August 29, 2010
THE MULTILEVEL GOVERNANCE OF URBAN GROWTH: A CROSS-NATIONAL COMPARISON
Last May, I sketched out an idea for a research project that would look at what senior governments could do to ensure that those who make decisions about the growth of North American cities do a better job of respecting the environment. That idea has now matured into a research proposal. In this entry, I'll summarize the proposal and provide a link to the full proposal.
Here's the summary:
My proposed research will shed new light on a major, but much-neglected question: What can we learn from Europe and each other about how best to achieve sustainable growth in North American cities?
Most students of city development agree that the way our cities grow and change has a major impact on the environment. An environmentally friendly city is one that is relatively compact, with ready access to fast and convenient public transportation, and with houses, shopping and public facilities located so that that residents and workers can get around easily without having to rely mainly on automobiles.
The priorities of land developers and consumers often fail to reflect these concerns. In North America, the job of balancing environmental considerations against the demands of land developers and consumers falls largely to municipal councils and most councils find it very difficult to achieve a balance that is favourable to the environment.
Many fail repeatedly because local councils are not, in general, able effectively to resist development interests. Finding an approach to urban growth that more effectively balances the interests of development companies and immediate consumer demands against a wider, longer-term public interest in a sustainable environment will be a major policy challenge in the decades to come.
If local governments cannot control land use, the only alternative is a meaningful degree of land use regulation at another level of government. Although economic and consumer pressures favouring urban sprawl are world-wide, Europe has, in general, been more successful in planning compact cities, well-served by public transportation, than North America. One of the reasons, as I learned in a previous study - the first one listed below - is that land development interests exercise a great deal of influence in local politics, but are relatively small players at the national level. The sustainability of European cities benefits from the fact that many urban development regulations are laid down by national governments.
Though planning scholars are aware that there are significant differences between European and North American urban planning practices, there have been few careful, comparative studies. Political scientists understand the value of such studies, as witness the large political science literature on comparative European, North American and developing-world national politics, and another significant literature embodying cross-national comparisons of other aspects of city politics.
Though the management of urban growth offers similar opportunities to learn by comparing and contrasting the planning and development practices of European and North American cities, scholars concerned with urban development politics and policy have done little to develop those fields of study. My research will address that gap, with a three-city comparative case study of the multilevel governance of urban growth in three jurisdictions that have tried, to some degree, to centralize the management of urban growth: Metropolitan Portland, Oregon; the Greater Toronto Area, and Greater Hamburg.
I will focus my research on three questions: How is the development of new subdivisions managed? What is the overall condition of municipal infrastructure? How well served by public transit is the urban area? Answers to these seemingly simple questions will throw up a wealth of political and administrative complexities, but they are sufficiently focused to keep the overall comparison both meaningful and manageable.
The study in which I pointed out the advantages of having more urban planning authority at higher levels of government was:
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 study that focused my attention on the significance for urban planning of state government intervention 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
Posted by leo-c at 12:27 PM
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
January 7, 2010
ARE SUBURBAN NEIGHBOURHOODS BAD FOR YOUR HEALTH?
A growing body of research suggests that urban sprawl, in addition to being bad for cities, the environment and agriculture, may also take a toll on your health. For example, in a recent issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, one article reported that higher levels of urban sprawl were associated with increased response time for emergency medical services and a higher probability of delayed ambulance arrival. Here's what one of the authors of the article had to say:
A bit of reflection will lead to the conclusion that there are no surprises in these findings. Obviously, people are likely to walk more if they live in neighbourhoods where they don't have to get in their cars for a trip to the neighourhood pub, to pick up a DVD, or to go swimming at the community centre. Similarly, most of us know from experience that any visit or errand generally requires more miles of driving in the suburbs than downtown. If that's true for us, it stands to reason that it holds true for ambulances.
But such points are worth proving, partly because science sometimes contradicts conventional wisdom, and partly because thinking about the implications of sprawl for health runs a reality check against another piece of conventional wisdom: the idea that suburbs are healthy, wholesome places for families. These findings, and others like them, suggest that there are two sides to that story.
Sources for this blog entry:
Trowbridge MJ, Gurka MJ, & O'Connor RE (2009). Urban sprawl and delayed ambulance arrival in the U.S. American journal of preventive medicine, 37 (5), 428-32 PMID: 19840697
Daniel A. Rodríguez, Kelly R. Evenson, Ana V. Diez Roux, and Shannon J. Brines. "Land use, residential density, and walking: The multi-ethnic study of atherosclerosis", American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 37(5), pp. 397–404.
Posted by leo-c at 10:32 AM
December 1, 2009
LOCAL POLITICIANS CAN'T CONTROL SPRAWL. SO WHY IS IT THEIR JOB ALONE?
Few things are more important than the way we use our land, and yet, in North America, few things are more neglected. Among my urbanist colleagues, there are precious few who think that urban sprawl is a good thing, and even fewer who believe anything can be done about it. Why?
Among those who know city politics, it's well understood that the process of urban development is largely driven, not by the public interest in using our land efficiently and sustainably, but by the very different calculations development companies use to decide where their best business opportunities lie. In previous posts I have given examples of how that process plays out, both in large urban areas and in the smaller political arena of semi-rural, urbanizing municipalities.
Although there has been much agonizing over the apparent inability of most local governments to take meaningful control of urban development, there has been little or no discussion, in the academic literature, of alternatives to local control. And yet there are very good reasons for questioning the assumption that land use is primarily a concern for municipal councils and local planning authorities, indeed for seeing urban growth as an issue that is both national and global in its significance. Let's take a look at three of them.
It is now widely agreed that the health of the environment is a global issue. We usually think of such problems as climate change, and soil, air and water pollution as being related to economic growth, population growth and energy consumption, and rightly so, but we rarely consider the environmental significance of urban growth.
We all know that petroleum-driven transportation is a major emitter of greenhouse gases and a variety of other pollutants, but we're very likely to forget that urban land use is an important determinant of petroleum consumption. Standard-issue North American development, featuring generally low densities and strict separation of residential, commercial and industrial areas from each other, privileges the automobile as the primary mode of transportation, often eliminates other means of transportation as viable alternatives, and even forces automobile use when one might prefer a different way of getting around. (The next time you're in a suburban home, try figuring out a way to fetch a litre of milk without using petroleum.)
And that's not even mentioning how vast expanses of pavement produce run-off that pollutes our waterways, or the impact of residential septic tanks on underground water resources. In short, a very significant proportion of the global environmental problems we struggle with are driven by urban land use patterns. Urban land use, therefore, is a global issue.
...is an issue that's national in scope, for a number of reasons. Low-density urban development that straggles out across agricultural areas undermines the viability of adjacent agriculture, to a degree that's more serious than most people realize. In order to impair the viability of agriculture, you don't have to pave over farmland. All you have to do is locate a few urbanites in the area, and before you know it, you get conflicts between the farmers and the space-seeking urbanites. Urban-style development may drive up the price of land, forcing farmers to pay more property taxes. Urbanites complain about livestock smells and heavy machinery on the roads, their septic tanks pollute the water table, and their pets harass farm animals. Such conflicts are well known, by both land use planners and agronomists, to undermine the viability of commercial agriculture. This concern is even more important in Canada than the United States because a very substantial proportion of Canada's limited supply of prime agricultural land is located in urbanizing areas.
In short, agriculture is a national resource that is threatened by urban sprawl. Another national problem that originates in large part from urban land use decisions is the seemingly never-ending "infrastructure crisis". Since the 1990s, both Canadian and American governments have been allocating funds to address this problem, while the rhetoric surrounding it has escalated from "crumbling roads" to "collapsing bridges". The problem is becoming more serious even as money continues to be poured into addressing it.
An important source of that problem is difficult to identify from national statistics, but clearly visible at the local level. A case I have investigated is that of Winnipeg, where, for decades, money has been readily available to extend roads, bridges, and sewer and water lines - often across the bald prairie - but spending on infrastructure maintenance has consistently fallen short of needs. In other words, the city's expansion of infrastructure is out-pacing its ability to maintain existing infrastructure.
The degree to which maintenance is falling short varies from city to city, with some cities in more serious straits than others. We need much more research to gain an overview of the local sources of the infrastructure deficit. What is clear already, however, is that federal and provincial funds are being spent to address infrastructure deficits that originate, to a significant extent, in local land use decisions. The problems that stem from this local decision-making are sufficiently regional and national in scope to make out a serious case that there is a legitimate regional and national interest in the setting of urban growth policies.
In Europe, there are national and European Union rules governing land use. In North America, Oregon is notable for having enforced state regulations governing urban land use for some time, and Ontario has recently promulgated rules governing the growth of the Greater Toronto Area. It's time for other jurisdictions to assess these examples, and see what can be done better, and what can be done elsewhere.
There is a vast literature on urban sprawl, smart growth and related questions, but there has been very little done in North America to treat it as a problem that is national in scope. Two recent exceptions are:
Bruce Babbitt, Cities in the wilderness: A new vision of land use in America. Washington: Island Press, 2007.
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.
Earlier publications of my own that form part of the basis for this entry are:
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
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.
Posted by leo-c at 7:01 AM
October 12, 2009
DOES IT MAKE SENSE TO BUILD A HIGHWAY THROUGH RIVER HEIGHTS?
The City of Winnipeg has set out on a plan to build a highway through River Heights and Waverley West, ultimately connecting Ness Avenue with the south perimeter highway. Three reasons are given for this, one of which makes a more modest version of the proposal defensible. A second one is indefensible, and the third is a really bad idea.
The plan calls for Kenaston Boulevard to be expanded to six lanes - nine lanes at the intersection with the Sterling Lyon Parkway. The defensible argument is that additional capacity on Kenaston will be needed to serve a mega-complex of big box stores, the Tuxedo Yards development, featuring furniture giant IKEA, at the intersection of Kenaston and Sterling Lyon.
Unquestionably the city should ensure reasonable access from the centre of the metropolitan area to a new commercial mega-complex, and that could call for increasing the capacity of Kenaston Boulevard, although we can almost always count on civil engineers to overestimate needed road capacity - as they did in planning the Norwood Bridge a few years ago. It would be reasonable, therefore, to look into the possibilities for a less drastic expansion of road capacity than what is being recommended, remembering that the road will necessarily reduce the attractiveness of the primarily residential neighbourhood that may be developed there in future.
If the city were genuinely interested in a reasonable degree of control over its own development, it would also be considering a more central location for IKEA, as former Appeal Court Justice Charles Huband has suggested, and asking some critical questions about the impact of another mega-complex on commerce in the rest of the city. But the real mistake was the previous location of a mega-complex at Kenaston and McGillivray, still farther out. With that mistake now irreversable, the IKEA complex becomes infill development.
In short, some road development may be necessary to accommodate the planned commercial complex. What are the other two reasons given for the plan for a massive expansion of Kenaston? The first is that the road will accommodate southbound international truck traffic from the airport. That reason suggests the city's civil engineers need a refresher course in introductory road-building.
If they take a look at their intro texts, they will be reminded that the first function of an urban expressway system is to enable traffic that does not need to traverse the city to by-pass it. That is the function of our perimeter highway and of by-pass highways across North America. Truckers are well accustomed to the extra mileage such by-passes incur and welcome being spared the necessity of down-shifting for city traffic.
Somebody in the Public Works Department understands that, because the city is also planning a direct link to the west perimeter, which is located only a short distance from the airport. Sensible road planning would shrink from the suggestion that airport traffic be offered any encouragement at all to traverse River Heights. It would in fact ensure that any Kenaston expansion is planned in such a way as to discourage unnecessary truck traffic. That again makes the case for a more modest expansion than the one that is being planned.
The third reason for the expansion bears on the city's unwise decision to open up the massive new Waverley West tract for immediate development (For more detail on this decision, see the last few paragrphs of "Are you tired of the sprawl game?"). Development of Waverley West supposedly requires the extension of the planned Kenaston highway across Waverley West to the south perimeter highway. The effect would be the provision of high-capacity road access, at city expense, almost to the edge of any new developments in the neighbouring municipalities of Ritchot and Macdonald.
The last time the city did that, with the extension of McGillivray Boulevard to the perimeter, we were rewarded - as I showed in an earlier blog entry - with an entire new subdivision just outside the boundaries of the city. Today, residents of Oak Bluff travel regularly in and out of the city, on a road thoughtfully provided for them by the good citizens of Winnipeg, to enjoy the services provided by Winnipeg taxpayers, without having to pay property taxes to the city.
There is no reason to repeat that experience. Future residents of Waverley West can have reasonable access to the centre of the metropolitan area, and, with more modest road development, citizens throughout Winnipeg can have reasonable access to the IKEA development, without building a highway across River Heights and Waverley West.
For a discussion of the wider significance of the Norwood Bridge expansion, see:
Christopher Leo, “The North American Growth Fixation and the Inner City: Roads Of Excess.” World Transport Policy & Practice, 4 (4) 1998, 24-29. All issues of this journal are available free on line, at the journal's web site. My article starts on p. 24 of the issue accessible at the link labelled "wtpp04.4.pdf".
Posted by leo-c at 9:52 AM
July 9, 2009
RAPID TRANSIT: COST OR OPPORTUNITY? IT’S UP TO US
With Jonah Levine
It’s taken Winnipeg a generation to get around to building the first leg of a rapid transit system. You might think that settles the matter, and that now we are down to inconsequential details. On closer examination, however, it becomes clear that many important decisions remain, decisions that could make the difference between a successful rapid transit system and a white elephant.
As members of the Winnipeg Rapid Transit Coalition, Jonah and I have been involved in discussions with transit officials and city politicians about the central issue of the system’s accessibility. The discussions have been cordial, but so far we have been unable to reach agreement on the question of whether the first leg of the southwest rapid transit corridor will be built in such a way as to enable cyclists and pedestrians to move safely back and forth between the South Osborne neighbourhood and downtown.
The rapid transit line will run parallel to a rail line, and, in the absence of a safe route over the rail line, there will be a gap in the first phase of the active transportation corridor which is to run parallel to the rapid transit line - a gap that will pose formidable obstacles, not only to pedestrians and cyclists, but to anyone trying to reach the rapid transit line from the other side of the rail line. The gap is illustrated and explained in detail in posters available by clicking on:
The response of city officials to our representations has been that the city cannot afford an overpass, which will cost $14 million, according to one estimate. The WRTC argues, and I agree, that $14 million, though it is indeed a lot of money, is not a great deal in comparison with the cost of a rapid transit system that falls short of its potential.
At the heart of our disagreement is a question that's both simple and fraught with significance: Is rapid transit just a cost or is it also an opportunity? Unquestionably it is a cost. The transit line, and the associated active transportation corridor offer:
•Improved mobility for many Winnipeggers who cannot afford cars, or prefer not to use them unnecessarily
•Reduced pollution and greenhouse gas generation
•A beachhead in the battle against sprawl, and against Winnipeggers’ currently all-but-total dependence on cars for much of their transportation
These are public benefits that cost money, but that make Winnipeg, in many ways, a better city. In all of this, there is no serious disagreement between the WRTC and the city. Our disagreement with the overall direction of city policy is in the degree to which we see rapid transit, not only as the price of civility and environmental sanity, but also as a major development opportunity. Our argument is that a properly constructed rapid transit system yields development opportunities that can generate enough revenue to dwarf the costs of the access on which that revenue will depend.
To a degree, city leaders understand this, but so far they fail to grasp its full significance. Their comprehension of the concept of a rapid transit system as a development opportunity is evident in the fact that the first leg of the system will be financed by a tif, short for tax increment financing - financing out of future revenues. The transit line will be paid for out of the revenue that will be generated by the Fort Rouge Yards neighbourhood, a new neighbourhood on currently empty land that will be served by the rapid transit system.
In other words, the transit line produces development opportunities, and the tax revenues that those opportunities generate will pay off the money borrowed to build the line. What the city seems not to have grasped fully is that the primarily residential South Osborne neighbourhood is only the tip of the potential development iceberg.
If the city provided for access across the rail line, a world of additional development opportunities would open up along the adjacent east side of Pembina Highway. Currently, that stretch of land is home to a strip of relatively low-density commercial development, a lot of surface parking and, apparently, a significant proportion of empty land. The character of this area is suburban rather than urban, and as Winnipeg develops, it becomes increasingly inappropriate to a location so near the city centre, and the quintessentially urban neighbourhoods of Osborne Village, Corydon Village and the South Osborne neighbourhood.
With ready access to a rapid transit line, well connected to the centre of the city and the University of Winnipeg, and later to the University of Manitoba as well, that land could be redeveloped into a much higher density commercial development, or some mix of commercial and residential development. The revenues that could be generated by such development would dwarf the cost of overpasses. As a bonus, the additional riders transit would get would improve the viability of the transit system as a whole.
My central point is really very simple: It’s crazy to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on a rapid transit line and then to slash its potential benefits in order to save a few millions.
This entry is an expanded version of a recently-published newspaper article:
Christopher Leo and Jonah Levine, Let's Not Skimp on Rapid Transit. Winnipeg Free Press, 5 July 2009. Accessible at http://www.winnipegfreepress.com/opinion/westview/lets-not-skimp-on-rapid-transit-49971382.html, down-loaded 5 July 2009.
Scholarly research on transit-oriented development:
A veritable gold mine of information is available at the web site of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute.
Hank Dittmar and Gloria Ohland, The New Transit Town: Best Practices in Transit-Oriented Development. Washington, DC: Island Press, 2003.
Kenneth J. Dueker. A Critique of the Urban Transportation Planning Process: The Performance of Portland's 2000 Regional Transportation Plan. Transportation Quarterly 56 (2), pp. 15-21.
Posted by leo-c at 11:51 AM
April 10, 2009
IF CITIES CAN'T REGULATE URBAN GROWTH, URBANIZING MUNICIPALITIES CERTAINLY CAN'T
It is becoming more evident with each passing year that urban growth is a matter national concern. The growing ease and speed of the global movement of money, goods, people and ideas has made it more and more clear that the prosperity of nations is heavily dependent on the prosperity of cities. At the same time, poorly managed urban growth is a major contributor to the global-scale environmental problems we face. For both environmental and economic reasons, therefore, we need to think of urban growth as a national and global issue, not a purely local one.
In my previous post, I showed how, in North America, city councils are entrusted with many of the decisions that determine the growth of our cities. Since these councils frequently lack the political will to resist the blandishments of developers, in practice, we are allowing the cost accounting of individual development companies to play a major role in determining the growth of cities.
The question of whether the location and design of a new development responds to environmental concerns, and maximizes the city's ability to maintain the viability of its network of infrastructure and services, is unlikely to be high on an individual developer's list of concerns. The developer's responsibility is to shareholders, not the city as a whole. In other words, far from being responsive to national and global concerns, the growth of cities, typically, is not even responsive to the best interests of the city as a whole.
It gets worse. Most North American cities, or metropolitan areas, are actually loose agglomerations of municipalities. In those metropolitan areas, a significant amount of the growth is taking place in municipalities that are partly or largely rural. In such communities, control over growth may be even looser than it is in major cities.
I gained an insight into growth at the urban fringe a few years ago, when I attended two sessions of a Manitoba Municipal Board panel that was deciding whether to recommend approval of the proposed official plan of the Springfield Municipality, an agricultural area and bedroom community immediately east of Winnipeg. The municipality’s proposed new official municipal plan defined four land forms in the municipality:
•Two high-potential agricultural areas,
•An area near a provincial park that is the prime source of ground water for the municipality and
•An area that is defined as having lower agricultural potential.
In defining objectives for development of the municipality, the plan stressed the high priority placed on:
•Preserving agricultural viability and natural resources and
•Preventing proliferation of residential development.
A substantial scholarly literature cites a variety of ways that residential development in farming areas damages the viability of agriculture: complaints from urban residents about smells, heavy machinery on roads and other perceived nuisances resulting from agriculture; residential activities that interfere with farming operations such as commuter traffic, harassment of farm animals by pets; and escalation of land prices that inflate the cost of farming.
The proposed Springfield official plan itself stated that the growth potential of livestock husbandry had already been limited by past residential development. To this point in the plan, therefore, an analysis of land forms indicated the location of good agricultural areas and important water resources, while statements of objectives stressed the determination to preserve these assets in the face of urbanization.
However, the proposed zoning categories set out in later chapters of the plan appeared to have been established by someone who did not read the chapters containing planning principles. Most of the residential development was planned for the larger of the two prime agricultural areas and in the area where the major resource of ground water is located. All the residential development on top of the prime water resource relies on septic tanks for sewage disposal, which invariably poses a greater risk to ground water than a community sewage system.
There was a cluster of residential development planned as well in the community of Anola, which is located in the low-potential agricultural area and would therefore seem to be the natural area for urban development if harm to agriculture were to be minimized, but that community was slated to receive only a limited amount of development because it was not to be provided with the water and sewer services needed for higher concentrations of development.
Nor were there any plans for providing Anola with services, even though the plan stated that there was a demand for residential development there. Meanwhile, two urban communities in the middle of the prime agricultural area, Oakbank and Dugald, had been provided with the services required for higher concentrations of urban development. In short, everything possible was done to encourage urban development in those areas which the plan claimed a determination to protect, and almost nothing done to encourage development in the area that the plan designated as unsuitable for other purposes: a good line of talk, but no action to back it up.
Attendance at two hearings of the municipal board panel provided insights into the sources of this exercise in appearing to plan without actually doing so. From a variety of statements that were made, it became clear that numerous residents of the municipality had been able to improve their fortunes by subdividing farmland in the past, in order to sell it for residential development, and that others wished to do so in future. When witnesses at the hearing called attention to the gap in the plan between objectives and proposed outcomes the argument was repeatedly made that, since some had been allowed to subdivide their land, it was not fair to restrict others from doing so.
In short, the municipality was meeting its legal obligations by providing something that resembled a plan, but political pressures from constituents in a community small enough to allow almost anyone to have a personal relationship with her or his representative on council prevented the municipality from adhering to the principles stated in the plan. In a community as small as this one, it is not necessary to imagine cases of rye or thousands of dollars changing hands in order to understand what is happening. In the absence of clear provincial planning guidelines, pressures on council are too immediate and too personal to permit genuine planning.
The situation in Springfield is very different from that in the Greater Toronto Area, described in my previous post, but the outcome is the same: it is those who stand to gain from development that largely determine the way the community will develop. Environmental concerns, and even the question of the long-term viability of a municipality's network of infrastructure and services, is likely to take a back seat.
Elsewhere I have made the case that cities and communities ought to be more involved in decision-making about social assistance, social housing and immigrant settlement. In those policy areas, there is room for more local involvement in decision-making. Land use planning is a different matter. There is too much leverage available to those who are most likely to subvert good governance. Since the growth of our cities is critically important to the national economy and the global environment, it is everyone's business. Although local interests need to be considered in land use decision-making, local decisions should be circumscribed by rules that reflect the needs of society at large.
You can look further into the arguments in this blog entry by checking out:
Rural Municipality of Springfield. Development Plan (By-Law 98-22). Oakbank, MB: Ruraland Consulting Ltd, June, 1998.
Christopher Leo, “Urban Development: Planning Aspirations and Political Realities.” In Edmund P Fowler and David Siegel, eds., Urban Policy Issues (second edition.) Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2002.
WHY LOCAL GOVERNMENTS CAN'T BE TRUSTED TO REGULATE CITY GROWTH
Last October I sketched out my argument that local and metropolitan governments can't meaningfully regulate urban land use because developers swing too much political weight at the local level. I pointed out, on the basis of European case studies and my own analytical work, that the position of developers is markedly different in countries where a significant amount of city planning takes place at the national level than it is in the typical North American case. We can verify that by considering the concrete reality of how land use decisions are made in Canada and the United States.
This is not easily done, because it's impossible to trace the influences that determine complicated land use decisions without careful and persistent research. The results of one such piece of research some time ago offer a revealing example. A 10-month investigation in the late 1980s by two Globe and Mail reporters deals with land development in the area north of Toronto, part of what is now known as the Greater Toronto Area - a wide ring of suburban communities that are the primary focus of growth in the region.
The investigation concluded that the provincial government adopted a hands-off stance toward a lack of urban planning that allowed private developers to control the growth of communities in the area and that the “role of citizens in the planning of their communities has been trivialized to the point where it is ignored by many municipal councils.” Specifically, the investigation found that “A small group of powerful developers... Have a near monopoly on developable land in the... area [north of Toronto] and are a factor in rising house prices.”
The Globe and Mail documented a “loan” of $80,000 that was not repaid from a developer to a company owned by an official in the region, which was followed by approval of an industrial development proposal that had been filed by the company that gave the “loan”. There were also stories of a cheque for $4,000 from a developer to a “senior municipal official” and at least two cases of envelopes containing several thousand dollars in cash delivered on behalf of a developer to a councillor.
While such stories are rarely told in as much detail as this one was, the story comes as no surprise to anyone familiar with the conventions of growth politics in major metropolitan areas. In fact, it's not necessary to point to apparent corruption to see why there is very little meaningful regulation of urban growth in most North American cities. The urban studies literature is rife with examples of city councils being overawed and bamboozled or bullied and sweet-talked into decisions that can endanger both the environment and the viability of cities.
It's important to stress that there is more at stake here than conventional shock stories about influence pedalling, graft, or lack of political will. Urban growth is a critical economic issue and will necessarily play a central role in any realistic attempt to address the economic challenges and environmental problems our societies face, as I will argue in subsequent blog entries. How much longer can we afford the luxury of allowing the growth of our cities to be determined primarily by the private economic interests of those who control the development of urban land?
You can look further into the arguments in this blog entry by checking out:
Ferguson, Jock and Dawn King. 1988. Hidden money fuelling regional growth. Toronto: Globe and Mail, 2 November 1988, 1, 11.
Christopher Leo, “Urban Development: Planning Aspirations and Political Realities.” In Edmund P Fowler and David Siegel, eds., Urban Policy Issues (second edition.) Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2002.
March 1, 2009
TRYING TO START A DIALOGUE ABOUT CASE STUDY RESEARCH METHODS
I'm off to Chicago to deliver a paper about case study research methods to the Urban Affairs Association. This is a slightly revised version of a paper I delivered in Tokyo in December. I wrote the paper after it dawned on me that many of my colleagues devote a lot of their research career to case studies, as I do, but that we rarely discuss how we do them.
However, the part of my paper that stirred up the most interest in Tokyo started as an afterthought: a discussion of how research ethics protocols militate against, not only sound methodology, but also ethics itself. You can read that discussion by going to p. 12 of the attached paper.
Despite the interest in the ethics issue, I haven't given up on the idea of a dialogue about the much-neglected topic of case study research methodology. If you'd like to get to the meat of that discussion, check out Section 2 of the paper, starting on p. 4. I'm convinced that nothing is more important to the future of social science than getting case study research methods right, and I'd be really interested to learn from my colleagues what they think about the issue. I invite comments below.
In order to develop the discussion about research methods, I provide examples of research I've done in Africa and Canada. Check out section 3, starting near the bottom of p. 6, for that material.
If you're looking for an overview of the paper, here's the abstract:
Epistemological, practical and ethical considerations in case study research
Case studies have unjustifiably acquired a reputation for being semi-anecdotal investigation of the small details of individual circumstances, research that is incapable of generating significant empirical or theoretical advances in knowledge. It is argued that the case study is, at best, a preliminary step, in that it may generate hypotheses that can later be tested using such “more reliable” methods as standardized questionnaires or statistical data. In the study of politics, however, that sequence of research initiatives may well work better in reverse.
When political action generates new policies, or creates new states of affairs, these changes invariably come complete with a set of justifications, with or without a claim that the justifications are founded in scientific investigation or well-established social theory. Often, a very effective way of testing such claims, and the social science backing them, is to do a case study of the policy, or the changed state of affairs, enquiring into its causes and the effects it has produced, in order to test the validity of the original justification. A series of such case studies may, in turn, generate insights that are capable of producing theoretical advances, provided the case studies employ sound methodology. This paper considers the epistemological and practical questions that must be resolved in arriving at sound case study methodology. It then turns to the problems posed by institutional ethics reviews, which, though well-intentioned, inhibit the kind of critical investigation that case study research requires, both by effectively legitimizing any efforts power-holders may make to conceal facts and obfuscate analysis, and by failing adequately to protect subordinates and ordinary people from reprisals for research findings power-holders do not like.
Posted by leo-c at 5:54 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:
February 1, 2009
WHAT'S YOUR PREFERENCE IN A RAPID TRANSIT LINE, WINNIPEG? ECONOMIC ASSET OR WHITE ELEPHANT?
It looks as if there's a rapid transit line in Winnipeg's future. Problem solved, right? Wrong. The choice facing us now is whether or not we succeed in building a viable system, one that provides a better service than the buses on Pembina Highway do, and one that creates new economic opportunities while fighting sprawl and improving the environment.
The question hinges on the accessibility of the stations, and on land use regulations adjacent to them. If the stations are readily accessible, rapid transit can create new development opportunities, contribute to the clean-up of our environment, and provide a much-needed transportation option to all those who do not have access to an automobile, or prefer convenient public transportation. To the extent that they are not, users of rapid transit will have experiences similar to those I had in Miami last summer, and Winnipeg's development will suffer accordingly. As I write this, the prognosis is not good.
Last summer, on my way home from Belize, I entered the United States at the Miami airport. My flight home the next morning departed from Ft. Lauderdale. No problem. There's a commuter rail line connecting the two cites, with a stop not far from the hotel room I had booked in Ft. Lauderdale. Isn't rapid transit great?
It turns out that, if you're travelling from Miami to Ft. Lauderdale, not so much. It was about 8 pm by the time I cleared the draconian U.S. customs in Miami. I hauled my bag off the carrousel, and turned around, expecting to see a sign pointing to the commuter rail stop. No sign, but luckily I speak English, unlike many who arrive in Miami in need of affordable transportation. After asking several people for directions, I was able to identify one of several bus stops in an obscure corner of the airport, where, if I waited while numerous other buses came and went, I could catch the 38, a shuttle to the transit stop.
Arriving at my stop in Ft. Lauderdale, I emerged to find myself alone in an empty station. A road passed in front of the station, an expressway buzzed in the distance, but otherwise there was nothing to be seen but an expanse of grass. There was a pay phone, but no phone directory, and I didn't know the names or numbers of any taxi companies. The pay phone didn't take credit cards and I didn't have enough American change to make a call.
I dithered for awhile: Should I try hiking? I didn't see anything to hike toward. Should I call my wife on our 800 number and get her to call Miami directory information? Would she be able to call me back on the pay phone? As I considered my options, the next train pulled into the station and a single passenger got off. Salvation! She changed a dollar for me and gave me the name of a cab company.
I haven't studied rail transit in the Miami area, but if my experience is indicative of what has been done there, the commuter rail line is a veritable symphony of missed opportunities. Easy access to the rail line from the arrivals area of the airport would have guaranteed a steady stream of passengers, and of money into the fare box, to help build the viability of the rail line, and of any future extensions of it.
At the station in Ft. Lauderdale, planning authorities could have zoned the expanse of green grass that confronted me for the development of a large amount of compact housing, which, in turn, would have created new opportunities for commerce, perhaps along the lines of Mockingbird Station in Dallas.
So will Winnipeg follow Miami's example or that of Dallas and many other cities? The first leg of our bus rapid transit system is still in the process of being planned, so there's time for changes, but, on the strength of the information available, it doesn't look good. Of the four stations now being planned, two - Morley and Jubilee - appear to be inaccessible to adjacent residential neighbourhoods on the west side of Pembina highway. There are also serious concerns regarding the accessibility of the bicycle trail that is to be developed in conjunction with the rapid transit line, and accessibility for persons with disabilities. Click here for a map.
If city government wishes to make the most of this opportunity, and ensure that the investment in rapid transit becomes the asset it can be, it had better ensure that the planning of the line proceed carefully and with the benefit of advice from area residents, cyclists, developers and any citizens who can provide relevant information.
December 25, 2008
A FAUX PAS AND A LESSON IN INFRASTRUCTURE
I committed a faux pas in Tokyo last week. I was at a conference of the International Sociological Association, listening to a presentation by John Mock, an anthropologist at the University of Tsukuba in Japan. Professor Mock was explaining his findings from a study that showed how little provision there was for cyclists on the streets of Tokyo.
Cycle lanes are either absent altogether or inadequate. Some dead-end into barriers. As a result, pedestrians tend to ignore the cycling lanes, and cyclists ignore the rules, endangering pedestrians by riding on sidewalks, or riding on the wrong side of streets. I was amused by Professor Mock's presentation, and, from time to time, I laughed, a bit obtrusively, I'm afraid.
After the presentation, it occurred to me that my Japanese colleagues might well have well have thought me to be amusing myself at Tokyo's expense, laughing at the city's failures. In, fact, I was laughing in recognition of the fact that Professor Mock could have gone through his notes, substituting "Winnipeg" for almost every reference to Tokyo, without any loss of factual accuracy.
Tokyo's failure to make appropriate accommodation for cyclists has nothing to do with any peculiarities of either Tokyo or Japan. It is rooted in something I have observed everywhere I have gone, except parts of western Europe -- the prioritization of speed in the movement of automobiles over every other consideration, even the safety of pedestrians.
I have done a series of studies on the politics of urban transportation, and, if my experience is any guide, Tokyo's decision-makers may well have raised the issue of an unacceptably high level of deaths from bicycle accidents and been told by their civil engineers that any action leading to less freedom of movement for automobiles would cause unacceptably high levels of congestion and harm Tokyo's economy.
The idea that all other considerations should be swept aside in favour of freedom of movement for automobiles is deeply entrenched, not only in conventional wisdom, but also in the profession of civil engineering, which is supposed to serve science and the public good, not a narrow interest. Our apparent determination to favour the automobile over all else exacts a heavy price.
The old, the young, the poor and the disabled lose their independence, because they must wait for others to drive them wherever they wish to go. Parents, for their part, are forced to waste hours each week chauffeuring their children, because we have built an infrastructure that leaves most people solely dependent on automobiles for mobility.
And, of course, there is also the slaughter on the highways - which has become so routine that it isn't even considered a cost - and the damage to the environment, not to mention that, in many parts of the world, we don't have enough money to maintain all the roads we have built.
When the automobile first entered our lives, it opened up a new world of opportunity for mobility, but the dream has turned into a nightmare. As is so often the case with human behavour, we have got ourselves into a great mess by continuing unreflectively along a path that seemed reasonable at first. It will take some doing to change course and repair the damage.
Professor Mock's paper:
John Mock, Contested Borders—Tolerated Mayhem: Contested Space on the Streets and Sidewalks of Tokyo. Paper presented at a conference of the Research Committee on Urban and Regional Development, International Sociological Association, Tokyo, 17-20 December, 2008.
An excellent source of intelligent and environmentally aware reflection on transportation issues is a journal entitled World Transport Policy and Practice, available for free on the internet.
Posted by leo-c at 2:57 PM
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
December 12, 2008
"THE TRUTH": EPISTEMOLOGICAL, PRACTICAL AND ETHICAL CONSIDERATIONS IN CASE STUDY RESEARCH
I'll be in Tokyo next week, delivering a paper at a conference of the International Sociological Association. Drawing on examples of research I've done, in both Kenya and North America, the paper discusses issues faced by researchers who undertake critical investigations of the way political power is wielded. It looks at the problem of how to get at "the truth", as well as some obstacles posed by inappropriate research ethics protocols. Following is a brief summary of the paper, or, if you prefer, download the paper itself.
Case study research has unjustifiably acquired a reputation for being semi-anecdotal investigation of the small details of individual circumstances, research that is incapable of generating significant empirical or theoretical advances in knowledge. Drawing on a research methods literature, and on my own experience with case study research on two continents, I argue that case studies can serve as an indispensable tool, both for testing the validity of claims made for policy initiatives and political decisions, and occasionally for the generation of theoretically significant insights.
Case studies that involve critical assessments of the use of political power pose serious challenges for researchers because power holders may be in a position to exercise control over both the opinions of a researcher’s interview subjects and some of the contents of the documentary record. The challenge to the researcher is to evaluate the significance of various interviewees’ interpretations of the state of affairs or sequence of events under study, while separating out facts from interpretations, and testing the validity of factual accounts against the representation of those same facts in the documentary record. This study makes the case that power is unlikely to be so absolute as to withstand a scrutiny that includes careful cross-checking of the representation of facts in different, independent sources.
The study then turns to the problems posed by institutional ethics reviews, which, though well-intentioned, inhibit the kind of critical investigation that case study research requires, both by effectively legitimizing any efforts power-holders may make to conceal facts and obfuscate analysis, and by failing adequately to protect subordinates and ordinary people from reprisals for research findings that offend power-holders.
Posted by leo-c at 7:41 AM
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.
October 12, 2008
ARE STRONGER LOCAL GOVERNMENTS ALWAYS THE ANSWER?
In a recent issue of Plan Canada, a house organ for professional city planners, my colleague Andrew Sancton pointed out that, in the establishment of the Ontario Greenbelt, provincial government imposition produced a result that would have been much harder, or maybe impossible, to achieve through regional governance. Urban affairs columnist John Barber, writing in the Globe and Mail, cited Professor Sancton's findings to suggest that, perhaps, old-fashioned provincial oversight over municipal government makes more sense than all that fashionable piffle about multi-level governance.
"While the hives buzz with talk of European-style 'subsidiarity', national urban policy and new 'governance structures'," Barber writes, "Prof. Sancton points out that the actual Ontario government has quietly implemented almost all the policies the quasi-constitutional reforms aim indirectly to achieve." As a long-time, and unrepentant, purveyor of multi-level governance piffle, I guess it's my turn to speak.
Readers who have taken a look at some of the things I've had to say about deep federalism and respect for community difference may be surprised that I believe Barber has a point. While multi-level governance has usually been taken as synonymous with devolution of power to local government, it makes a lot more sense to me to think of it in terms of doing whatever it takes to ensure that different local communities are governed in a manner appropriate to their widely varying circumstances.
From that point of view, genuine respect for community difference might lead to devolution in some cases, centralization in others, and more complex forms of intergovernmental co-operation in still others. And, since a very substantial portion of my research career has been devoted to urban growth issues, I came to the conclusion some time ago that any effective approach to urban growth in Canada and the United States would have to involve a significant centralization of power.
I got my first inkling of that conclusion when I did a study in 1995 of urban growth management in Portland, Oregon, where such a centralization has taken place, as I showed in an article cited below. Two years later, I published a comparison of European and North American approaches to urban development that solidified my thinking, and further research has continued to reinforce that view. In this and subsequent blog entries, I hope to support Professor Sancton's findings and Barber's arguments while placing them in a wider context. I'll start by very briefly laying out one of the main conclusions I reached in my 1997 assessment of research on continental European and North American approaches to urban development.
In France and Italy, in the cases I looked at, the national government played a much larger role in urban development decision-making than in the United States, with the result that, in the United States, developers were better-placed than in Europe to exert direct influence upon urban development. I found that the Canadian situation was similar to that of the United States.
Anyone who pays attention to local and national politics can confirm those findings by ordinary observation. Land developers, and others with a financial interest in land development, are in a good position to exert a great deal of influence on local decision-making, while, in national government, they are bit players on a stage dominated by the heights of national and international finance and industry. Therefore, when urban development decision-making is largely local, it is bound to conform much more closely to the interests of land developers than when it is national. And, as I have argued elsewhere, the interests of developers are far from synonymous with the requirements of environmental sustainability, as well as those associated with an efficiently managed network of urban infrastructure and services, and healthy commercial agriculture at the urban fringe.
In subsequent blog entries, I hope to support these findings, and add detail and nuance, by looking at other research.
The 1997 article I refer to 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 1995 study of Portland was published as:
Christopher Leo, “Regional Growth Management Regime: the Case of Portland, Oregon.” Journal of Urban Affairs 20 (4), 1998, 363-394.
John Barber's column appeared 2 October 2007.
Posted by leo-c at 6:34 PM
September 19, 2008
DOES RAPID TRANSIT FIGHT SPRAWL? NOT NECESSARILY
At last, after more than 30 years of vacillation and obstruction, it looks as if Winnipeg will finally get the first leg of a rapid transit system. Appropriately for a blue-collar town with a deeply-rooted culture of caution and frugality, it will be a low-budget diesel bus system, rather than a more expensive, classier and more environmentally friendly rail system. Nevertheless, it will open new opportunities for Winnipeg.
The system's most significant long-term benefit has been largely neglected in discussions leading to the decision to develop rapid transit. Potentially, a dedicated rapid transit line paves the way for new kinds of neighbourhoods that will be less dependent on automobiles around the clock, not just on the daily commute. That's because the existence of the transit line creates new incentives for the development of such neighbourhoods.
When a developer is choosing a location, and deciding what kind of development will go there, a major factor in the decision is access: How long will it take to get back and forth from the city centre, and what means of transportation are available? If accessibility is good and the main means of access is roads, chances are the developer will opt for single-family homes, and, since buyers of such homes usually like quiet neighbourhoods, the area will be exclusively residential, with shopping and jobs located elsewhere. Once settled in those neighbourhoods, the residents are almost totally dependent on their automobiles, because bus service is likely to be poor, and even the smallest daily errands will be run in a car.
Rapid transit opens up possibilities for a more urban style of development, a market that is generally under-served in Winnipeg: A denser neighbourhood consisting of a mix of homes, apartments, local shopping and public facilities, all within walking distance of the transit stop. Planners call such neighbourhoods transit-oriented development. People living there will have no need for two or three cars, because they will be able to do most of their daily business on foot, by transit, or on the bike path that will be developed parallel to the rapid transit line.
The potential benefits of a rapid transit line, therefore, go far beyond the convenience of a quick trip to work and back and the environmental benefits of reduced vehicle emissions on that trip. They also include:
• Reduced land consumption, resulting in less sprawl.
• Life-styles generally less oriented to automobile use - not just on the daily trip to work and back - and therefore less cars on the road and less filth in the air.
• More exercise and healthier bodies.
But those are potential benefits, not a sure thing, because there is an alternative. The land development around rapid transit stations can consist of parking lots instead of neighbourhoods. Political pressure for developing rapid transit this way will come from residents of auto-dependent suburbs who like their cars but would like to avoid some of the congestion on their daily commute.
Political pressure from suburbanites will be abetted by residents of neighbourhoods near transit stops who not only don't want to live in dense neighbourhoods, but are also fearful of the development of dense neighbourhoods nearby. What's more, rigid zoning and building code regulations may come down on the side of those who prefer asphalt to neighbourhoods. If asphalt lovers win the day, rapid transit, far from providing a counter to sprawl, may actually give it a boost, by improving the accessibility of ever more distant, auto-dependent suburbs.
Winnipeg is off to a good start in avoiding that fate, because financing for the first rapid transit line depends on revenues from a development next to the line that will presumably be transit-oriented. But that is only one short stretch of the line. There will be many opportunities for development at other points along the line. In a city as auto-dependent as Winnipeg, there are bound to be advocates for asphalt and opponents of density at those points. If we want Winnipeg's rapid transit system to be a sprawl fighter and a boon to the environment, rather than a gift to the petroleum industry, we had better be ready to make our case.
Posted by leo-c at 4:51 PM
August 25, 2008
OPPOSITION TO SPRAWL ISN'T ANTI-RURAL. IT'S PRO-RURAL.
For years, I've argued that urban sprawl is the source of a long list of serious urban social, economic and environmental problems. In recent years, I'm finding that more and more people agree with that line of argument. Today when they disagree, the disagreement, as often as not, takes the form, either of allegations that government policy favours cities over rural areas, or of hymns of praise to the virtues of rural life.
The impression I leave, apparently, is that, because I oppose sprawl, I am pro-urban and anti-rural. Not only is that impression mistaken, the whole idea that there is an irreconcilable conflict of interest between cities and the countryside is a major source of bad public policy.
The reality is that sprawl is potentially as harmful to commercial agriculture as it is to cities. The problem begins with the fact that a very substantial proportion of Canada's best agricultural land is located near cities, and that, conversely, urban development often takes place on prime farmland. But here's a bigger problem yet: You don't have to pave over farmland to erode its viability. All a rural municipality has to do to undermine commercial agriculture is be open-hearted in allowing farmers to sell out some tracts of land for residential development
Disillusioned urbanites move out of the city because they think they prefer the bucolic charms of the countryside - until they notice how it smells. A substantial scholarly literature cites a variety of ways that residential development in farming areas damages the viability of agriculture:
• Complaints from residents not only about smells, but also about heavy machinery on roads and other perceived nuisances resulting from agriculture.
• Residential activities that interfere with farming operations such as commuter traffic and harassment of farm animals by pets.
• Most significantly in the long run, escalation of land prices that inflate the cost of farming.
Environmental implications of such development are even more disturbing, as we can see from the typical example of the Municipality of Springfield, immediately east of Winnipeg. Springfield is allowing widely-scattered residential development, and most of it is in one of the municipality's prime agricultural areas and in an area where the municipality's major resource of ground water is located. All the residential development on top of the prime water resource relies on septic tanks for sewage disposal, which invariably poses a greater risk to ground water than a community sewage system.
Two urban communities in the middle of the prime agricultural area, Oakbank and Dugald, have been provided with the services required for higher concentrations of urban development. The Springfield official plan itself stated in 1998 that the growth potential of livestock husbandry had already then been limited by past residential development, but the municipality was and is determined promote further residential development, even though it remains primarily an agricultural area and will certainly not rely primarily on urban development for its economic viability in the foreseeable future.
This is not an unusual situation. It is typical. It has been a political issue in the United States for decades, but has received much less attention in Canada. It ought to be a greater concern in Canada, because we have less high-potential agricultural land and a greater percentage of it is threatened by urban develiopment. Canada's situation has been likened to having the population growth of Florida located in the heart of the U.S. cornbelt.
In other words, the sprawl issue is not about decadent urbanites wishing to deny solid citizens the spiritual and physical health benefits they will supposedly gain from fresh country air. It's about viable commercial agriculture and clean air, water and soil - as well as the social health and financial viability of cities. This is only one more reason why, instead of viewing the sprawl issue as a clash between urbanites and people who don't like cities, we all need to recognize the importance of sensible land use control measures.
Medieval cities were walled, not only for self-defence, but also because cities work better when they are contained. We will not wish to go back to building walls around our cities, but the sooner we give up on the illusion that it's possible, at one and the same time, to enjoy the benefits of both rural and urban life, the sooner we will stop laying waste to cities, the countryside and the environment.
Documentation of the points I've made, and much more, can be found in:
Ralph E. Heimlich and Kenneth S. Krupa. 1994. Changes in land quality accompanying urbanization in U.S. fast-growth counties. Journal of Soil and Water Conservation, 49(4) 367-374.
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. 2002. “Urban development: Planning aspirations and political realities.” In Edmund P. Fowler and David Siegel, eds., Urban Policy Issues (second edition.) Toronto: Oxford University Press.
Posted by leo-c at 2:19 PM
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
June 28, 2008
BEAUTIFUL STADIUM PROPOSAL? HEADS UP FOR THE BAIT AND SWITCH
The Creswin Properties proposal for a new stadium and waterfront development in Winnipeg's South Point Douglas neighbourhood looks beautiful, doesn't it? There's no denying that, but maybe now it's time to take a look at what happened in Edmonton, when Triple Five Corporation made an irresistible offer to obtain a massive commitment of public funds and then used local politicians' commitment to keep them on-side, even as the more attractive features of the original offer were withdrawn, and its price increased.
You'd have to have a heart of stone not to be attracted to the beautiful images below, which appeared today in the Winnipeg Free Press. But as they admire the images, Winnipeg's citizens and decision-makers should bear a couple of other things in mind.
In the first place, don't lose sight of the fact that the Point Douglas neighbourhood, which has been through a lot of very hard times, has lately accomplished the difficult task of getting itself organized and attacking some of the problems that have plagued it. A massive public facility, with the inevitable multitudes of automobiles and crowds of people, leaving bottles, wrappers and chicken bones in their wake, is a huge liability to a residential neighbourhood.
Do the developers have anything better to offer the neighbourhood than rowdy football fans, broken glass and half-eaten corn dogs?
Citizens and decision-makers should also bear in mind that the pictures, by the developer's own admission, are just drawings, with no commitment behind them. If we're going to consider spending our hard-earned tax dollars to visit this development upon Point Douglas, we had better note what happened in Edmonton, - just one example of many such instances - and make sure that we learn from those mistakes.
Posted by leo-c at 5:03 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.
March 2, 2008
PEAK OIL, SUBURBIA AND POLITICAL TIPPING POINTS
James Howard Kunstler has been telling anyone who will listen that we will, very soon, experience a shock that will force a fundamental re-thinking of how we build our cities. Kunstler is the author of Home from Nowhere and Geography of Nowhere, sharply worded polemics against modernist architecture and street design. More recently, in The Long Emergency, he has become a prophet of suburbia's doom.
His latest argument, in a nutshell, is that, having passed into an era in which world supply of oil has entered a long decline, we face, not only sharp increases in the price of oil products, but also shortages. Once the shortages hit, we will be forced into a fundamental re-thinking of our consumption habits in general and our urban development practices in particular. Wrenching social and economic change will follow, and suburbia as we know it, as well as much of the rest of civilization as we know it, will become a thing of the past.
That's a good way to sell books. Whether it - despite overwrought rhetoric and probably exaggerated claims - contains a kernel of sound political analysis remains to be seen. But before we dismiss Kunstler's argument altogether, it's worth reflecting on how quickly and easily apparently impregnable political fortresses have been known to fall in the wake of a shift of public awareness and attitude.
In my youth, I saw drunken driving, smoking in public buildings and vocal racism all flagrantly, and often boastfully, put on public display. Today, though all three are still with us, they are widely frowned upon, and strict legislation has driven them underground. "If you can't drink and drive, how are you going to get home?" is no longer considered a funny line. In all three cases, a change in public perception was a tipping point after which legislative change came relatively easily.
Today, Kunstler and others who argue that conventional North American urban development is environmentally and socially unsound are often heard but rarely taken seriously. The idea that it might be possible to overcome the formidable economic interests, public perceptions, and bureaucratic obstacles that support the way we are building our cities seems far-fetched. The development of North American cities is largely driven by development proposals, and developers typically propose spacious subdivisions, marked by sharp separation of residential, commercial and industrial districts - precisely the things Kunstler, and many other, more moderate commentators, decry. Developers generally prefer conventional built form both because alternatives are bound to encounter serious bureaucratic obstacles and because they know they will have no difficulty selling houses and commercial premises in the kinds of neighbourhoods people are used to. Both public perception and the law are on the side of the status quo.
And yet, what Kunstler and others propose is nothing more than the conventional wisdom of two generations ago. Until World War II, the normal way to build cities was to develop compact residential neighbourhoods, with public squares and commerce, and sometimes light industry, all within walking distance. It's instructive today to consider how, in a few short years, that conventional wisdom encountered a tipping point that led to its replacement by modernist urban design conventions. Let's look at that transition and see if it gives us any clues as to what the possibilities are today.
Post World War II Canadian cities have been profoundly shaped by interventions instigated by the federal government, with all three levels of government participating in a joint venture of the kind we would today term multi-level governance. At the end of World War II, the federal government feared that the return to civilian life of large numbers of veterans would trigger a housing crisis, and feared, at the same time, that the abrupt end of wartime industrial production would lead to a return of the terrible depression of the 1930s. To meet those twin threats, federal policy-makers decided on a series of measures designed to stimulate the housing market.
Since it was private enterprise that was being stimulated, the interventions of government were not always obvious to the casual observer. For example, an amendment to the federal Insurance Act allowed insurance funds to flow into housing finance, thus freeing a large pool of capital which in turn helped a generation of Canadians to mortgage their way into their private suburban paradises. The Central (now Canada) Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC), a federal crown corporation, provided subsidized home loans, while the conditions on CMHC mortgages helped establish the framework of provincial and municipal planning and zoning regulations.
The federal government, through CMHC, was creating housing programs that made a new planning regime necessary. Provincial government legislation and regulations set out what was to be expected of municipalities, while municipalities passed and implemented most of the actual planning legislation. This regulatory regime, in turn, had much to do with dictating the characteristic form of suburban development: single-family homes, situated on large lots, with a large expanse of front yard looking out over a wide street, often lacking a sidewalk; a strict separation of this type of residential area from commercial and industrial development, so that residential neighbourhoods were located at a distance from shopping malls and shopping strips, and both residential and shopping areas were separated from industrial parks, where many of the jobs were concentrated.
In pursuing these policies, the federal government stimulated provincial and municipal governments to reinforce the rapidly growing popular preference for the private automobile over public transportation, to give it free reign, and to entrench it. The money lavished on suburban road-building provided easy access to locations distant from the inner city, and made large-lot housing development feasible. The clear separation of residential areas from shopping strips, shopping malls and industrial parks, which was dictated by the provincial and municipal regime of planning and zoning, assured that residents of the suburbs would become dependent on private cars for everything: trips to work, shopping and even such small errands as a run to the video store or the convenience store.
Low-density development patterns imposed obstacles on the expansion of public transit systems, which were finding it difficult - in many instances impossible - to plan transit routes capable of drawing enough passengers to make transit widely available without bleeding the public purse white. Declining transit service, in turn, further reinforced dependence on private transport. It is hardly necessary to add that the combination of growing automobile dependence and declining transit has contributed a great deal to the environmental problems we face to day.
It is important, however, to notice that all these changes took place in a few short years after World War II. By the mid-1950s, Canadian families in droves were abandoning the apartments and small-lot single-family homes of pre-war Canadian cities; neighbourhood stores within walking distance were being replaced by shopping malls with parking lots bigger than some farms of the 1930s, and streetcar tracks were being ripped up while bus service declined. A few straightforward policy changes at the federal level cascaded downward through provincial and municipal governments to produce momentous changes in our way of life and the way we use energy.
It was the fear of depression and a housing crisis - together with the fact that modernist design ideas captured the spirit of the times - that produced the political will which, in turn, enabled the federal government to take these actions. Perceived dangers, combined with changing tastes, constituted a tipping point into a new era, an era of different perceptions and a new legislative regime.
Public sentiment may be building today toward a new tipping point, an opportunity for another round of federal government action, this time to reverse some of the ill effects of the previous round. The The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change seems finally to have had an impact on public opinion, and climate change deniers are on the defensive.
Whether these changes in the public mood are permanent, and whether they will spawn public support for action on the environment and public willingness to consider working and living in more compact and transit-friendly neighbourhoods remains to be seen, but there are some encouraging signs on both fronts, in polls and in many of the market responses to real estate developments based on the principles of New Urbanism, neo-traditional design, or downtown living.
Suppose Kunstler is right, and this changing public awareness is heightened - and a new sense of urgency added - by, say, $2-a-litre gas, followed by "out of gas" signs on gas pumps, as demands for oil from the burgeoning Chinese and Indian economies gain on supply. Will the pressure from those influences be comparable to the fear of depression and a housing crisis that helped to push city planning into the era of modernist urban design? Perhaps.
If that time is coming, politicians and concerned citizens might wish to take another look at a 2003 report of the Canadian National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy entitled "Environmental quality in Canadian cities: The federal role". That report identifies federal taxation and aid policies that could, in conjunction with the other levels of government, have serious impacts on urban land use and transportation. Alternatively - as is often the case in Canadian politics - the first flowering of political will may have to come from such provincial governments as those of British Columbia and Manitoba, which have shown serious interest in the development of a meaningful green agenda.
The last time the federal government generated political will on urban issues, we got the green fields of suburbia. There could be an opportunity now for the growth of political will that might help to give us back our cities, and the contribution those cities can make to environmental sustainability.
To be sure, under no circumstances will 21st Century cities be the same as those we left behind in the first part of the 20th Century. Barring a catastrophe of unimaginable proportions - which Kunstler seems to be contemplating with grim satisfaction - we will still be struggling to manage massive urban agglomerations, in place of the more comfortably-sized cities of yore, but finding ways of achieving more compact form and more manageable and environmentally sustainable systems of transportation should not be beyond human imagination.
Kunstler's arguments are spelled out in:
James Howard Kunstler, The geography of nowhere: The rise and decline of America's man-made landscape (New York: Simon & Schuster), 1993.
Kunstler, Home from nowhere: Remaking our everyday world for the Twenty-First Century (New York: Simon & Schuster), 1996.
Kunstler, The long emergency: Surviving the converging catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press), 2005.
For a readable discussion of the shift in demand for housing in the United States and its significance, see:
Christopher B. Leinberger, "The next slum?" (TheAtlantic.com, March 2008), accessible at: http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/print/200803/subprime, down-loaded 7 March 2008.
The story of Canada's post-war suburban development, and its impact on our cities, is documented in:
Christopher Leo, "The state in the city: A political economy perspective on growth and decay," In James Lightbody, ed, Canadian metropolitics (Toronto: Copp Clark Pitman), 1995, ch 2.
See also the link above to the NRTEE document that proposes new environmental policies, and, for more history, take a look at:
Humphrey Carver, Houses for Canadians (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1948).
John Sewell, "Where the suburbs came from," in James Lorimer and Evelyn Ross, The Second city book: Studies of urban and suburban Canda (Toronto: James Lorimer and Company), 1977, 10-17.
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
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