WHY CITIES DON'T WORK

City Hall is where the action is. The trouble is, the power and the money are somewhere else

WALTER STEWART January 1 1974

WHY CITIES DON'T WORK

City Hall is where the action is. The trouble is, the power and the money are somewhere else

WALTER STEWART January 1 1974

WHY CITIES DON'T WORK

City Hall is where the action is. The trouble is, the power and the money are somewhere else

WALTER STEWART

We didn’t set out to be a nation of city states; it was something that happened to us along the way. There we were, just yesterday it seems, poking around the farm, taking the occasional trip into town to buy tobacco and watch a haircut, and suddenly we are jammed into cities, riding the subway to work, spending our leisure time — something we seldom had, on the farm — at movies and art galleries, in shops or at home, in our apartment-cubicles, watching the boob-tube. The speed at which the transition took place was breathtaking; while Europe spent centuries spinning towns out of villages and cities out of towns, Canada leapt from hinterland to metropolis. London was a going concern in 61 A.D.; Vancouver was a forest 100 years ago. In 1871, 81.7% of all Canadians lived in rural areas; in 1931, the figure was 53% and today seven out of every 10 Canadians are urbanites. But there was nothing orderly about this movement off the land; we did not migrate to nearby towns, which grew by degrees into cities. That might have given Canada an urban population clustered in, say, 100 cities ranging in size from 100,000 to one million people; instead, we headed straight for a score of urban centres. In 1871, one Canadian in every 20 lived in either Toronto or Montreal, today, four out of every 10 of us are Torontonians or Montrealers.

These cities, and a handful of others, dominate Canada; they are its labor pool, its population centre, its economic hub, its cultural magnet, but they are not (and it is a crucial point to remember) its political centre. These city states, in turn, dominate the provinces of which they form the heart. Vancouver holds nearly half the people of British Columbia, and Winnipeg holds more than half those of Manitoba, nearly three out of every five Albertans live in either Calgary or Edmonton, and one out of every four Nova Scotians lives in Halifax. Moreover, the trend is accelerating; by the end of this decade, 81% of all Canadians will live in urban areas, a shift of 4.4 million people from farms and smaller centres, and 70% of the newcomers will go into Canada’s 19 metropolitan regions (i.e., Calgary, Edmonton, Halifax, Hamilton, Kitchener, London, Montreal, Ottawa, Quebec City, Regina, St. John’s, Saint John. Saskatoon, Sudbury, Toronto, Vancouver, Victoria, Windsor and Winnipeg).

Why? In a nation ringing with nostalgia, where images of the good-olddays pervade and where, every weekend, we pour out of the cities to sample the simpler life in cottages and farm retreats, why are we busy constructing ever-larger cities, with ever-morecrowded conditions and ever-morecomplex problems? The principal reason undoubtedly is economic, but it is not by any means the only reason.

Cities provide jobs, and because they provide jobs, they provide labor pools. No sensible manufacturer will set up a factory in the wilderness, because there is no one there to work; better to build in a city, where there is a labor force, water, power, tax concessions, transportation and a market. So the factory goes to the city, workers follow, and the circle expands.

But economics is only part of the answer; there are also powerful social and cultural factors at work. Cities are where the action is, the best schools, theatres, stores, libraries, restaurants, concert halls and art galleries. Cities are new places, new faces,' foreign tongues, a chance to mix and mingle for man, a gregarious animal. For most — though by no means all — of us, the penalties that the city exacts, in crowding and pollution. in traffic jams and shopping hassles, are more than offset by the opportunities the metropolis provides, not only to make money but to make friends, not only to find a job but to find excitement. There may be a darling little cottage available only 60 miles from downtown Vancouver, but if there’s nothing to do there, no place for the kids to go, all the tree frogs and other scenic wonders this side of hell won’t drag the average Canadian to live there. With dumb persistence, or canny logic, he will opt for the city where, if all else fails, welfare is usually easier to get, and often more generous.

So the cities continue to grow, continue despite the danger that they will grow too fast and too large, continue despite the clear example of American cities. Merely to recite the names of Los Angeles and Chicago, Detroit and New York, is to catalogue the arguments against urban sprawl, with its accompanying poverty, pollution, crime and alienation. Those examples have not been lost on us; we have moved to meet the threat they represent; we have moved toward a new urban populism.

The new urban populism has begun to grapple with one phenomenon — the preservation of neighborhoods; it has scarcely touched the more pervasive questions — if we block development, where will we house our people? On pages 20 to 23, I have examined the workings of urban populism in four cities across Canada, at four stages of its growth. The examples show a progression to more and more responsive and responsible development. But they also show that the structures burgeoning in urban Canada are not nearly adequate, yet. to meet the challenge of life in the city state.

Like the earlier rural populism of the 1920s and Thirties this new populism is aggressive, determined and disorgan-

ized. Like its predecessor, it represents, more than anything else, a conviction that the complex forces that beleaguer us can be brought to heel. Rural populism threw up new political parties, the Progressives and the United Farmers, the CCF and the Social Credit League; urban populism has recently thrown up a new political structure, the Angry Neighborhood, and this new structure has brought forward more responsive municipal governments in most Canadian cities.

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Rural populism died; it was sold out, bought off, talked down and outflanked by urban growth, though not before it had profoundly affected Canadian politics. The verdict is not yet in on urban populism. Certainly, in most cities, the build-and-be-damned development philosophy of the 1950s and Sixties has been called into question; the highrise is no longer venerated, the replacement of a score of old homes by a shopping plaza is no longer automatically regarded as progress. But many of the neighborhood victories have been won by scattered groups of ratepayers, who are concerned not so much with the plight of the city as the resale value of their own homes.

Developers have been resisted, but that has not stopped people pouring into the cities, it has only made their plight that much more difficult. In Vancouver, the Strathcona Ratepayers Association blocked a public housing project that threatened to destroy a fine old Chinese community. But what happened to the 4,000 people who were slated to move into that project? Nobody knows, but Marianne Gledhill of the Vancouver and District Public Housing Tenants’ Association told me that, in her city, two-year waits for public housing are “common.” Who lost that battle, the developer or the people who need houses?

The rapid growth of our cities has resulted in pressure felt in three ways. First, the cost of housing has soared — the average sale price of a Canadian home has nearly doubled in the past decade. For the middle and upper classes, this represents an inconvenience; they are paying more than they would like to for housing; for the poor, it is a tragedy; they are living in substandard accommodation, or. in some cases, going without enough food to pay rent. A federal study has shown that only 6% of Canadian families have the income necessary to buy a new, detached home; in 1961, the figure was 28%. Individual housing is becoming a luxury item.

The second pressure has come on older neighborhoods, which become ripe for development as costs rise. In the city of Montreal, more than 7,000 homes have been torn down over the past 10 years; by and large, lower-cost housing is replaced by more expensive highrises and town houses, which gives the cost spiral yet another push upward.

The third pressure produced by quick, massive growth is psychological, the widely felt anxiety that, at the heart of our city states, we are subject to forces beyond our control. The houses we live in, the neighborhoods we walk in, the school and parks where our children learn and play all seem to be subject to rules made Out There, by faceless bureaucrats or greedy developers. We don’t decide things, They do, and often we don’t even know who They are. The highrise that blossoms up the street, the park that disappears or, more ominously, the expropriation notice that appears all seem to stem from some peripheral command centre, completely unresponsive to entreaties, threats, demands or even votes.

The new urban populism has made important strides against two of these three pressures. In most of our city states, neighborhoods are being preserved. or even restored, and the builder who brings in the bulldozers without regard to the area he is about to deface often finds himself not only beleaguered, but stopped cold. And because the protesters have won a number of street fights, the revolutionary notion that you can fight City Hall — and not only fight it. but change its mind — has taken root. The politics of alienation have become, to some degree, the politics of involvement; ratepayers associations, citizen committees and other apostles of hellraising have blossomed, and the voice of the naysayer is heard in the land.

The impact on municipal politics is already apparent; abler, more responsive men and women are being drawn to public office at the municipal level. The three most obvious examples are the new mayors of Vancouver. Calgary and Toronto — Art Phillips, Rod Sykes and David Crombie, each of them elected on a platform of conservation and involvement. each of them a light-year ahead of his predecessor in urban philosophy. City politics were once the refuge, not so much of the scoundrel (although him. too) as the dullard. Mediocre candidates who weren’t fit for the big leagues of provincial and federal politics, or who were having a tank-town tryout for those leagues, dominated the councils, along with the property men — lawyers, insurance brokers, contractors and mortgage men — who had a direct stake in municipal decisions. Today, competition for aldermanic posts is fierce, and the demands made on successful candidates are high. When I first covered city council in Toronto 20 years ago, all we asked of our politicians was that they not embarrass the city too much (a requirement they seldom met), and that their excursions into the conflicts of interest and petty pilfering, which we all assumed were part of the municipal credo, be held within reasonable bounds. Recently, two aldermen in the Toronto suburb of North York found themselves facing criminal charges for collecting expense money for convention trips they didn’t take; they were obviously astonished by the fuss over a peccadillo that was once almost a fringe benefit of the post.

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So far, we have done well; city politics are more open, more involving and. in terms of preserving the character of our great cities, more successful. But the first pressure I mentioned, the pressure on housing, has not abated. Indeed, the situation has become steadily worse; prices that were merely outrageous five years ago have become ludicrous. In Toronto, the average house sold for $16,500 in 1963, $32,500 in 1972, and fetches close to $40,000 today, with another 15% increase predicted for next year. One Toronto couple, house hunting last April, offered the listed price for a home without quibbling, and lost it to another buyer who went higher than the list; on their next choice, they offered $1,000 over the list, and lost that one. too; then they offered $2,000 over the list on a third house with the same result. Finally, they plunked down $2,700 more than a fourth owner was asking for his place, and got it. They paid $58,000 for a three-bedroom bungalow which had sold 13 months earlier for $50,000.

In Halifax, prefabricated houses that sold for $3,400 after World War II are now going for $23,000; in Calgary, a three-bedroom bungalow that cost $23,000 two years ago has increased in price by more than $10,000. And even at sky-high prices, there are often no homes to be found. A year ago, there were only 54 new single unit homes for sale in the entire city of Ottawa.

In part, the concern to conserve and improve our cities is to blame. In many cities, councils anxious to keep tax assessments high have placed increasingly strict regulations on developers — minimum lot widths, minimum prices, buried electrical wires, first-class roadways, adequate sidewalks. The effect has not been to slow growth but to make it more expensive. Other cities, concerned with the deterioration of downtown areas, have allowed them to be flattened and replaced by better-designed, and more expensive, housing.

Planning expert Hans Blumenfeld of the University of Toronto, an internationally known urbanologist. contends that “(The cities) cannot, like the suburbs, keep the poor people out; they are already there. But they can try to throw them out. by tearing down the houses in which they live and replacing them with structures which yield higher taxes. This criminal policy is rationalized as ‘slum clearance’ for the sake of ‘higher housing standards.’ In fact, the war against the slums becomes a war against their victims, the ‘War on Poverty’ a war against the poor.”

The failure to meet the housing needs of its people is the most spectacular failure of the city state. The causes are many and complex, but underpinning every other factor is the enormous gap between responsibility and power at the local level, the gap between the tasks the city has been given and the resources it has at its command.

Under the British North America Act, the cities are creatures of the provinces; the power of municipalities to raise money, pass bylaws, plan transportation. develop housing projects, are all subject to the vetoes — and the funding — of senior governments. Thus we have the phenomenon that Prince Edward Island, population 112,000. can levy taxes, control all “property and civil rights” and bargain directly with Ottawa for funds and power, while Metropolitan Montreal, population 2.700,000. has no tax powers, beyond property and business taxes, and no direct access to the federal level. A study by the Economic Council of Canada. The Pattern Of Taxation In Canada, has shown that, of all tax revenues allocated in this country. 53.8% fall into federal coffers, 33.7% fall into provincial coffers, and only 12.4% to the municipalities. What’s more, because municipal taxes are the most regressive (that is, they press hardest on lower incomes), there is almost no room for the municipalities to move. In order to function, they must depend on senior governments taking up the slack, and the problem is that the priorities of the cities are not the priorities of the senior governments.

Not long ago. the city of Toronto petitioned the government of Ontario for legislation to give the city power to control demolition. Without such control. Mayor David Crombie argued, any developer could come along, knock down a neighborhood and apply for a highrise; it would be too late to lament the area’s destruction. He called the requested bill “the most important piece of legislation ever sought by the city of Toronto.” The province turned him down flat, after Donald Irvine, parliamentary assistant to the Minister of Treasury. Economics and Intergovernmental Affairs, said that such a law would be “an intrusion on the rights of property owners.” The right to smash down buildings apparently supercedes the right to live in them, but then neither Irvine nor any other provincial member faces the wrath that trails in the wake of the bulldozer and the wrecking ball.

When the NDP government in Manitoba set out to unify Winnipeg, it acted on a white paper that said the new city council “would be the exclusive lawmaking body responsible for all programs under its control, for budgets and for relationships with other jurisdictions.” But somehow it didn’t work out that way; when the legislation was finally passed, the Manitoba municipal board, a six-member body appointed by the province, was given final authority over two key areas — civic construction programs and zoning and planning matters. The city can be overruled on matters of fundamental importance by six men who. again, do not face the repercussions of any of their decisions.

Another case. During the last federal election, the Liberals promised Toronto a $30-million waterfront park. Since then, the price has gone to $50 million, and may reach $70 million. Toronto accepted the park, but it would much rather have the money. As Mayor Crombie says. “Who are we to turn down a park? But we’d prefer the $50 million to spend as we see fit. On our priorities, not theirs.”

In general, the cities face the crisis, the provinces have the jurisdiction, and Ottawa has the money.

And so. in housing, almost every solution proferred to bring down costs — land-banking, subsidized mortgages, cash grants, interest-free loans, tax changes to curb land speculation, the development of satellite cities — depends on the action of politicians who are not directly responsible.

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There is another problem, related not so much to the speed as the pattern of our recent growth, which has been aimed, overwhelmingly, at suburban areas. In the decade 1961-71, Montreal’s city centre remained static, while the suburbs grew 67%; the city of Toronto grew 4%, its suburbs, 66%; London grew 31%, London suburbs, 438%; Victoria lost population, while its suburbs grew 34%. Canadian city states are now surrounded by suburban cities of equal or greater population and different priorities. City planners, for example, are concerned to keep the downtown areas as varied, cosmopolitan and alive as they are today. Regional planners, on the other hand, tend to regard the city as, logically, a place to work for suburbanites; downtown is the factory, outside is the dormitory. So the suburban officials tend to favor massive expressways to shift large numbers of people in and out of the city, while city officials resent the intrusion of roads which threaten to destroy with their traffic those areas they don’t obliterate with their construction. The city of Toronto opposed the Spadina Expressway, which Metro Toronto favored.

This dichotomy makes it difficult for senior governments to respond, even when they want to. (In the Spadina case, the province accepted the city’s view and killed the expressway.) Most senior governments have met the dilemma by responding in fits and starts, with hastily thrown-together programs. Housing has suffered more from this piecemeal approach than transportation, because the transport industry is organized into wellheeled lobbies, and because, in provincial gasoline taxes, there is an enormous and highly visible pool of money which is committed by law to transport; the groups that suffer most from the housing crisis are those with the least political muscle. Thus federal politicians feel they can use mortgage rates as an economic lever, to inflate or deflate the money supply at will, and thus, in the past five years, we have had three contradictory programs on public housing, one to encourage it. one to stop it dead and a third to encourage it in different ways.

What this scenario suggests is that while the city states have made important gains in recent years, they are in danger of losing the war. After all, it would be possible for every clutch of angry ratepayers to trample every developer into the dust without helping the cities much; they would come to consist of a score of well-ordered middle-class neighborhoods surrounded by an urban wasteland.

No one is going to reverse the trend to city living; our city states will continue to grow. The federally commissioned Dennis-Fish report into housing, Programs In Search Of A Policy, predicts, "Over the next 10 years, we will need approximately 2.5 million new (housing) units... If present trends continue, almost all of the population increase will occur in cities of 100,000 in size or ones which during that decade (will) reach that size."

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That prediction can be either a threat or a challenge; the cities can be allowed to sag under their new growth into U.S.style urban jungles, or they can be developed rationally to benefit from all the advantages, economic, cultural and social, implied in city living. Which way we go depends, in large measure, on how successful we are in adapting today’s fragmented political approach to its new task.

Some of our needs are obvious; they begin with a need for a resharing of revenue and power to put more autonomy in the hands of local governments. The trend to lump municipalities into regions should be examined critically, to see if it is really wise or necessary. While it is easier for provincial and federal bureaucrats to deal with only the Greater Vancouver Regional government, as Vancouverites know, the area represents a complex of problems, from Delta to West Vancouver, that require diverse solutions. Until power and cash can be made to follow responsibility, it is hard to see how any permanent solutions will be achieved. To make the necessary changes is not really all that difficult. After all, the people who vote in city, provincial and federal elections are, to a large and growing extent, the same people. If they can be organized to press on local governments, they can be mobilized to elect MLAs and MPs who understand urban problems and are responsive to urban demands.

We are living out a gamble, the gamble that we can modify our politics swiftly enough to meet the challenge of life in the city state before our cities become uninhabitable. There is no way of knowing how that gamble will work out, but, on the basis of the distance we have traveled in the past 10 years, the prognosis is hopeful indeed. ■