the city as a whole, perhaps the most important single planning objective should be to take sensible measures to reduce as much as possible the existence of areas that are exclusively devoted to any one use.
The most recent Winnipeg zoning code revisions - like those in many other North American cities - take some modest but useful steps in this direction. Like affordable housing, this is another critically important but complex issue that we should resolve to discuss in more detail another time.
PH: Zoning restrictions on supply and disproportionate investments in light rail/mass transit are yesterday's answers. They simply push people to live outside the zoned area, penalize home owners by artifically raising house prices, and otherwise waste scarce resources that should be used for other transport infrastructure.
CH: Zoning restrictions and investments in public transit are two different issues. I agree that conventional zoning is too restrictive. As I argue above, conventional zoning in effect mandates sprawl. We need to make it much easier for developers to do infill development and to offer suburban choices that are different from the familiar pattern of large residential areas, strictly separated from shopping and workplaces.
As for public transit, Winnipeg has a system that continues to be generally efficient, despite the fact that it has been poorly supported. We need to support transit and improve it, in order to reduce dependence on private automobiles and to enhance the freedom of the young, the elderly, the poor and the disabled, as well as their ability to control their lives and provide for their livelihoods. As I argue elsewhere, this is not as hard to do as many would have you believe.
Want to find out more?
Alanna Hartzok defends the split tax in "Pennsylvania's Success with Local Property Tax Reform: The Split Rate Tax", American Journal of Economics and Sociology, Vol. 56, No. 2, 205-213 (Apr., 1997). Unfortunately, this issue is seriously under-researched.
On new service delivery models, see David Osborne and Ted Gaebler, Reinventing Government: How the Entrepreneurial Spirit is Transforming the Public Sector, New York: Penguin, 1993. This is a readable classic that, for better or worse, foreshadowed a great deal of what has gone on in municipal government since it was published.
Posted by leo-c at 5:10 PM
December 3, 2007
A NEO-CONSERVATIVE REVOLUTION FROM BELOW? WATCH OUT, CANADA
Winnipeg's Sam Katz, who has been mayor since shortly after Glen Murray resigned in 2004, is worth watching. It's not clear whether he is a fire-breathing neo-conservative or - as the Winnipeg Free Press's astute city hall observer, Bartley Kives insists - a moderate, but lately there have been some straws in the wind, and they may herald a new direction in Canadian urban politics, one that could be emulated in other cities.
Mayor Katz (rhymes with "dates") has set the objective of eliminating the business tax, leaving a $55 million budget hole that must be filled in ways not clearly specified. He is a shrewd, sophisticated political operator, who, so far, has commanded city council votes with apparent ease, and side-steps embarrassing questions with the finesse of a magician making a coin disappear. He is also a skilled practitioner of budget magic, as we will see.
So what does that have to do with a social revolution? Stay tuned.
In order to consider the question of how the $55 million budget hole will be filled, the mayor appointed the so-called Economic Opportunity Commission (EOC). The EOC claimed to have consulted widely before returning its recommendations last June, but most of those who made presentations were city councillors or city officials. Subsequently, the EOC report was made part of the budget process, without further public scrutiny.
The mayor and his supporters will bend every effort to avoid public debate about the policy directions involved in achieving the savings needed to abolish the business tax. Indeed, it would be naïve to suppose that a city council embarking on a plan to improve the fortunes of one group of citizens to the tune of $55 million a year will be particularly forthcoming with those who will carry the burden.
It is up to voters, therefore, to look out for themselves, to follow those coins, as they move from one budget category to another, and to try to understand the implications for Winnipeg's future. In doing so, it is important to take a critical look at some of the possible sources of savings. For starters, city council has approved a transit fare increase, from $2.00 to $2.25, which is expected to yield an additional $2.2 million annually in revenue. Some of that money, according to the mayor, will go to increased costs, but an undetermined amount will be put into a reserve fund for a future rapid transit system.
So, an undetermined portion of $2.2 million will go into a fund to pay for a transit system the cost of which Mayor Katz estimates at $300 million to $1 billion. Since the mayor has already demonstrated his unwillingness to consider funding rapid transit in the conventional way, one transit line at a time, it seems less than certain that there will ever be a rapid transit system. If so, what will happen to the reserve fund? Will the money slip quietly into general revenues, or go to lessening the cost of another reserve fund, and in the end help indirectly to pay for the tax cut, or future tax cuts? The question is worth asking.
Similar manipulations have been a regular feature of Winnipeg's budget process in the past, and Mayor Katz bids fair to be even better at it than his predecessors. For example, when federal gas tax funds were made available to municipalities, Winnipeg was required to put a minimum of 10% of the money into transit. Katz has recently gained favourable publicity by investing in bus shelters, hybrid buses, and diamond lanes.
However, when the draft capital budget was announced in late November, ongoing revenue from the transit-targeted gas tax funds were quietly shifted into the "Transit Building Replacement Reserve". In plain English, the transit improvement money was shifted into public works. And what has happened to the money previously allocated to transit buildings? Voters and skeptical councillors would be well advised to follow those coins.
City council has also passed an 11.6 per cent increase in water and sewer rates. The money is supposedly needed to help pay for a $300 million water treatment plant, but, at the same time, the transfer from water and sewer rate revenues into the general fund is to be increased by $11.1 million, bringing the total being diverted annually to $32.5 million. The money, it should be noted, is being diverted from sewerage improvements at a time when the city is under a legal obligation to invest heavily in a seriously deficient sewer system.
To be sure, under pressure from opposition Councillor Dan Vandal, Katz revived a broken election promise to end the practice of diverting water and sewer revenues into the general fund, but not this year. In any event, we are hardly likely to have seen the last of this kind of budget sleight of hand.
Other possible sources of savings are set out in the EOC report. Five million dollars was to come from selling off pools and fitness centres, turning them over to voluntary associations or contracting out the services. With regard to sell-offs or conveyance to voluntary associations, we need to ask ourselves whether we want these services to be viewed as businesses that have to turn a profit, or to keep them as a public service available to everyone, including those who can’t afford a fitness club membership.
Another $2 million in savings was to come from the library system. Here two recommendations are notable. One is to make more use of volunteers. This might work with a few marginal items like reading programs, but do we want volunteers to do any of the more technical jobs involved in library maintenance? The other notable recommendation is to partner with schools where library branches and schools are located close together. How would that work? Would school children have to go to the local library branch for their school library needs, or would library patrons have to go into schools?
Neither option seems feasible. A more likely outcome would be the closing down of library branches, with the justification that students using it would be able to use their school library instead. In fairness, Mayor Katz has provided a verbal assurance that savings from pools, fitness centres and libraries are “off the table”. But, in view of the fact that a total of $7 million in savings were anticipated, it is worth remembering that something taken off a table can be replaced.
Another recommendation of the EOC report reads: “Sell off or tender out the management of the city’s golf courses.” The report also recommends that the city consider off-loading the costs of various city services in commercial districts on the members of Business Improvement Zones. Included in the list of services the EOC feels BIZs might be asked to pay for are street and bus shelter cleaning and enforcement of panhandling and vagrancy by-laws. Golfers and small business people take note: the business tax reduction is a potential source of worry for a lot of people besides the usual suspects from the social activist community.
The EOC report further recommends that the city undertake a “pilot project” in off-loading the costs of some city services to neighbourhood associations. It claims that around the world such associations “raise billions of dollars every year in order to support local projects such as pools, play structures, park maintenance, street cleaning and a number of other services.”
If readers of the report are having difficulty imagining the residents of a suburban subdivision voluntarily agreeing to fund some of their own services in order to unburden the city, they may wish to reflect on the situation of homeowner or community associations, popularly known as gated communities, which supply some of their own services. This is common practice in many American jurisdictions. When the idea of community associations was first proposed, municipal officials were delighted at the potential savings.
The other side of the coin, however is that neighbourhoods supplying their own services thereby build a case for property tax cuts. This has become a major issue in the United States and, in at least one state, New Jersey, anti-double-taxation legislation requires municipal governments to refund the costs of services supplied by homeowner associations. The best-case outcome of this course of events is a city studded with barricaded enclaves of privilege. The worst case is a municipal government with an eroding tax base, struggling to maintain services in moderate and low-income neighbourhoods. Before we start down this road, we had better take a good look at where it leads.
These and similar items could be walked onto the city council floor one by one, and, if Katz is successful, there is no reason why similar events could not unfold in other cities. What we are looking at here is a potentially substantial agenda of social change from below. At one level, Mayor Katz's budget magic makes interesting political theatre. But in an overview of the actual issues involved, there are serious questions at stake: What value do we place on quality public services? How much do we care about a transit system's contribution to clean air and the role of sewerage in ensuring a pure water supply? Will we stand by while our community fragments into a series of enclaves of privilege and poverty ghettos?
Does a revolution from below, engineered by local government, sound far-fetched? Consider what happened when the Thatcher government in Britain gave local governments the right to sell council (public) housing. In a single stroke, newly-minted property owners became Tory voters, affordable housing became a much bigger problem than before, and fundamental social change was set in train. Roy Hattersley, author and former Labour cabinet minister, sets out very clearly and succinctly, in a 2002 Guardian article, how it happened.
Those of us who care about the Canadian society that has been bequeathed to us by the likes of Tommy Douglas and Mike Pearson - and all the rest of us - will be well advised to take an interest in the boring subject of municipal budgeting, and to think through the final implications of a municipal tax-cutting agenda. If we don’t, we may wake up one day to find ourselves living in very different cities, and a different country, than the one we know now.
Want to find out more? For a discussion of the political and social issues surrounding neighbourhood associations, take a look at:
Evan McKenzie, Privatopia: Homeowner associations and the rise of residential private government. New Haven: Yale University, 1994.
There is a veritable library on the sale of British council houses, and the implications for Thatcherism, Reaganomics, and neo-conservatism. Here are three items, representing a variety of viewpoints:
Paul Pierson, Dismantling the welfare state? Reagan, Thatcher, and the politics of retrenchment. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
Cliff Hague, "The development and politics of tenant participation in British council housing". Housing Studies, 5 (4), October 1990 , 242-56.
David Marsh and R. A. W. Rhodes, "Implementing Thatcherism: Policy change in the 1980s". Parliamentary Affairs 45 (1), 33-50.
Posted by leo-c at 10:58 AM
January 7, 2007
HOW DEVELOPERS AND PUBLIC SERVANTS MANIPULATE CITY COUNCILS: INTRODUCTION
Canadian city councils are programmed to be weak. Unlike provincial legislatures or the House of Commons, city councils are not well-placed to write legislation that enables meaningful change, let alone implement it so that change actually takes place. In many cases they are not even well-positioned to exercise meaningful control over their own public servants. Nor do they exercise much clout over the all-important development industry. Generally, the only way our city governments are capable of being seriously influential at all is if there is a strong mayor. In that sense, our cities, like banana republics, face a bleak choice between autocracy and a weak state.
The weakness of our local legislatures - because that is what city councils are - is the result of a long, complex history that we can look at another time. The purpose of this series of blog entries is to provide case study evidence of how easy it is for land developers and municipal public servants to manipulate city councils and the public. The evidence is selected from a sizeable storehouse of research that I have assembled during many years of conducting interviews and unearthing and analysing documents.
The techniques I'll reveal are not news to municipal public servants and land developers. Most of them probably do not even think of them as manipulation, but simply consider them to be ordinary business practices. In fact, is not my intention to paint land developers and public servants as villains. They are only trying to do their jobs. As Shakespeare said,
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.
In Canada, we live in a democracy, and we have consented to the governance of our cities and towns in a manner that makes fools of our representatives. We have no one to blame but ourselves.
I will continue this series with an examination of a tactic for the manipulation of city council that is a variation on a time-honoured sales tactic, the bait and switch. The case in question is that of the Eaton Centre, a case in which a land development company gained a city council commitment by offering the downtown revitalization equivalent of the moon and stars, but delivered much, much less. In a subsequent entry, I will set out how public servants got what they wanted from city council with the help of wildly inaccurate cost estimates for a new bridge.
Posted by leo-c at 6:32 PM
January 6, 2007
BAIT AND SWITCH: HOW A DEVELOPER CALLED THE TUNE FOR EDMONTON'S CITY COUNCIL
In my research, I've uncovered some classic illustrations of how smart developers can mislead the people North Americans elect to govern their cities and towns. In those cases, their pursuit of their business ensures that it is they, and not the representatives we have elected, who decide the futures of our communities. In this entry I present such a case from Edmonton. It happened in the 1980s, but it is worth understanding exactly what occurred because similar events take place every year in many communities, and awareness is the first step toward self-defence.
My research shows that developers found it easy to manipulate Edmonton's city council again and again, and to put taxpayers in the position of paying for a development over which their representatives exercised no meaningful control. They used a bait and switch tactic which, though blatantly obvious in retrospect, is not always easy to spot before it is too late. Edmonton's story is a cautionary tale. It ought to be required reading for city councillors throughout North America, and for anyone concerned with democratic control over the development of our cities.
As I said in the introduction to this series, we should not waste our outrage on the developers, who serve their investors - and therefore do their jobs - by exploiting weaknesses in our institutions of local governance. In our democratic system, we have collectively agreed to allow ourselves to be governed in this way. We need to think about how we can change this system, and I hope to address that question in future, but a good first step is to understand the problem, and a clear illustration is a good way to start.
In the 1970s, downtown Edmonton was the retail centre of the metropolitan area, and the city had a policy of sustaining that role by supporting the viability of residential neighbourhoods near the centre of the city and placing limits on the amount of permitted suburban shopping centre development. That policy was forgotten when the Triple Five Corporation offered to develop the West Edmonton Mall, then the largest shopping centre in the world.
The development of massive amounts of new suburban retail floor space, accompanied by free parking and such attractions as a wave pool and a carnival ride, dealt a crushing blow to the downtown and in the 1980s empty buildings sprouted. As the city government desperately sought some way to restore life to the city centre, the same Triple Five Corporation that had developed the West Edmonton Mall offered a solution to the problem it had created, the development of a downtown mall, to be called the Eaton Centre.
Triple Five's approach to dealings with the city was the time-honoured bait-and-switch tactic. It involved making an irresistible offer to obtain a massive commitment and then using local politicians' commitment to keep them on-side, even as the more attractive features of the original offer were withdrawn, and its price increased. The key decisions concerning the Eaton Centre development were taken during two rounds of negotiations, the first taking place in 1980 and the second in 1985-86.
In the 1980 negotiations, Triple Five Corporation, in partnership with T Eaton Co Ltd of Toronto, announced plans for a massive, $500 m residential and commercial development consisting of an Eaton's department store, a 31,500-square-metre shopping mall, three office towers of 39 to 40 storeys and two residential towers of 51 and 52 storeys, with 1,236 one- and two-bedroom rental or condominium units.
The development, taking in most of two square blocks of prime downtown land, would boast a roof-top restaurant and gardens and the residential part of the development would include a recreation centre with a gymnasium, swimming pool, exercise room, handball and squash courts and a social room. The Eaton's store was to be the second largest in western Canada, after the downtown Vancouver store.
For Edmonton City Council, the attractions were virtually irresistible: a massive boost to the economy of the inner city, including both commercial and retail elements, together with a formidable increase in housing to help rally the eroding inner city housing sector. A development agreement was signed on October 8th.
The bait was in place. Next came the switch. In December, Nader Ghermezian, managing director of Triple Five, appeared at a council meeting to demand a re-opening of the agreement and the addition of a series of concessions. He warned that if the concessions were not forthcoming that day, the entire project would be cancelled. He had a letter from a solicitor for the Triple Five Partner, T. Eaton, which was said to confirm the urgency of the need for concessions, but which only Mayor Cecil J. Purves and two councillors were allowed to see.
Among the demands were cancellation of a redevelopment levy that the developer was to pay, and of the plans for a roof top restaurant, agreement by the city to fund sidewalks and setbacks for the project and to relieve the developer of the costs of leaseholds covering encroachments upon city property. Estimates of the cost of these concessions ranged from $5 m to $15 m. City council, galvanized by the impending collapse of such a large project, agreed to the concessions.
Enquiries by journalists later established that the letter from an Eaton's lawyer had been a formality, designed to protect Eaton's position in case of a break-down in negotiations, and had not been intended as a sign of Eaton's dissatisfaction with the terms they had received, terms with which they in fact declared themselves satisfied. But the unkindest cut was yet to come. Nine months later, Eaton backed out of the deal despite the concessions, still denying it had sought them. In other words, the city had granted concessions, which it remained obligated to deliver, even as the rationale for them became moot.
With Eaton out of the picture, the development ground to a halt, but in time the bait and switch resumed. In 1983, a promised revival of Eaton Centre failed to materialize once an expansion of the West Edmonton Mall had been secured. In 1985, once again the project reappeared. Eaton declared it could proceed if the city offered further concessions and the negotiations resumed. In the course of those negotiations, the project changed substantially, first becoming grander in the "bait" phase of the negotiations and then contracting again in the "switch" phase, as final agreement neared.
In August, for example, the project's rhetorical status was elevated from the mediocrity of second place in western Canada to the pre-eminence of world renown. According to the Edmonton Journal, it was touted as including "a major recreation centre with tennis, racquetball and squash courts, an Olympic-size pool, diving tank, indoor jogging track and gymnasium for aerobics... There would be 20 theatres, a 3000-stall parkade, and more than 45,000 square metres of department store and retail space [in place of the 31,500 mooted earlier]. 'This will be the strongest magnet in the Province of Alberta,' Triple Five's Ghermezian said... 'It will attract tourists from all over the world...'" The two apartment buildings previously promised had been transformed into a 40-storey hotel-apartment. There would be 2,000 apartments [in place of the earlier 1,236 units], and 300 hotel rooms.
By late January, 1986, with negotiations well along but not complete, the project had lost some of that sheen, with the profit-making parts of the project expanding while the non-profit-making elements contracted. It was slightly bigger overall than before (3.9 m sq ft compared with 3.85 m sq ft), but the residential component had been almost halved, from 2.276 m sq ft to 1.269 m sq ft, while the office tower component increased from 850,000 sq ft to 1.536 m sq ft and additional retail space was added. And then the pressure was cranked up. Eaton's had said it would commit to the project provided excavation started by May 1st. In late February, with the development agreement not yet ready, city council was being asked to approve an excavation agreement in order "to maintain the timetables established by the partners in the project..." Council was becoming more and more deeply committed to the project without yet having had a chance to read the fine print.
Meanwhile, under a new Mayor, Laurence Decore, the city had committed itself to its own plan for the revival of the city's commercial heart. One of the key elements of its plan was the 102nd St Arcade, a glassed-in mall that would have cut through the centre of the Eaton development. Triple Five was not prepared to make provision for the arcade. Mayor Decore and others argued that Council was too willing to take Triple Five's claims at face value, that competing bids should be solicited for the development of the Eaton Centre project, that the project should be required to accommodate the 102nd St Arcade, and that the developer should be obligated to include actual housing, as opposed to promises of future housing, in the development.
As negotiations drew to a close, the main issues were the inclusion of residential units, provision for the 102nd St Mall, and the financial concessions demanded by Triple Five. Planners estimated the total cost of concessions at $30.4 m. In May, in a vote that overrode Mayor Decore and his supporters, Council agreed to the concessions, without guarantees of a residential component and without provision for the 102nd St Mall.
In the end, it proved to be Triple Five Corporation, not City Council, whose commitment to the viability of Eaton Centre was shaky. The assessment of a business publication offers some insight. By 1992, the Ghermezians had sold their share in the development to Confed Life for $1. That year, Canadian Business characterized Eaton Centre as a "money-losing mall" that, "In a city vastly overbuilt with malls..." was recovering only because new management had found "ways to steal shoppers from competing malls..." The sale of the property for $1 suggests, as does the other evidence on Eaton Centre, that it was the city that was assuming all the risk connected with the development and that Triple Five had little to lose, regardless of the outcome.
A review of the deal by Edmonton's Auditor-General concurred that the city was the loser. Projecting the financial consequences 40 years into the future. He concluded that "...the Eaton Centre package... does not result in a positive cash flow to the city until approximately the year 2004. The net present value of this concessions package for the 40-year period is negative." Even if someone thinks that is a good enough outcome for the public money expended, the lack of council control throughout the development process raises troubling questions about the way we govern our cities.
The facts cited in this entry are documented in detail in:
Christopher Leo. "Global Change and Local Politics: Economic Decline and the Local Regime in Edmonton." Journal of Urban Affairs 17 (3), 1995, 277-99.
A related article, comparing Edmonton's situation with the very different circumstances of Vancouver is:
Christopher Leo. “The Urban Economy and the Power of the Local State: The Politics of Planning in Edmonton and Vancouver." In Frances Frisken, ed, The Changing Canadian Metropolis: Contemporary Perspectives, vol 2. Berkeley: Institute of Governmental Studies Press, University of California, 1994, 657-98.
Posted by leo-c at 6:33 PM
January 5, 2007
WHY AND HOW CITY POLITICIANS AND THE PUBLIC ARE MISLED BY OFFICIALS
This is the third in a series of articles about how poorly the public interest is represented by many Canadian municipal governments. In a previous entry, I showed how developers are able to bend our representatives to their will and in this entry I will provide an example of how public servants do it.
In both entries I use a careful examination of a particular case as my medium. These cases are not unusual events. On the contrary, I chose to examine them in detail, and nail down exactly what happened, because they seemed to be typical of situations I have observed repeatedly in case studies of urban development issues in Toronto, Winnipeg, Edmonton, Vancouver, Portland, Oregon and other cities.
The suggestion that developers could be motivated to promote their own interests over those of the public will come as no surprise. Their job is to make money and their responsibility is to their shareholders, not the public. But some readers may find the suggestion that public servants could also promote a narrow interest at the expense of that of the public harder to swallow. Therefore, let's look at what their motivations might be.
It's important to begin by remembering that no one is objective. We all carry our biases with us. Many of these are based on our professional or occupational training. The expression, "to a person with a hammer, everything looks like a nail", sums it up nicely. Similarly, to many road builders, speed and ease of automobile access is the primary urban development concern.
Most engineering designers and managers now at the peak of the profession were educated in engineering faculties where the dominant tendency was to think of road-building as a technical matter, in which road design involved the projection of traffic demands and the efficient accommodation of that traffic at a manageable cost. In that climate of thought, the suggestion that there is a social and an environmental dimension to road-bulding was not taken seriously and, when such suggestions came from politicians or members of the public, they were resented as “political interference” and as an assault on the engineers’ professional integrity. This belief-system is still very much in evidence, especially among the decision-makers in municipal public works departments.
The ideas about road systems that are being applied in North American cities typically have two sources that are important for our purposes: developer proposals and the traditional norms and conventions of civil engineering. The contribution of developers is that they decide on the parcels of land that they see as profitable spots for development and propose them to the city. In Winnipeg and many other cities they have good reason to expect a sympathetic hearing from local government.
It then becomes the obligation of the city to work out the development of the rest of the city’s transportation system to accommodate recent and expected future development. For example, a burgeoning of new subdivisions at Winnipeg’s southern edge in South St Vital and South St Boniface contributed to a city decision to build an expressway serving that part of the city - Bishop Grandin Boulevard - and occasioned the opening-up of an under-used and heavily subsidized bus line into Island Lakes, one of the new subdivisions. It also eventually stimulated the replacement of the Norwood and Main Street bridges with a massive new eight-lane structure. These bridges, located downtown, are part of the road system leading to the newer southern subdivisions.
While money was readily available for these extensions of the transportation infrastructure, as as well as a long list of other, similar extensions in all directions from the centre of the city, funds for the maintenance of existing infrastructure dwindled. A meticulous 1998 survey of the state of Winnipeg’s infrastructure found a massive disparity between the amount needed to maintain existing infrastructure and the amount actually being spent. Regional streets, for example were found to be $10.2 m a year short of the required amount. Even more drastic was the situation of residential streets, which were found to have benefited from an average annual budgeted expenditure of $2.5 m, compared with a requirement of $30 m, a disparity of $27.5 m. The overall infrastructure deficit was estimated at $1 billion or more.
In all of these respects, Winnipeg was following the conventions of modern North American city-building: developers decide where they want to locate new development and pay for some of the services immediately required by the new subdivisions. The city ensures that they become connected into the city-wide service network, and that the city-wide network is expanded as necessary to accommodate them. It is in deciding on the character of this expansion that long-established norms of the engineering profession take over.
Many examples could be found, but a recent case in point was that of the Norwood Bridge, an inner city-suburban link referred to above. When the plans for the Norwood Bridge reconstruction were being mooted, city officials presented four alternatives, including the following two: It would cost $78 m for a six-lane, divided bridge that was pictured as providing a “fair” level of safety, and “poor” traffic capacity, accommodation for transit and accommodation of traffic during construction. By contrast, an eight-lane, divided bridge that was rated “good” in all four categories would cost only $80 m. That was an easy decision: only $2 m extra for a vastly superior bridge.
Such “easy decisions” are standard items in the arsenal of public servants who have made up their minds about which course they wish their political masters and the public to pursue. Council chose an eight-lane bridge, and it soon became obvious - as it often does in such cases - that the “easy choice” was not so easy after all. By 1998, the cost of the new bridge had escalated to $102 m. And with only one of the two spans built - still less than the six-lane alternative that was portrayed as inadequate - traffic line-ups at rush hour had greatly eased. The final cost of eight-lane span was $113 million, $33 million more than originally promised.
Over-building of bridges and roads exacerbates the dilemmas Winnipeg will face in future. Increased road and bridge capacity has two consequences: First, an improved route draws traffic as it becomes the route of choice for drivers who previously favoured other routes. Sooner or later, this increases pressure on city council for further road works. For example, traffic line-ups on a bridge may be replaced by tie-ups on narrower roads leading to and from the bridge. Such consequences are not unanticipated by engineering staff, and resulting public demands for widening of the road leading away from the bridge may be seen by them as long-overdue recognition of necessities they understood to begin with.
A second consequence of increased bridge and road capacity is reduced travel time to the urban fringe, which leads to an increase in the economic viability of sprawl and leap-frog development. The upshot is intensified political pressure from developers for the approval of subdivisions that will be costly to serve. And once the new, typically low-density, auto-dependent subdivisions are built, they provide a fresh supply of citizens who have no convenient means of getting around other than the private automobile. It is a vicious cycle, in which each new attempt to solve the problem of allegedly inadequate road capacity has the ultimate effect of exacerbating it.
The high priority accorded road projects tends to crowd out alternatives. In Winnipeg, city council has readily agreed to one road project after another, heedless of the fact that each one exacerbates the sprawl dilemma. Meanwhile, transit facilities that could contribute to the amelioration of sprawl are postponed indefinitely. Since the mid-1970s, plans have been underway for the construction of the Southwest Transit Corridor, a rapid transit line consisting of cost-effective diesel buses running on a concrete strip dedicated exclusively to transit.
This line is considered viable because it connects two population concentrations - downtown and the University of Manitoba - along the relatively heavily-populated Pembina Highway corridor. It would ameliorate traffic congestion along Pembina Highway - the artery connecting the University of Manitoba with the inner city - and encourage cost-effective, compact development along the route, in contrast to road and bridge projects’ encouragement of sprawl. Estimated total cost for the entire facility would have been $70 million in 1997 - less than the lower-cost alternative for the Norwood Bridge, which was deemed inadequate. However, postponement of rapid transit has been a routine feature of City Council’s annual budget deliberations for at least two decades, and remains so in 2007.
In short, Winnipeg's city council, and many others, neglect their duty to the interest of the city as a whole when they accept the norms of traditionally-minded civil engineers as the final word on the extension of transportation infrastructure. As well, instead of, in effect, delegating to developers the right to decide where the city will expand, cities could exercise their authority to determine the location of new subdivisions. In theory, that power is being exercised now by city councils through their planning departments, but in practice the main influence over those decisions rests with developers and road-building specialists.
Winnipeg could have developed very differently. It seems very likely that the Norwood Bridge project could reasonably have been much more modest than it was. With a less auto-dependent, more compact form of development, the suburban road system - of which Bishop Grandin is only one example - could have been less extensive, and the transit system less of a drain on the treasury. In their development of roads, as well as the full range of other municipal services, Winnipeg, like other cities, is expanding rapidly, at ever lower densities, primarily in response to developers’ calculations about where the profit picture looks favourable for them, without serious consideration of how all of these developments will be tied together with infrastructure and serviced.
Winnipeg's suburbs sprawl, its inner city decays and the costs of servicing all of this uncontrolled development spiral out of control. As with any political discontent, the causes of this state of affairs are complex, but a very important cause is the inability of our local political institutions fully to address the complexities of the problems that face us.
Want to find out more? This article draws on research presented in Christopher Leo, “The North American Growth Fixation and the Inner City: Roads Of Excess.” World Transport Policy & Practice, 4 (4) 1998, 24-29. The article was reprinted in John Whitelegg and Gary Haq, eds, The Earthscan Reader on World Transport Policy and Practice. London: Earthscan Publications, 2003, ch 20.
A very useful source is Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream, by Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and Jeff Speck (New York: North Point Press, 2000), especially chapter 5.
Two books by Anthony Downs are helpful as well. The first (Stuck in Traffic: Coping with Peak-hour Traffic Congestion. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 1992) treats traffic congestion as a problem in its own right. In the second (New visions for Metropolitan America. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 1994) Downs expands his field of view, placing traffic problems in the wider perspective of metropolitan development, and reaching some different conclusions.
Evidence that there are alternatives to the sad state of affairs in Winnipeg, and many other cities, may be found in the Oregon Department of Transportation's Western Bypass study: Alternatives Analysis (Portland, OR, 1995) and in 1000 Friends of Oregon's Making the Connections: A Summary of the LUTRAQ Project (Portland, Oregon, 1997).
Posted by leo-c at 7:16 PM
November 26, 2006
THE GREEN PARTY OF WINNIPEG: HOW TO HAVE AN IMPACT
Winnipeg has a green party, consisting of a small but committed group of people who are determined to exercise an influence on the city's future. This may actually be possible. Public awareness of environmental issues appears to be growing, while disenchantment with business as usual in city hall is always there to be tapped. But it will be very difficult.
One of the problems the party must face is the long-standing bias against political parties in local government. As I point out elsewhere, parties are seen by many as counter-productively disputatious representatives of special interests, insufficiently concerned with common-sense governance in the interests of the city as a whole. The Green Party of Winnipeg has an opportunity to overcome that bias, but to do so it must move beyond purely environmental concerns, such as opposition to sprawl and pesticides, and consider how an environmental perspective can be at the heart of a platform that addresses the needs of the city as a whole.
Following are a few of the many questions party members may wish to consider if they hope to build their movement into a truly effective political instrument.
The party is of course opposed to sprawl, and says so in its platform, but what to do about it? The party's platform states: "Planning focus will shift to reinvestment in existing neighbourhoods rather than developer-driven new ones; redevelopment will replace development as the preferred option."
That's not a plank for a platform, it's a sentiment. It’s not enough to prefer infill development to conventional suburban development, because a platform needs to be capable of passing muster as a business plan. A lot of home buyers don’t want infill housing, but do want to live in a conventional suburban neighbourhood. Advocacy of and support for infill development in inner-city neighbourhoods is in itself laudable, but it does not answer the question of where conventional suburban housing will be located.
Winnipeg can in fact accommodate new neighbourhoods in the suburban style in a manner that limits sprawl a great deal more than current land use policies do. If the Green Party wishes its position on sprawl to be taken seriously, it must say how it intends to do this.
LAND USE IN THE WINNIPEG REGION
The Green Party's call for additional development charges on new fringe development makes a lot of sense. There is a very reasonable case to be made for the proposition that current development cost structures in effect subsidize new subdivisions at the expense of the rest of the city. But this question cannot be addressed in isolation from the question of land use in the Winnipeg region as a whole, because, in the absence of a regional policy, additional development costs within the City of Winnipeg will simply drive development into urbanizing municipalities adjacent to the city.
Therefore, the Green Party must also have a regional land use policy. It could, for example, advocate the creation of a regional government, or increased provincial regulation of land use outside the city, or possibly a tax surcharge on municipalities outside the city, to be rebated to the city in order to help cover the costs of services the city now provides free of charge to users from outside the city. Each of these approaches has advantages and disadvantages, but without some approach to regional land use issues, the Green Party's approach to new subdivisions is not workable.
At last report, the City of Winnipeg was hoping to seal a deal with pork processor OlyWest for the location of a major new hog processing facility in Winnipeg. The Green Party does not have an official position on this initiative, but within the party there is much anti-OlyWest sentiment. If the party opposes OlyWest, it should also consider what alternative policy it supports. Does the party wish simply to leave pork production to other communities, or will it advocate a different way of producing pork? A related question concerns employment. Most of the employees of OlyWest would be immigrants and Winnipeg has a substantial population of immigrants. If the Green Party proposes not to create these jobs, it should also consider its position on job creation for immigrants.
OPEN SPACE POLICY
It would make a lot of sense for the party to consider how it can expand the appeal of environmental concerns beyond the constituency of committed environmentalists. One way of doing this would be to advocate the development of a comprehensive open space policy covering everything from parks and community gardens to parking lots, empty lots and rail lines. Such a policy could facilitate the transformation of a patchwork of different types of open spaces into a system of pathways, recreational spaces and greenways, which would also be available as paths for leisurely walks and commuter routes for bicycles and pedestrians. Many Winnipeggers who are less concerned than Green Party members with the ills of the environment might find such a policy attractive for other reasons.
Whether the Green Party and I like it or not, the business community is always a major force in municipal politics. There is no need to pander cravenly to everything the Chamber of Commerce demands, but without a platform that is capable of drawing some support from the business community, chances of implementing a program are slim to none. The Green Party platform should include provisions regarding taxes, land use regulation and other issues that concern business owners and managers. In developing such provisions, Green Party members might wish to ask themselves how at least some tax and land use regulations could be good for both business and the environment. My next suggestion is one of many items the party might wish to consider in that context.
The Green Party platform calls for a green buildings policy, but the wording suggests that that would apply only to city buildings. The energy savings that go with green buildings also save money. Can the Green Party work out a way of creating a loan fund - possibly in co-operation with Manitoba Hydro and the Manitoba provincial government - for retrofitting buildings to make them energy-efficient, with the loans to be repaid out of the savings on energy costs? If a workable program along these lines were developed, it would be bound to draw support, not only from the business community, but also from people in the construction trades.
These are only a few of the questions the Green Party of Winnipeg must consider if it hopes to be seen as a real political party, fit to run the city, and not just as a special-interest group. It must also decide how it would pay for addressing Winnipeg's infrastructure deficit, how it would manage its relations with the provincial government, what to do about affordable housing, and more. All of these questions can be considered from an environmental perspective. In so doing, the party should be able to build and strengthen its program for environmental protection, while at the same time demonstrating its fitness to govern.
Posted by leo-c at 11:38 AM
November 19, 2006
WHAT'S WRONG WITH MUNICIPAL POLITICAL PARTIES?
In Canadian city politics, a fully-fledged party system, with a ruling party and a well-organized opposition, is a rarity. In the eyes of much of the public, parties are viewed with suspicion. Party discipline is seen as replacing common-sense problem-solving with knee-jerk disputatiousness while restricting the ability of politicians to stand up for the interests of their constituents.
From this point of view, non-partisan municipal politics is marked by the exercise of individual good judgement, intelligent compromise and responsiveness of politicians to the wishes of constituents, while partisan politics is blighted by shrill argumentation and mindless submission to party dictates. Often parties are also seen as representing special interests, while non-partisan politicians are thought to be more likely to be tuned in to the interests of the city as a whole.
And yet, politicians keep organizing themselves. In Toronto, it is normal to think of city council as comprising a left wing and a right wing. Montreal and Vancouver have for decades had ruling parties, whether or not there is a functioning opposition. In Winnipeg, formal and informal business parties and opposition parties periodically appear on the scene, only to disappear again. In a bow to public opinion, organized groups of councillors often insist that they are just good people working together, not political parties, but organize themselves they do again and again.
Why do politicians risk public displeasure in this way? The most fundamental answer is that politics is inherently an organized activity. Policies grow out of a process of coalition-building, which is central to all politics, whether democratic or not. A coalition is any group of people in the political arena who have managed to find enough common ground and forge enough compromises to be able to make common cause in pursuit of an objective they have agreed upon.
Within such a coalition there’s usually a core group that wields particularly strong influence. Often it has to find ways of offering incentives to others to come on board - things like contracts to supply goods or carry out projects, job opportunities, or the opportunity to do more business once a project is complete.
These incentives are called side payments and they are the glue that holds a coalition together. Side payments can take many forms. The politicians whose co-operation is needed may be told that a desired project will gain votes, or that there will be a nice job waiting after the inevitable defeat. In a case like that, the benefit in question may not be connected with the desired project. It can be anything a coalition member has available to give away. Union leaders may be guaranteed that their members will get a given share of the work involved in the project, or given other work. Leaders of ethnic or community groups will be offered benefits for their followers, or for themselves.
The term “side payments” could be taken to imply bribery – and it could actually be bribery – but in political systems that are not fundamentally corrupted most side payments are not bribery. They are simply any benefit that flows naturally from a project agreed upon, or that advocates of the project can make available in order to gain allies. It is this process of coalition-building, whereby a variety of different kinds of benefits are traded for support, that most fundamentally determines political outcomes.
This same process is at work behind the scenes in any legislative body, including city councils. In the case of a legislative body with a system of parties and party discipline, the process appears not to be operating, because the party leader calls the tune and party members must dance to it. This apparent unanimity, however, masks the fact that the leader, in order to survive, must maintain the support of party members. Within the party, therefore, the process of bargaining and reconciliation continues out of the public eye.
These observations go against democratic myth, and some of the more simplistic versions of democratic theory, which hold that political outcomes are determined by elections and polls. To be sure, elections and polls set limits beyond which politicians dare not venture, because they want to be re-elected. But most of the substance of policies pursued by governments is a product of coalition-building, in which both politicians, and organized groups outside the formal political arena are engaged.
If one accepts the suggestion that coalition-building - reconciliation of differences and organization in pursuit of common objectives - is the essence of politics, the question is not whether political decision-making will be a matter individual common sense or blind adherence to party dictates. It is, rather, whether all coalition-building will take place behind closed doors, or whether some of it will be out in the open, in the form of competing party platforms, available for voter scrutiny and choice.
The harsh reality of the world we live in is that some people are organized and others are not. The best organized ones are the holders of economic power, or those who benefit from the support of such bodies as professional associations, business lobbies and labour unions. Decision-makers in corporations and formal associations will make it their business to stay tuned into the political process and make sure that they have a say in its outcomes.
Jill Canuck of Ashburn Street, meanwhile, is excluded from these power centres and is, in any case, busy going to work at the Seven-Eleven and coming home, raising kids and spending time at the laundromat. She may simply not be able to find the time to concern herself with decisions that, in fact, have a great deal of influence on the future of her city, her neighbourhood and her family. Some of her interests may be represented by a grassroots group, such as a neighbourhood association, but that organization rarely if ever has the kind of access to the centres of power that corporations and formal organizations take for granted.
More typically, Ms. Canuck has no organizations speaking for her in the backrooms where coalitions are built. Her only hope of being represented may be a political party that stands for some of the things she wants from her government, and can be held accountable at the next election for delivering on its commitments. This best hope is an imperfect one, because parties, like everything else in this world, are less than perfect, but it is better than no hope at all.
When we view politics in this light, it becomes clear that municipal political parties that function openly and can be held accountable are capable of providing a benefit for ordinary people, while non-partisanship is in the interest of the holders of economic and organizational power. Small wonder that the idea of municipal non-partisanship originated with a business-dominated reform movement at about the turn of the last century and that the groups most vocally advocating partisanship in municipal politics have been labour, left-wing and left-liberal participants in city politics. But that is a story for another time.
Want to find out more? The analysis of coalition-building that I use is adapted from the regime literature. In that literature, a regime is a coalition that remains stable over a period of time and has achieved a dominant position. Among the best sources of this analysis are:
Clarence N. Stone and Heywood T. Sanders, eds. The politics of urban development. Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 1987. Especially chapters 1 and 14.
Clarence N. Stone. 2001. "Powerful Actors vs. Compelling Actions". Educational Policy 15 (1), January, 153-67.
Clarence N. Stone. 1989. Regime Politics: Governing Atlanta, 1946-88. Lawrence, Kansas: University of Kansas Press. Especially chapter 11.
An alternate view:
David Siegel. "City Hall Doesn’t Need Parties". Policy Options (June 1987), pp. 26-28.
Posted by leo-c at 7:20 PM
May 14, 2006
HOW TO MANIPULATE CITY COUNCIL AND THE PUBLIC
Canadian city councils are programmed to be weak. Unlike provincial legislatures or the House of Commons, city councils are not well-placed to write legislation that enables meaningful change, let alone implement it so that change actually takes place. Generally, the only way our city governments are capable of being seriously influential at all is if there is a strong mayor. In that sense, our cities, like banana republics, face a bleak choice between autocracy and a weak state.
The weakness of our local legislatures - because that is what city councils are - is the result of a long, complex and interesting history that we can look at another time. The purpose of this series of blogs is not to attempt the difficult task of explaining how our communities have been held to banana republic status, but only to offer some evidence that that is in fact their status. I'll do this by providing case study evidence of how easy it is for land developers and municipal public servants to manipulate city councils and the public. The evidence is selected from a sizeable storehouse of research that I have assembled during many years of conducting interviews and poring over documents.
Some readers may wonder why I am offering an instruction manual in the ways and means of fooling city council when obviously I disapprove of the way our democratic representatives are led around by the nose. My answer is that the techniques I will document are not news to municipal public servants and land developers. Most of them probably do not even think of the techniques as manipulation, but simply consider them to be ordinary business practices.
In fact, it is not my intention to paint land developers and public servants as villains. They are only trying to do their jobs. As Shakespeare said,
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.
In Canada, we live in a democracy, and we have consented to the governance of our cities and towns in a manner that makes fools of our representatives. We have no one to blame but ourselves.
I will continue this series of blogs with two examples of a tactic for the manipulation of city council that I have dubbed the bait and switch. My first example, from Edmonton, deals with the Eaton Centre, a case in which a land development company led city council around by the nose. In a later blog, I will set out how public servants made fools of Winnipeg's city council, also through use of the bait and switch in the case of the Norwood Bridge. Finally, as time permits, I will look at the use of another tactic, intimidation, in the case of the Tegler Building in Edmonton.
Posted by leo-c at 11:34 AM