High rents = mamma’s boys?

December 23, 2007 at 2:13 pm | In cities, creativity, innovation, jane_jacobs, social_critique, urbanism | 2 Comments

And some other comments on creative societies…

Let’s start with this interesting item from Ananova, which I bookmarked several months ago:

Help for mummys’ boys

The Italian government is handing out grants to help mummys’ boys leave home.

The move comes after economists warned almost 60% of young adult Italians stayed at home and were not marrying, having children or building up homes of their own.

Economy Minister Tommaso Padoa-Schioppa says part of a two billion euro provision in the 2008 state budget will be used to help young people move out of family homes.

He said: “Let’s get these big babies out of the home. We’re encouraging young people to leave home.

“If they don’t, they just stay with their parents, they don’t get married and they don’t become independent. This is an important idea.”

Many young people say they cannot afford to move out of home so the government has announced plans to make more affordable accommodation available and build more public housing.

EU figures show that 56% of 25 to 29 year-olds still live with their parents in Italy, compared to 21% of Germans and just five per cent of Swedes.

The relevance this has for all cities/ societies, it seems to me, is that issues around housing affordability have social consequences that go beyond the usual markers of economic disparity in cities. From the statistics, the Swedes are coming out way ahead of the game, with only 5% of Swedes aged 25 to 29 years old living at home with their parents. The Swedes are known, of course, for their advanced social programs, including solutions around housing affordability. This closes the gap in economic disparity, which in turn lets that society reap competitive rewards and capture innovation gains that elude other societies. Grown children living with their parents is clearly a step backwards, whereas independence at young adulthood (just before middle age, in fact) is an indicator of social strength and resilience.

Underscoring this idea is an article in yesterday’s Globe & Mail by Richard Florida, called Pity the tri-city Toronto. (The article continues on page 2 here.) Florida describes the economic divide that fractures American cities in particular, and that data indicate that Toronto is in danger of breaking apart along similar lines. To date, Canada, Australia, and the Scandinavian countries had managed to …well, manage their economic disparities effectively, a trait that gave these countries an edge.

A new study by the University of Toronto’s J. David Hulchanski of the Centre for Urban and Community Studies, The Three Cities within Toronto: Income Polarization among Toronto Neighbourhoods, 1970-2000, however, sends a warning signal that things could go sideways here. Florida sees this in a “big picture” frame, historically linked to previous periods of social and economic innovation and upheaval (eg., the Industrial Revolution). As he writes on page 2:

We need to understand the tremendous economic and social polarization produced by the shift to a global creative economy. The same things happened with the Industrial Revolution. It took the leading nations of the world 50 or more years to understand it – a period punctuated by depression, epic class struggles, and two world wars – and finally for progressive leaders to enact new deals that would spread the productive capacity of the industrial engine and allow working people to benefit from the productivity improvements their work helped create.

It’s time to wake up and act on these striking new realities. The key task of our time is to build new institutions to spread the gains of the creative economy. If not, it will continue to concentrate those gains geographically and socially.

This is Toronto’s and Canada’s great opportunity. It’s also a major part of the reason why I moved to Toronto. Absent a major miracle, the level of economic and social polarization is so deep in the United States that it may well prohibit the kind of concerted action required to overcome that class divide and build a more cohesive and shared creative economy.

In my view there are at best three economies worldwide that have the social capacity to navigate and lead in this change. Canada is one, Australia another, the Scandinavian nations still another. And that leadership, given the absence of awareness of these issues at the national level, will have to come from the major cities in these nations.

In a sense, I’d argue that big kids living at home with their parents is another indicator of badly managed, possibly crippling socio-economic disparity. It’s not just a case, simply, of “mummy’s boys,” but also of lost horizons, nowhere to go, and most especially: an inability to afford to move out to be independent. What a waste!


That ends my commentary on this issue, but since Globe & Mail articles tend to disappear off the web quite quickly, I’ll append a chunk of the article from page 1 for context (and see also Florida’s blog entry on this topic). In the Globe & Mail, he introduces the topic as follows:

For decades we’ve heard that new transport and communication technologies – from the street car to the Internet – would make geography and place irrelevant. We could all spread out and locate wherever we liked. The suburbs would boom, edge cities would predominate and the urban core would fade away into irrelevance. Some told us that the future of the centre of cities was to become little more than a “sandbox” or “reservation” – a holding pen for the urban poor.

It turns out that these prognostications were dead wrong. A close look at the real data shows that the world is quite spiky, defined by surging mega-regions, declining hills (like the Clevelands and St. Louises of the world) and sinking valleys (the poor mega-cities and even poorer rural areas of the emerging economies and developing world).

Florida then quickly moves on to summarize what Hulchanski’s data indicates:

The three Torontos are defined by an increasingly rich and advantaged core, a shrinking middle-class zone, and low-income earners and immigrants at the outskirts. In some ways this is a good thing: Toronto is the opposite of hollowed-out American cities like Detroit and Cleveland. And the pattern is strikingly similar to what is happening in places that are becoming the epicentres of the creative economy. The gentrification of the urban core, with out-of-sight housing prices, is occurring in London, New York, San Francisco, even in Washington, D.C.

From here, he looks at the findings from the perspective of the creative economy:

What we are witnessing in Toronto is the rise of a new set of economic, demographic and social patterns being set in motion by the global creative economy. There is a mass migration of highly educated and highly skilled people to a smaller and smaller number of cities. Harvard economist Edward Glaeser has documented the sorting of highly educated, high human-capital households in the United States. Thirty years ago, most cities had a similar proportion of educated and less educated people; now highly educated people are concentrated in just a handful of major metropolitan regions like New York, Washington, San Francisco and Seattle.

They have gravitated to the cores of these metros to take advantage of clustered work, gain access to amenities, and reduce their time costs spent on travel. In the five-year period from 2000 to 2005, New York City took in 285,000 recent college graduates – a number roughly equivalent to the entire population of the city of Buffalo. Driving this is the benefits of economic clustering long ago identified by Jane Jacobs. It is the clustering of people, even more so than the clustering of business and industry, that today is the motor force of economic growth.

Left to its own devices, this clustering is causing the sorting of people by economic class. Not just across cities but within them, as the U of T report demonstrates.

Florida adds that “the leading U.S. creative regions (San Francisco, Austin, the North Carolina Research Triangle, and Washington) also have the highest levels of income inequality.” Obviously, if you want the creative economy to have longer-term sustainability, you have to work against destructive economic inequality. Over the long run, cities won’t be well-served by incredibly high housing prices in the trendier centre, serviced by an underclass that lives on the outskirts of town.

That would put a whole new spin on Jane Jacobs’s definition of oversuccess.

Diigo Daily Public Links, update

December 23, 2007 at 1:22 pm | In housekeeping, links | Comments Off on Diigo Daily Public Links, update

Since that first, overly surfeited with information, Diigo Daily Public Links blog a couple of days ago, I altered the parameters — cleverly, I thought, to include only the links themselves, tagged “links” (so that the entry would be tagged “links” on my blog). Not a good idea, because what I inadvertently did was to set it so that only links I tagged “links” (vs. “urbanism,” cities,” or any of my other tags) would make it through the filter. Hence, nothing made it through, as I didn’t tag any of my bookmarks with “links.”

Ok, I went back to the Diigo site just now and fixed my mistake. Let’s see if it works now. Haven’t bookmarked anything in the last few hours, and don’t know if I will this afternoon, either. So it will probably be slim pickings for a while longer.

Stay tuned, I guess!

Update 2: It’s late afternoon, and my Daily Public Link just got posted.  It includes the link/ title of the article, and my main description, but as per my settings, none of what I underlined or any of my notes.

Oops, a surfeit of information

December 20, 2007 at 6:25 pm | In housekeeping | 1 Comment

The Daily Blog Post update worked (see the entry preceding this one), but I think I need to alter the parameters.  Talk about an avalanche of annotations!   I’ll change it to post only the links, and not all the stuff I underline or “backtalk” to…!

Daily Diigo Public Link 12/21/2007

December 20, 2007 at 5:39 pm | In links | 7 Comments

At 71, Physics Professor Is a Web Star – New York Times Annotated

“Walter H. G. Lewin, 71, a physics professor, has long had a cult following at M.I.T. And he has now emerged as an international Internet guru, thanks to the global classroom the institute created to spread knowledge through cyberspace.”

The professor, who is from the Netherlands, said that teaching a required course in introductory physics to M.I.T. students made him realize “that what really counts is to make them love physics, to make them love science.”

Crosscut Seattle – Amazon joins a parade of high tech to the urban core Annotated

– article by Margaret Pugh O’Mara, which asks some pretty good questions about how the transfer of “new economy” businesses from the suburbs back to the center city has implications for urbanism, as well as for what type of new economy businesses move to the core.

Technology Review: What Your Phone Knows About You Annotated

Sandy Pentland, professor of media arts and sciences at MIT, talks about “reality mining.”
– this is page 2 of a 2-page article

Technology Review: What Your Phone Knows About You Annotated

Sandy Pentland, professor of media arts and sciences at MIT, talks about “reality mining.” Pay attention, interesting stuff!
– this is page 1 of a 2-page article

Based on phone calls and the devices’ physical proximity to other people’s phones (as measured by Bluetooth), Pentland and researcher Nathan Eagle developed social-network models that were more accurate and more nuanced than those constructed from the subjects’ self-reports.

Sifting through cell-phone data to get at the truth of people’s social interactions falls under the umbrella of an emerging field that Pentland has dubbed “reality mining.” And he thinks that social networks are just the beginning. The same techniques can be applied to other sets of cell-phone data to help people communicate more effectively, manage their time better, and even make their neighborhoods more livable. And it’s all thanks to the ubiquity of cell phones–the ultimate data-collection machines.

BLDGBLOG: Church of God, Elevator Annotated

– starts with a great story about Mark Twain, and asks a trenchant question about the adventurousness (or absence thereof) in architectural design today

How Should We Be Thinking About Urbanization? A Freakonomics Quorum – Freakonomics – Opinion – New York Times Blog Annotated

A “quorum of smart thinkers” discusses what problems and opportunities majority urbanism presents, “What effects has it had on our local and global culture? Economy? Health?”

Edward Glaeser, professor of economics at Harvard and director of the Taubman Center for State and Local Government at the Kennedy School of Government:

  • – his entire text is worth highlighting!

Humans are a social species, and our greatest achievements are all collaborative. Cities are machines for making collaboration easier. Thus, I am delighted that our planet has become increasingly urban.

Robert Bruegmann, professor of art history, architecture, and urban planning at the University of Illinois at Chicago

Dolores Hayden, professor of architecture, urbanism, and American studies at Yale and author of Building Suburbia: Green Fields and Urban Growth, 1820-2000:

Alan Berube, research director of the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program

Links posting

December 19, 2007 at 5:41 pm | In housekeeping, links | Comments Off on Links posting

I use a really great service called Diigo, which has many features I’ve left unexplored. I’ll try to remedy that by installing the “Daily blog post” tool, which (as I understand it) uploads my public Diigo bookmarks once a day to this site (the vast majority of my bookmarks are private, but I’ll try to remember to keep some of them public…).

We’ll know soon if it works!

update: I might have to change my settings for this “Daily blog post” tool (if it even works for my blog, which has been known to have limitations — and not just the kind deriving from its author!).  Currently, the tool is set to blog not just the article link itself, but also all my underlining/ highlighting within the article, plus my commentary (the “stickies”).  As I sometimes get carried away with underlining and/ or adding comments, this could make for some damn long posts that could get tedious fast.  But I’ll wait and see, and decide once a bookmark actually get uploaded automatically.

Your reception is just fine…

December 19, 2007 at 4:28 pm | In just_so | Comments Off on Your reception is just fine…

…the fiddling is happening at my end.

I’m exploring different themes — bored as I am with being confined to my house (and even my bed) because of this pesky pneumonia. I’ve settled on what I think is a very nice, functional theme, which (unlike the previous ones) gives me some options in changing the header — including adding images.

So excuse the construction, I might zip through variations pretty quickly (or not). Currently (3:23 PST) I uploaded an image of ladies having afternoon tea at the Empress Hotel, probably in the 40s. The theme requires that I crop the image significantly, so I’m not sure I’ll keep this one.

But I like that it has people in it. The problem is that the white lettering of my blog’s name doesn’t show up well, so let’s see if I can fiddle with that, too… !

It’s too bad I don’t have the energy (8 days of not getting enough oxygen will do that to you) to scan my FOCUS Magazine articles and upload them as PDFs to my blog, because the “my articles in FOCUS Magazine” link is now right in the header, which is great. But the thought of fooling around with the scanner and another machine (vs. my laptop in bed) is too much, so it’ll have to wait.

Here’s a full view of the image:

Tea at the Empress



More thoughts on economic development, land use, zoning, quality of life…

December 16, 2007 at 10:18 am | In cities, homelessness, land_use, taxes, victoria | Comments Off on More thoughts on economic development, land use, zoning, quality of life…

…courtesy of further reading in Robert L. Bish’s Local Government Organization in the Capital Region (and continuing somewhat from yesterday‘s entry).

Bish is concerned with explaining the need for and importance of economic development in the region, which is a necessity for Victoria since it relies for over half of its property tax revenue on businesses, and which is necessary “if children of citizens already here are going to have challenging job opportunities in the region instead of having to migrate elsewhere.”(p.30)

What I find especially useful is how Bish explains the linkages between land use/ zoning regulations, coupled with other restrictive regulations, which together can conspire to retard economic development. Bish writes that the following factors influence economic development: “quality of local services, especially transportation and public safety, the regulatory structure, especially zoning and land use regulation, taxes and (indirectly for business owners and their employees) schools and the attractiveness of residential neighbourhoods. These are primarily manageable by smaller local governments except for taxes, where provincial and national government policies also play a role.” (p.25)

We could say that many of these relate to “quality of life” issues. But zoning regulations directly impinge on economic development, which certainly influences quality of life. As Bish puts it,

First, many municipalities in the capital region have the practice of zoning most land into its existing use–and to do so some have hundreds of zoning categories. This means that every significant change in a business land or building use requires a rezoning process, which not only adds time and cost to the process but creates considerable uncertainty with the politics of the rezoning. Several municipalities also have very strong policies against any kind of home based business. These policies on zoning and home based businesses may have a benefit of providing community input on every land use change but they are policies that make business creation, change and expansion more costly. These policies, however, do not require a regional government to change. They do not even require that all municipalities have more business friendly land use policies. They are, however, important enough to merit review in the region if economic development is to be promoted. (emphasis added) (p.25)

Not a week goes by that a resident doesn’t rant in a letter to the editor or at a neighbourhood association meeting about the”evils” of “spot rezoning.” Council is accused of bending over backward for developers, being spineless, selling the “community” out, etc. Yet as Bish points out, the need for rezoning is built into the very fabric as it exists. If you don’t rezone (call it spot rezoning or whatever), you will ossify land use — and retard economic development.

Bish continues:

The second area where individual municipalities play an important role is in their setting of variable tax rates. The B.C. municipal practice of setting business tax rates two or more times higher than residential tax rates (in the capital region the average multiple is 2.76) has made property taxes for businesses in B.C. some of the highest in North America, while residents enjoy some of the lowest property tax rates. Of course one should not be terribly surprised at this result as there are many more residential voters than business voters. That does not make the problem go away, however, and when combined with close to the highest marginal income tax rates in North America, high corporate income taxes and a capital tax, the capital region is not a tax friendly environment for businesses employing skilled professionals. Most of these tax disadvantages are beyond municipal control, but that makes it even more important that municipal governments fix those policies they are responsible for in areas of land use and local business regulation. It also makes it important that the capital region advertise its strongest asset: a diverse range of small municipalities providing attractive options for different lifestyles in a beautiful environment. This is the quality that may offset high provincial taxes to attract the high income professionals that businesses require to the region. (emph. added) (p.26)

Again, clearly it’s the council’s job to create favourable conditions for economic development, yet when they do (and are called to the mat for “spot rezoning”), some people complain how they’re “favouring” developers, and they usually pipe up (and puff up) enough to convince others, who follow the piper. It seems that many people don’t understand that we can’t live off lotus leaves — we have the “strongest assets,” but we also need to attract more vibrant businesses that can pay better wages than the hospitality or service industries pay.

Victoria is now in significant trouble because our downtown is overrun by people who are not “just” homeless, but who openly use and deal in drugs, who shoot up, smoke crack, tweak in broad day light, and make a career of begging for “spare change.” Key areas are festooned with groups of a dozen or so, many with (stolen) shopping carts laden with various possessions. The Province closed mental health facilities years ago, kicked people out, and seems willing to provide free needles (and now free pipes to crack smokers), but cannot find the will to fund detox facilities or asylums, nor is the justice system willing to stop the revolving door model we use for criminals (thieves, dealers) here.

In other words, the Province “downloaded” the responsibility for the mentally ill and the addicted to the municipalities, which don’t have the wherewithal to deal with this huge issue. So, in turn, the municipality has effectively “downloaded” this problem to individual citizens — not only in the sense that we are supposed to step up with private donations (and private resignation), but also in the sense that our shared public spaces are in part thoroughly destroyed. The private individual is suffering the costs of this “downloading.”

And it, in turn, is destroying what Bish calls our — downtown Victoria’s — “strongest assets,” one of which our own ability to believe in this place.

“Show, don’t tell”: what municipal government can learn from good fiction

December 15, 2007 at 2:58 pm | In cities, taxes, victoria | Comments Off on “Show, don’t tell”: what municipal government can learn from good fiction

Local Government Organization in the Capital Region is the name of a very useful 35-page report written in 1999 by Dr. Robert L. Bish, Professor Emeritus at the University of Victoria. Bish effectively argues against amalgamation (what other places call the unicity concept, municipal reform, or consolidation movements), and show that generally, the process doesn’t save money and actually often ends up costing tax payers more. He has some interesting things to say about what scales, economically, and what doesn’t — and how this affects quality, too.

What’s so valuable about Bish is his international perspective — he’s originally from the US (California, Indiana, Washington, Maryland), taught at UVic from 1981 until the late 90s, and now, in retirement, lives in Port Townsend, WA (according to his webpage). I was particularly intrigued by another of his texts, also on his webpage, which explains funding structures in US cities (see Local Government Finance Issues in the United States, 2002).

He argues that property and business taxes are good insofar as they bond the municipal government (and its expenditures) to the residents. Any tax that becomes some sort of abstraction — where the tax payer no longer has any idea what his taxes are actually funding — contributes to what I would describe as a democracy deficit. People complain, but generally turn off, tune out, don’t care (except on some general level). Bish appears to be an advocate of a more immersive democracy, where voters care deeply about how their money is spent because (1) they know it’s their money (from their property or business taxes) and (2) they can see how the money is being spent (because it’s being spent locally, by governments they elected and whose members remain accessible to the public).

Bish also points out, of course, that US cities (particularly since the mid-90s) have many more taxation tools at their disposal than Canadian cities (which, he doesn’t say outright, are merely “creatures of the Provinces,” lacking the autonomy they deserve — which in turn also creates a democracy deficit, since we’re under tutelage to senior levels of government). Among those tools are the ones that I would advocate for, namely a direct share of both sales taxes (in Canada, that would be PST and GST) and income taxes, since both of these are linked to the economy much more closely than property taxes are.

But that’s the very reason why reliance (over-reliance?) on these is a bad idea, according to Bish. In economic good times, cities get used to having the added cash, but when there’s a bust or a recession, they’re left scrambling. Ok, I get that. But to my mind that still doesn’t mean that cities shouldn’t be able to collect some part of these taxes directly, perhaps not by municipality but by region (what in the US might be called counties, and what we have here in the form of the CRD, the Capital Regional District).

Returning to the topic of amalgamation, one of his arguments against it should be heeded by Victoria in particular. In the 1999 document cited above, Local Government Organization in the Capital Region, he points out that the City of Victoria gets around 52.5% of its property tax revenue from businesses, which is a considerably higher percentage than the other surrounding municipalities. Victoria has more businesses because it is a “core” or “central city” for the rest of the region — which is exactly the argument the city now uses when it asks other municipalities to chip in some money to help with policing the downtown — except it’s not clear what the others would get in return.

The leadership can’t seem to communicate that effectively, or, more importantly, show what we’d get. Perhaps running a city government is like writing compelling fiction, where authors take the directive “show, don’t tell” to heart.

Municipalities like Oak Bay are the first to protest loudly against amalgamation, claiming that Victoria wastes money (it does not) and is a basket case (it isn’t), and that amalgamation would therefore hurt …Oak Bay.

But it cuts both ways, as Bish points out. In fact, in his view, Victoria could well be the loser under amalgamation:

There does not appear to have been a study of the costs and benefits to the City of Victoria of its core city position, and while it is not unusual for central cities to claim that they are exploited by suburbanites who come into the city, there is yet to be a case where the city government and city businesses thought that they would be fiscally better off if the suburbanites stayed away. (p.21)

… because of course, if you’re relying so strongly on business taxes, and the suburbanites are obviously coming downtown to do business, whether it’s to shop or to eat at restaurants or to use services, you don’t want them to stay away.

Most pause-provoking, however, is this:

The impact of amalgamation on core city finances can be very important unless taxes are related to benefits in decentralized sub areas. This is because it generally costs more to provide equivalent services in spread out residential areas than in denser areas. Thus, any financing of services over the entire region will spread the central city business tax base over the entire region instead of leaving it to finance services in the core city. In fact, one of the most recent criticisms of geographically large municipalities, such as have been created in the Southwest of the United States, is specifically that the wealth of downtown business is used to subsidize the cost of residential services in outer areas, to the detriment of preserving the core area. This is something that is not happening in the capital region because each municipality must pay for its own services from its own tax base and CRD expenditures for regional activities are only a small proportion of overall property tax revenues. It is surprising that advocates of amalgamation do not seem to have been paying attention to this issue. (p.23)

That’s a pretty good argument against amalgamation, if, that is, one is talking about amalgamating all the municipalities under the CRD (some of which are quite rural). I agree with Bish here, but I wonder if things haven’t changed enough to warrant an amalgamation between the four core municipalities — if only to give all four a vote in matters pertaining to “our” downtown. As I pointed out in the previous entry, at present we’re dependent on the City of Victoria voter base for policies that affect the “core city” — that is, the core or central city for the region. If it’s a regional city, however, shouldn’t those other citizens have a voice in shaping it? Perhaps outright amalgamation isn’t the answer — after reading Bish’s report, I have a better understanding of the CRD’s role, although I don’t understand it enough to know how structures could be built that allow those councilors from those other three core communities to have more of a say in matters that affect primarily only one core municipality, namely the city.

Bish is also a great fan it seems of what he terms easy entry for new governments, by which he means that anyone with even very modest means (a few hundred dollars) can take a run at a council seat. Basically, I agree with him, but here, too, the issue cuts both ways. I attended a number of the 2005 “candidates meetings” and they were often an out and out goon show. It’s scary to see who thinks they can run for office — that “easy entry” aspect makes it …well, easy for anyone to take a crack at it.

Sure, it’s sublimely entertaining at the “meet the candidates” events, but running a city on pet peeves isn’t my idea of good government. And when you pay councilors $25,000, or the mayor $74,000 (plus expenses) for work that typically stretches into 12+ hour days, you won’t get leaders from other fields clamoring to take the job on. They’ll stay where they are, leaving this field to the Don Quixotes. That’s a gross and unfair generalization, of course, and often enough Don Quixote doesn’t get elected, and typically there are enough good candidates running to fill the seats, and we have hard-working, good people on council, …but still. In an ideal world, you’d get leaders from other, related, walks of life to take the job on — they’d have to be people whose days are 48 hours long so they could accomodate running the city as practically a volunteer commitment, while they continue to run their other affairs, too.

And that’s a work of fiction yet to be written.

Cities do it (land use) better

December 12, 2007 at 6:18 pm | In cities, community_associations, land_use, NIMBYism, urbanism, victoria | 7 Comments

Here’s a “must read” piece by Edward Glaeser, just republished in the CEO for Cities blog, The Greenness of Cities, and first published in the New York Sun on January 30/07. It explains why, from an environmentalism perspective, it’s far better to build highrises (and use land efficiently) than to oppose development (and force development into other areas, which typically don’t have the efficiencies in place that cities do).

How I wish that every board member of Victoria’s own Fairfield Community Association and James Bay Neighbourhood Association and Vic West Community Association would read this piece. I’m naming these groups specifically for their extreme NIMBYism, which they wield over the city’s core. Wedded to some obscene notion of a city forever preserved in aspic (which, if it’s kept up, will kill our city), they retard progressive development by defending what they consider Victoria’s “character,” “quaintness,” and “charme” (yes, with an “e” at the end — it’s all so veddy veddy English, don’t you know?). They do not understand what a city is or what it needs at all, and to shore up their inability to understand, they refuse to understand that Victoria is a city. “Their” Victoria is denial made manifest. The real Victoria suffers because of this.

Since they don’t understand the real Victoria at all (having no understanding of cities), they therefore fight development not just in their own neighbourhoods (for which they could be forgiven), but also in the city’s downtown (for which they cannot). The James Bay Neighbourhood Association is a particular thorn in my urbanist side, since this group insists on arrogating to itself areas that any sane person would recognize as belonging to downtown and having nothing to do with James Bay. But, as in all power trips, the more “authority” you can claim, the better your chances of inflating your importance.

They fight tooth and nail against any development that exceeds the city’s insanely arbitrary (and niggardly) height limits or that transgresses density limits established in a bygone age (the fifties?) when land was cheap. And they cling to strange fantasies, for example, that all of Victoria could do well with buildings kept to 6 floors — “like Paris,” they dreamily say, conveniently forgetting that their romantic notion of a low-rise Paris was born at the expense of massive expropriations and the destruction of the medieval city by Baron Haussmann in the 19th century. If anyone proposed anything remotely similar today, they’d be institutionalized. They also forget that those 6-story Parisian behemoths sit on land parcels approximately one square city block in size, hence the possibility of creating nifty enclosed courtyards for the residents. Given our comparatively tiny city lots (ranging from 9,000 to at most 15,000 square feet), it’s impossible to make the numbers come out right unless you go tall.

Oh, and how I wish that our supposedly “Green” city councilor, Sonya Chandler (who hasn’t been seen or heard from since she became a mother some months ago), would read this piece. Sonya — from Vic West, incidentally — who balks when a concrete high-rise proposal comes before council, because (in her mind) anything that isn’t “small” isn’t “green.”

How I wish the luminaries and wanna-be politicos from the various community associations, who think they have what it takes to lead a city and who plan to run for council seats, would read Glaeser’s article. I shudder to think what will happen if some of the Waynes or Dianes or Cornelias or Tims actually were to get elected next year: they, with their punitive attitude toward developers, with their firm belief that development is just another way of being a pervert (especially if the new building isn’t in some Disney-esque faux heritage “style”) and that it must be brought into line, ladies and gentlemen!

And what is this article I want them all to read actually saying?

Here are some key excerpts (pay attention, Sonya!):

If the environmental footprint of the average suburban home is a size 15 hiking boot, the environmental footprint of a New York apartment is a stiletto-heeled Jimmy Choo. Eight million New Yorkers use only 301 square miles, which comes to less than one-fortieth of an acre a person. Even supposedly green Portland, Ore., is using up more than six times as much land a person than New York.

New York’s biggest environmental contribution lies in the fact that less than one-third of New Yorkers drive to work. Nationwide, more than seven out of eight commuters drive. More than one-third of all the public transportation commuters in America live in the five boroughs. The absence of cars leads Matthew Kahn, in his fascinating book, “Green Cities,” to estimate that New York has by a wide margin the least gas usage per capita of all American metropolitan areas. The Department of Energy data confirm that New York State’s energy consumption is next to last in the country because of New York City.


…the ground troops of the environmental movement haven’t yet got themselves around to being pro-development, even in places, like New York, where development makes the most environmental sense. All of those years of opposing new development have made many activists reflexively anti-growth. Almost every act of neighborhood anti-development Nimbyism, or Not In My Back Yard, gets wrapped up in a mantle of environmentalism. The great problem with being reflexively anti-growth is that development in America is close to being a zero-sum game. New homes are going to be built to meet the needs of a growing population. If you stop development in some areas, you are ensuring more development elsewhere. [emph. added]

Some of my friends in the pro-urbanism camp have used this argument when speaking before council, albeit without the nuance it apparently requires to get through to councilors. As a result, when they now speak at public hearings to remind council of the sprawl in our Western Communities and to argue that highrises downtown could allay this, councilors shrug and pretend the argument is invalid. It isn’t. Certainly we’ll still see more single-family-homes (SFHs) going up in the suburbs, but that’s partly because of our overall growth here. We could — and should — still be doing a lot better in building downtown up, higher and denser.

Glaeser adds:

Good environmentalism requires a national perspective, not the narrow outlook of a single neighborhood trying to keep out builders. As a nation, we need to think clearly about where new housing causes the least environmental damage, and we need to make sure that our land-use policies help that happen. A local approach can do more harm than good because dense areas are rich in protesters who push new housing out to where there are fewer people to oppose it.

If one wrote, “[g]ood environmentalism requires a regional perspective, not the narrow outlook of a single neighborhood trying to keep out builders,” we could apply that entire paragraph to the situation in Victoria. For a perspective on the missing regional approach as it relates to municipal infrastructure funding and our overreliance on property taxes, see my recently published piece in Vibrant Victoria, Victoria’s Choice: to be or not to be …is not the question.

The “local approach” referenced by Glaeser is in our case a “neighbourhood approach” that seems to compound a peculiar political dysfunction of the region: the City of Victoria is a small political entity, but it’s the heart of regional entity of 350,000 people. The problem is that the city is but one municipality — out of 13. Within walking and biking distance are the municipalities of Oak Bay, Saanich, Esquimalt, View Royal, and so on, which have their own mayors and councils …and their own this-departments and that-departments. And so, the councilors — the politicians — in the City of Victoria are unhealthily dependent — to the detriment of the region — on the few neighbourhoods (some of whose organizations I listed above) for their voter base. It’s deadlock: the politicians dare not piss off the neighbourhood activists (who are often the only ones who bother to vote), even when this causes harm to the region as a whole — and certainly causes harm to what is the region’s downtown.

Next month (January 2008) I’ll have an article in FOCUS Magazine, which also tackles the stranglehold of the neighbourhoods over the city. I plan to post it and my other pieces from FOCUS (which unfortunately is not available online) to my blog soon.

« Previous PageNext Page »

Theme: Pool by Borja Fernandez.
Entries and comments feeds.