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

February 3, 2011

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


Another Thought on Toronto’s Governance

September 18, 2010

Just in case anyone thinks it’s Cityslikr who does all the heavy lifting/seminar going around this office, I too was in attendance at Tuesday’s Rethinking Toronto’s Governance session at U of T’s Institute on Municipal Finance and Governance. Simply because he doesn’t have a life and rushes home to immediately put fingertips to keyboard, doesn’t mean he’s the only one who has thoughts on the event. Some like to allow time for percolation and reflection before popping off. Coffee and thinking. Coffee and thinking.

One interesting angle from the session which my colleague did not touch upon was a statement Paul Bedford made about a visiting urban thinker to Toronto. (I don’t take notes. Check the IMFG website when the webcast is posted for exact details.) After a walk throughout the city, this particular individual told Mr. Bedford (and I’m paraphrasing here) that while Toronto was most definitely a city of neighbourhoods, there was no overall cohesive whole.

What?! But that’s the kind of city we are! A city of neighbourhoods. Please don’t call our identity into question.

It’s an interesting observation even if perhaps apocryphal, given how well it aligned with the gist of Mr. Bedford’s talk especially when taken with Kyle Rae’s view that council remains ward-centric and many citizens refuse to let go of ‘old’ Toronto (and Etobiocoke and North York et al) and embrace the amalgamated entirety. How do you build one city from six? Is it possible to unite around a place called Toronto when many of its components (Etobicoke and North York et al) resent and dislike the very name of it unless it precedes the words `Maple Leafs’?

The Board of Trade’s Richard Joy was pessimistic that it could be done. Saying that it was strictly his opinion and not that of the TOB and refusing to use the word ‘de-amalgamation’ (there are precedents for that sort of thing, ie Montreal), he did wonder if the megacity was a failed experiment. In a peculiar twist from that thought, he expressed more interest in a region wide approach to governance. 416 and 905. Big and small. Small and big.

These are interesting times, here in Toronto. Living in a city that isn’t comfortable in its own skin. Factional about urban planning. Jealous like siblings over how our resources are spent. And now preyed upon and exploited by mayoral candidates who campaign within the fault lines while vowing to lead us, followed, of course, by a disingenuously heart-felt I Love My City coda.

This divide we’re dealing with is, like the supposed red state-blue state division expounded upon endlessly in the U.S., what I think is called a heuristic technique. (At least I hope so because the other word that comes to mind is `hirsute’ and that puts a different spin on the matter, entirely.) I’m quoting E. Barbara Phillips here, heuristic: “a model, assumption or device that is not necessarily scientifically true but is a useful tool to aid in the discovery of new relationships.”

Or perhaps in the case of our mayoral campaign, a model, assumption or device not necessarily scientifically true but useful to divide and conquer.

Are there differences between the downtown core and the inner suburbs? No doubt. Some are desirable; the unique cogs that make up this thing we call diversity. But what about those differences that are less positive? Can they be overcome? Well, that’s the 11.6 billion dollar question. They certainly can’t be if whatever inequities and imbalances do exist aren’t addressed directly by those wanting to be our next mayor instead of being used as a wedge to drive the two solitudes further apart merely for electoral gain.

If we can’t outgrow this largely mental divide — that there’s a war on cars, that downtown elites are dining on caviar harvested from the sweat of toil of hardworking suburban regular Joes, that Scarberians only want to be left alone to sit in their underwear eating BBQ on their John Deeres – we should just call it a day, cut our losses and go our separate ways. After asking permission from the province, of course. It isn’t possible to coalesce into a more unified entity when our fledgling leaders endeavour to lead by promoting disharmony.

That’s what we call a lack of vision, and the absolute last thing Toronto can endure at this juncture in its existence. We need to see what it is that makes us one city. Those commonalities unique to this place that differentiates us not from each other but from other places, other cities, other regions. The civic glue holding Toronto together in good times and bad.

Is there any aside from following professional sports teams that suck? If not, well then, these municipal elections amount to little more than futile exercises that occur every four years, serving only to get everyone’s hackles up before we all retreat back into our 44 little enclaves, telling each other to stay the hell off our lawn.

neighbourly submitted by Urban Sophisticat