Register Wednesday | June 19 | 2019
A Poet Goes to City Hall

A Poet Goes to City Hall

Canada is running its cities into the ground

Illustrations by Kagan MacLeod

I love this old planet.
I love the days
When morning comes to me
On silver wings
And sunrise opens my eyes
With the gentlest of inquiries.
I love this old planet
And if I could,
Would wrap my arms around it
And pull it to my chest
To keep it safe.

—Clive Doucet, Canal Seasons

On November 10, 1997, I was elected to the Ottawa City Council. I was up against formidable candidates: the chair of the Catholic School Board, a former city councillor, a successful businessman and an environmental activist. I had never been elected to anything before. My best friends thought if I came in third I would do well.

In a field of seven candidates, I won by a thousand votes. It changed everything. Instead of watching through the peephole of the local newspapers or making judgements from the perspective of a single cause, I was catapulted into the complex centre of a large city’s day-to-day functions.

The first six months were terrifying, as I struggled to make sense of hundreds of programs and thousands of employees. But I grew to love the job. What was there not to love? Cities are the heartbeat of the human condition. From Athens to Florence to New York, they are the alpha and omega of Western existence. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once said, “There is no such thing as society, there are individual men and women.” I arrived at the opposite conclusion: “There is no such thing as individuals, there is only society.” Without society, there can be no professional hockey players, no rock stars, no filmmakers, no journalists. If society makes individuality possible, then it’s the cities that allow for the most creative expressions of individual thinking.

It was also through city politics that I came to understand the wrong-headedness of our course. Namely, that city politicians are bullied by corporate wealth that is constantly moving money from a city’s centre to its edges in order to underwrite sprawl development. In this way, Ottawa is no different from any other North American city. For fifty years, we’ve sponsored the most expensive and unsustainable form of urban growth and penalized the least harmful. And I’ve come to realize that this destructive escalation has nothing to do with a lack of good planning or a lack of knowledge. There are thousands of books available on the impoverishing qualities of strip malls, parking lots, arterials and residential pods. Knowledge isn’t the problem, the system is. And as long as a link exists between money and political power, nothing will change for cities.

An example? In city politics, there are long and acrimonious debates over tiny issues like wading-pool hours for kids in summer, traffic bumps on public streets and that perennial favourite, “arts funding.” It’s all peanuts, but it makes great headlines. The bigger stuff, however, blows through very quickly and very efficiently. Sometimes, it’s not even discussed.

I’ll never forget my first “develop-ment charges” dust-up. Development charges are the taxes developers agree to pay in order to build on farmland that has been zoned as urban. In the dispute in which I was involved, the city staff had just completed a quarter-million-dollar study which concluded that developers should pay charges on a sliding scale depending on where they were building their houses and malls. These charges were meant to reflect the real cost of the development to the city: Cow-pasture development would have the highest charges because it was the most costly to the city, and development in the older parts of the city would be charged the least because it cost the least. A sensible idea, no?

Except that this new sliding scale would cost developers $220 million more (all figures are in Canadian dollars). This meant that there was, effectively, $220 million worth of pressure on the mayor and councillors to vote against the staff report. The developers worked the press, and the press complied with stories about how development would stop if real-cost accounting was imposed on developers. We would be chasing development away to cities that treated developers reasonably, etc., etc., etc.

The council—no surprise—gave the developers what they wanted. The city signed on for five more years of bankrolling transit, police and community services out to the bulging edges of the city. The developers walked out with $220 million in their pockets and the city continued stumbling from budget year to budget year in a race that can never be won, because developers can throw up tract housing faster than cities can ever pay for the services that housing needs. Over the next five years, we had to fire 500 city employees and slash and burn our way through public health, paramedics, library budgets and so on to pay for this $220 million shortfall. Welcome to city politics.

But maybe the best place to start is with the Ottawa you don’t see on postcards: the miles and miles of big, black-box office parks, malls, parking lots and housing tracts serviced by arterials—which I prefer to call “traffic sewers,” because their only purpose is to move cars. It’s a different world. Sometimes, I drive out there just to remind myself of what it’s like to sit in a traffic sewer on a hot day, unable to get off, unable to inch forward, unable to budge backward. The development pods that edge these traffic sewers are all squat, shiny boxes set down in pans of asphalt capable of accommodating hundreds of cars. The roads to these development pods lead nowhere but back to the traffic sewer. You can’t drive through them to some other place. They are islands of asphalt and office buildings.

Again, this is not unique to my city. The North American economy now depends on the free movement of cars and trucks across a vast suburbanized landscape—travel that itself depends on oceans of cheap oil. The overwhelming importance of oil began in the early part of the twentieth century when North America’s electric streetcars and intercity train services were crushed because there weren’t enough profits to be made from them. They were “too cheap,” they moved too many people too easily and they were maintained at too low a cost. On the other hand, the amount of money to be made from the private automobile was colossal. Cars required massive road constructions, millions of rubber tires, and millions of tons of steel, cement and asphalt—not to mention truckers, graders, welders, designers, engineers and labourers. Today, the manufacture and maintenance of cars occupies a whole third of Ontario’s economy.

The automotive industries were successful in persuading local and national governments to fully assume the costs of constructing intercity highways and to withdraw all financial support for rail corridors. This forced the rail companies to pay for their own rights of way—construction, maintenance, policing—out of the fare box or freight charges. Not surprisingly, the interurbans and city streetcar companies collapsed. They couldn’t compete with publicly funded roads. In the largest cities, where electric streetcars continued in spite of their enormous economic disadvantage, the automotive industry simply bought up the streetcar companies and then trashed them, leaving the public no choice but to buy cars or use rubber-tire buses, which were also manufactured by the car companies.

The hallmark of a successful city is efficient inclusivity—society gets what it needs. The hallmark of a successful business activity is efficient exclusivity—you sell to those who can afford to buy. The two objectives are incompatible. The car is sold to those who can afford it, yet it depends on society to pay for the roads it drives on. As a form of transportation, it presents a double jeopardy to government: it’s exclusive and heavily subsidized. After a century, the fruits of this mistake are now with us. Our highways and city streets have become the single largest source of greenhouse gases and the principal drain on city taxes. For most cities, more than 50 percent of the municipality’s annual budget is now devoted to road construction and maintenance. And the direct and indirect health costs continue to mount. Three thousand people are killed on Canadian roads every year, and in the United States it is 3,000 every month. These are just the fatalities. Over 220,000 Canadians are injured on Canadian roads every year; for the United States, multiply by fourteen to get the rough equivalent.

Nothing happens in isolation. If city councils had held firm against the automotive lobby and kept their electric street cars, and if national governments had funded interurbans instead of interstate highways (or at least provided rail companies with the same kind of assistance that car companies received), North America would be a very different place today. Our cities would be configured more like European ones. The air would be cleaner, global warming less threatening, highways fewer in number and Middle Eastern oil less important.

But as much as I would like to simplify things and just blame “development” money and compliant politicians for paving over North America, that’s only a part of the story. It’s also a result of the centralized production system that was introduced in the early 1970s as a way of reducing manufacturing and distribution costs. It was, we were told, a waste of time and money to have warehouses store large inventories of parts and food. It would be much more efficient if companies ordered components only as they needed them and then had them delivered just in time.

With just-in-time delivery, busi-nesses could cut out the city warehousing—and all the space and staff it needed—and organize the transfers of materials directly from truck to store or factory. It was the final nail in the railroad coffin. If you want to move goods intercity, railroads are cheaper and much less polluting than trucks. Just one train can move the equivalent of a hundred sixteen-wheel trucks or bulk tanker trucks. Think of Ontario’s 401 highway as an incredibly expensive, rubber-tired, eight-lane railway track. But trains can’t turn around at the mall; they require transfer areas with warehouse capacity to store the goods that aren’t needed immediately. Just-in-time delivery thus obliterated the railroad industry, while highway construction and the trucking industry exploded.

Companies organized along the old lines went out of business. Those who changed their operations to just-in-time got leaner, and their stores started to look like warehouses. It was a win-win situation for those who survived: cheaper goods for consumers and bigger profits for companies (Wal-Mart is now the richest corporation on the planet).

Just-in-time delivery, however, has been a disaster for municipal and national governments. The reduction in corporate production costs was achieved by downloading the cost of warehousing onto the public sector. After all, somebody had to pay for the warehousing. Governments did. National highways and city streets have essentially become publicly funded, incredibly costly warehouses. Everything now sits in truck stops or rolls on sixteen wheels.

Just-in-time delivery has also been a key component in the accelerating degradation of the quality20of life in cities—and even in rural villages. Urban and suburban landscapes are now designed primarily for the truck and for the car, not for their inhabitants. In the seven-year period between 1995 and 2002, freight tonnage carried by trucking companies in Canada rose from 210 million tons per year to 314 million tons per year—an increase of almost 50 percent. Ottawa takes 3,000 trucks through its downtown core every day. And all these trucks, of course, need roads, bridges and the fastest possible routes. Every minute counts. So if the fastest possible route is through the centre of your village or your city, that’s where the trucks will roll, and nothing can stop them because there is no alternative, except to expand the road network. The unhappiest result of all this road construction is that it never solves the problem of road congestion: the congestion simply moves down the road to where the capacity is four lanes instead of six, or six lanes instead of eight. In Toronto, the 401 is now about twenty-six lanes wide. But at the point the road narrows, people will begin to complain about the bottleneck and the road will be widened at tremendous cost to push the cycle of failure out a little further.

The destructive capacity of the connecting road system is difficult to grasp because superficially it looks efficient. How could all those truck drivers working sixteen-hour days be wrong? Most people have no idea of how great a burden roads are on their tax dollars. For example, we are presently rebuilding 7.7 kilometres of urban highway in Ottawa, which will add two lanes of road capacity. It will cost taxpayers $67 million to add these two extra lanes, and this is cheap because there was no purchase of land. The $67 million is simply the cost of construction. If land must be purchased, urban roads can cost as much as $25 million a kilometre. To put this $67 million in perspective, the total cost of all the money spent for new community infrastructure is $19.3 million. That’s right: Widening the road by two lanes for 7.7 kilometres costs more than three times the entire city budget for parks, community centres, swimming pools, ice rinks and daycares for 800,000 people.

This is typical for every city, large or small, in North America. The city of Timmins, Ontario, for example, spends half of its budget on roads every year (just a single red light costs about $150,000 to install, plus $45,000 in yearly computer maintenance for the electronics). In a northern country like Canada, road maintenance costs are accelerated by the annual snowfalls, freezes and thaws. In my city, every kilometre-lane of roadway costs $8,000 to maintain per year and roughly $1 million to build. No one looks at these costs twice—but god help the mayor who tries to build a new library.In these ways, the public purse is constantly pressured to feed individual corporate interests. It’s a never-ending handout that eviscerates cities’ ability to do much else but build and support road construction. It’s a world in which there’s always enough money to build freeways and arterials, but never enough for public transit or health care.

Healthy cities and healthy nations should mimic trees. There should be lots of roots and branches, lots of redundancy in the system. They should have many kinds of transit possibilities, many small producers, many farms on the edges of the city, many shopping streets, many warehouse and factory districts. Duplication and diversity in the urban world, as in the biological world, creates stability: if one system breaks, there’s always another to take its place.

During the ice storm that ripped into Ottawa in 1998, it became very clear that our city would quickly run out of food because there were no local warehouse districts and no alternatives to the icy, closed roads. There is less train capacity in Ottawa in 2004 than there was in 1950. The train yards, rail lines, warehouses and repair shops that hummed along in 1950 no longer exist. In most cases, they have been literally paved over. Ottawa’s major east-west line is now an eight- to ten-lane expressway.

So why does it happen? It happens because this is what has been defined as progress. In my own ward in the last fifty years, “progress” has meant there is scarcely a street or intersection that has not been widened in order to “improve” the flow of traffic. To move the cars nine or ten seconds faster over eight city blocks, full canopy trees have been stripped away from the edges of Sunnyside Avenue, once one of my ward’s most beautiful streets, turning it into a traffic sewer. Sunnyside’s fate is typical. If you care to trace the decline of North American cities, look at the aerial photographs of a city centre taken at ten-year intervals. You will always see the same thing: a steady reduction in the green canopy and a steady expansion of grey.

It doesn’t have to be this way. We can create earth-friendly agriculture and city streets that are people-friendly. Yet today the cards are stacked against cities because they have so little legislative power to control their own destiny. Paul Martin’s “New Deal for Cities”—which promised to hand over a portion of gas and diesel fuel taxes to municipalities—was merely election bait. Jane Jacobs was right to be skeptical of it. The problem with Martin’s pledge is that the money for transit is decoupled from the gas-tax share. This means most towns and most cities will do what they have always been forced to do: spend the gas-tax revenue on roads. And so the vicious cycle will continue.

At the federal level, the government never consults with cities on international trade deals. And why should it? The international world is its domain. Yet urban air quality is now rapidly declining because those international trade deals make it impossible for cities to do anything about the SUVs that pollute the air. Nor can we do much about instituting “slow grow” policies, because the federal government recoups 93 percent of the taxes from fast growth. From the federal point of view, fast growth is good news because the federal government picks up the bulk of the tax benefits while cities absorb the bulk of the costs (in Canada, cities collect only 8 percent of the taxes paid, but deliver 60 percent of the services). It’s a can’t-lose situation for the federal government and a can’t-win situation for cities.

As long as the federal government profits from population growth and cities absorb the costs, national immigration policies will have no relation to economic and environ-mental sustainability. The federal and provincial governments profit, which is why they push aggressive immigration policies, but the cities lose because they can’t pay for the services immigration growth requires. Each year, the city of Toronto—which annually generates some $9 billion in tax revenue that does not return to it—builds less public transit and provides fewer public health services, fewer affordable housing units, fewer libraries and fewer community services, yet must still find some way to integrate 100,000 new people every year, 1 million new people every decade.

At the end of the day, human society is just “an idea.” It is something we make and unmake together in the course of a lifetime. Sometimes we get it right, and sometimes we don’t. These days, we’re getting it wrong.