Conservatives To Cities: We’re Just Not That Into You

Trying to shake free of the grip events in Egypt have had on me for the past couple days and get on with life… even writing that makes me squirm in embarrassment. Sorry about all that repression and killing of unarmed civilians, Egyptians, but I’ve got a post to write. Hold tight. I’ll be back in a jif.

I was struck while watching the situation unfold in Cairo’s Tahrir Square by the thought that governments, especially authoritarian ones, must hate cities. All those millions of people, gathering together, plotting, resisting, café latteing. While it may make for some easy turkey shoots, exerting control in cities of millions can ultimately prove impossible. Thus, unlawful assembly edicts tend to be urban oriented. Country rabble rousers are easily rounded up with a quick visit to the closet highway exit Tim Hortons location.

In between paroxysms of outrage and despair, I came across a series of articles yesterday that suggested even non-dictatorial states aren’t really that crazy about cities. It either began here or here or, quite possibly, here (which is why I love the internet. Stories nested within stories, allowing you to read about a subject for hours on end without so much as a bathroom break. Just strap on your Depends and wallow in the informational overload.)

Now, much of this has a very American slant and is not entirely relevant to us in Canada especially the views on the U.S. Senate being, at heart, an anti-urban institution due, in part, to the power wielded by the many smaller populated states. Although we have had a variation on that argued here recently about the under-representation of the more populous regions in both our federal and provincial legislatures. This discrepancy has allowed our current Prime Minister to piece together a workable minority government over the last 5 years without any representation in the country’s 3 largest cities. And all his machinations to build a winning majority have not included attempts to garner increased urban support.

Which brings me to the pertinent point of all these articles: the politics at the centre of this anti-urbanism. Conservatives seem to take a dim view of cities. Or at least, the higher density, public transit depending, non-car loving, artsy-fartsy, (you know where I’m going with this), downtown, pinko elitist parts of cities. On the surface you could argue, why wouldn’t they? Downtowners are not their kind of people and don’t tend to vote Conservative. So, fuck `em. Conversely however, it could be pointed out that Conservatives don’t stand for anything much that downtowners might get behind.

It’s a thought we touched upon a little last August when we reviewed Tim Falconer’s book, Drive.  After talking to the Sierra Club’s Transportation Committee chair, John Holtzclaw, who believes that higher density living creates a more open-minded, tolerant society, Mr. Falconer concludes that, “People who live closer together and are less dependent on the automobile develop a different attitude toward citizenship and activism.” A different attitude from one that prizes individualism over the collective as the surest vehicle toward achieving well-being.

Conservative antipathy toward urbanism is nothing new nor is it something they possessed exclusively. E. Barbara Phillips noted in City Lights the early 20th-century perception of city life was largely negative. “Alienation. Rootlessness. Superficial relationships. The loss of human connections. Materialsim. Money instead of personal relations as the bond of association among people.” One moved to the city out of necessity while pining for the simplicity of small town life.

Understandable as we still saw ourselves as a largely agrarian country. A century later, however, and that is no longer the case. Despite our wide open spaces and iconic national images of the Rocky Mountains, prairie wheat fields and (formerly) frozen tundra, we are now an urban nation, like it or not. As of 2006, nearly 14 million Canadians lived in cities with populations of 500,000 or more. That’s almost half of us and the percentage over the last 5 years certainly won’t have declined.

It’s all part of a global urban trend which makes our anti-urbanism somewhat archaic and more than a little self-destructive. As cities go, so goes their countries, and if we insist on knee-capping them with outdated approaches to planning, transit, sustainability and infrastructure, we will make ourselves less competitive and less economically viable. Aren’t those the core of conservative values?

He asks, living in a city that just elected a mayor who needs space, his own driveway and backyard. A mayor that thought it necessary to build parking for a new proposed waterfront aquarium site that the developer’s chose “… because of the (pedestrian and transit) options…” and that “… parking made the project not financially viable…” A mayor whose administration is eyeing with suspicion sustainable and green initiatives as something outside of a city’s “core services”.

Yeah, some points of view die hard and when they rise up to take control of the levers of power, all we can do is resist mightily and try to mitigate the damage until we regain our civic senses. We can also take solace in the fact that at least so far here in Canada, anti-urbanism hasn’t achieved conspiracy level status where light rail transit, sustainable development and smart growth are seen as some U.N. plot to pry right thinking Americans out of their “personal mobility machines” and into tiny, cramped “human habitation zones”. It’s a sci-fi, dystopian view of cities that conservatives seem bound and determined to make a reality.

city mousedly submitted by Cityslikr

The Smitherman Design Model

It’s becoming more and more apparent to us, here at All Fired Up in the Big Smoke, that George Smitherman is not an actual living, breathing human being but rather a reasonably lifelike facsimile of one; an automaton programmed and hardwired to ape the sound, movement and cadence of a 21st-century politician without all the messy and complicated shortcomings like reflection, belief and the possession of a conscience. His rudimentary 1/0 algorithmic data processing capabilities deny him the aptitude of coming up with any original thoughts or ideas. The intention of his design is singular: to react, with efficiency, ruthlessness and little regard for consequences outside of winning an election race.

This realization dawned on us with the unveiling of Smitherman’s latest campaign platform this past Friday in a speech delivered to the Toronto Rotary Club. Reading through “PronTO” we were struck by the fact that it is a plan that could’ve easily emanated from the gob of Rob Ford. In fact, it did with Ford’s call for “customer service” at City Hall during the Better Ballots mayoral debate on June 1st.  Brazenly and, seemingly, without fear of being taken to task for plagiarism, Team Smitherman announced in the first sentence of their Smitherman Unveils pronto press release, Plan Will Ensure Quality Customer Service In City Run Services. [Italics and bolding ours.]

Coming on the heels of the Smitherman campaign calling a press conference to announce their candidate’s transit plans which was nothing more than a warmed over version of Transit City (which Smitherman has been mocking since announcing his intention to run for mayor) with a few subway dollops borrowed from rivals Sarah Thomson and Rocco Rossi, and a definite strategy is emerging. Steal ideas from your opponents that seem to be gaining traction with the public, repackage them in a malleable and generic language, add nothing new of your own, border it in regal purple and send the robot out to sell it as if it’s his. Repeat until October 25th.

It would be laughable if it didn’t seem to be working. The man has no vision, no new or innovative ideas to bring to the table. Nearly half way through the campaign and there’s still no real sense of why this thing calling itself George Smitherman wants to be mayor of Toronto. Yet, he remains the frontrunner, the ‘man’ to beat, even accepting an invite from the Chinese government for an all expenses trip to China for the International Mayors Forum on Tourism. Errrr, Robot George? You and your designers do realize you’re not mayor yet, right? First you get elected and then you attend global mayors’ forums.

This element of presumption has infected the mayoral campaign far beyond Team Smitherman’s arrogant certainty of victory. The range of discourse is as limited as the number of ‘credible’ candidates. It is presumed that the city’s spending is out of control. It is presumed that we are over-taxed. It is presumed that all our services are poorly run and bureaucratically inert. It is a closed loop, a limited buffet of choices and narrow breadth of discussion. The Smitherman campaign’s cherry-picking strategy is nothing more than the 1st Law of Political Thermodynamics: no issue can be created or destroyed, only transformed. Merely a regurgitation of easily exploitable hot button bullet points that keep new, innovative or even radical ideas from entering the debate and drowning the democratic process in its wake.

While this may be good for Team Smitherman and their walking, talking, sometimes overheating political replicant, it is doing absolutely nothing for the people of Toronto or their local democracy.

dutifully submitted by Cityslikr