City-States Are Our Future

I’m probably like most Canadians who are concerned about politics and actually follow the nonsense from day-to-day.

I tend to think of the upper levels of government first. My city tends to come last.

If you’re born and raised in Southern Ontario, like me, you probably think a lot about Ottawa, and then about Ontario.

Living in BC, I learned that in other parts of the country, that usually gets reversed: they think about their province first, and then Ottawa.

But the city tended to be “just there”.

That’s what’s got to change, because our future will be ever more local.

I don’t say that just out of worries. Even assuming globalisation continues apace, technology solves all our problems, and our lives go onward and upward in never-ending progress, some places will do significantly better than others.

Or, to put it another way, what happens in your city will matter, regardless of whether you believe the future’s rosy or filled with storm-clouds.

The title says “city-states” but perhaps “city-regions” would be an equally good term.

Take Toronto, where I live: you really can’t stop the city-region at the boundaries of the City of Toronto. Mississauga, Brampton, Oakville, Milton, Vaughan, Newmarket, Markham, Ajax, Whitby, etc. are all part of it.

Where it ends is interesting. Is Hamilton in the mix? I know a number of people who routinely commute to Toronto for work but live in Hamilton. Is Guelph or Kitchener-Waterloo in the mix? The connections are more tenuous, but there are some. Is Barrie in the mix? Same story.

There are those who would say Muskoka, Haliburton and the Kawarthas are in the mix; that Stratford is; that Niagara Falls is. Yes, we go to-and-fro, but they’re probably not integral to the region in the way closer-in places are.

So let me define a city-region: it’s a place where you need to build integrated transportation because people routinely travel around it.

Some cities do this with ring roads. Of course, you build one of those, and it gets built on both sides. So you end up building another … and another.

Massachusetts today wrestles with controlling the outside of the I-495 ring around Boston, because the Route 128 ring was jumped. London wrestles with trying to maintain green space outside the M25, where radials (M1, M40, M4, M3, etc.) lead away to suburbs on the “outside”. Paris long since jumped La Boulevard Périphérique. Helsinki has no less than three rings and is still expanding.

At the same time, a community that thrives is one where people have small communities within it, where services are within walking distance. Think the repetition of blocks in Manhattan, the number of “high streets” that make London a city-of-villages, the clusters every few streets that mark The Hague.

So a city-region needs both very fine-grained services, and lots of interconnections. It tends to “fade out” where the edge goes linear. Think the old railway suburbs — the Main Line in Philadelphia’s region, down to Riverside in 19th century Chicago, up the Fraser Valley in Vancouver. Over to Hamilton in Toronto, probably; certainly to Kitchener-Waterloo.

What this tells us (with a moment’s reflection) is that our cities are all governed at the wrong scale.

Our provinces and states are too big, relative to them. (In Europe, often, there is no intervening layer, and the national government is definitely too “far away” and too big.) In many ways they no longer make sense — or make sense only in the realm of the relentlessly rural.

Not by accident do people in what politicians like to call “Heartlands” feel colonised by others far away! Yet there may be little other choice for many kinds of services.

Let’s face it, Atlin, BC, Mackenzie, BC, Castlegar, BC and Port Hardy, BC are not going to be places where a complete educational offering, or a complete suite of health care services, or a complete modern telecommunications infrastructure, etc. are going to be delivered. Not unless there’s resource sharing, coordination, and the like brought to bear — which is where rural areas benefit from being part of something big, but far away.

A city, on the other hand, can do these things out of its own economy. A city-region can do likewise.

But you don’t want to go too far. Take Chicago, for instance. Rensselaer, IN, is only 112 km (70 mi) from Chicago. This is the same distance as Trumbull, CT, is from New York City. (I lived in Trumbull; I know how much the community was a part of the New York City city-region!) Does that make Rensselaer a natural part of the Chicago city-region?

Probably not. Kitchener-Waterloo to Toronto is the same distance as well, within a kilometre or two. Yet K-W doesn’t “feel” part of Toronto: it acts like the centre of its own (smaller, yet real) city-region. Rensselaer may well have people who make the commute, at least to the edge of the Chicago city-region (much as there are people in K-W who commute to the edge of Milton, or Mississauga, places definitely “part” of the Toronto city-region; and as people in Trumbull commute to places closer in but not in New York City, like Stamford CT or White Plains NY). But — on a very much smaller scale — Rensselaer is also “its own place”, standing at the hub of a small but self-contained city-region.

So it’s not distance. All those distances are the same. It’s orientation.

Mississauga might like to claim it’s a place in its own right, but its own people don’t see it that way. It’s where they sleep, where their kids go to school, where they do most, but not all, their shopping. But they’re Torontonians for many of their jobs, for tertiary care, for sports and entertainment.

But people in Hamilton and in Kitchener-Waterloo get those things from Hamilton or K-W, for the most part. They’re not just separate city-regions because of history; they’re separate city-regions because the bulk of their people get almost everything from their region.

Meanwhile, in all these places, neighbourhoods and local communities are really the heart.

Toronto is well known for its east-west division. I’m an east ender: I have never lived in the west side of the city. Moving back to Toronto from Vancouver at the end of 2009, it never occurred to me to look in the west side (despite having lived in west side Vancouver!). If I wanted suburban living (I do not) I’d almost automatically think east.

What I do want is what I have had almost everywhere I’ve lived: a walkable community with local services. The “health” of “the Danforth” in my segment of it is more important to my well-being than the health of the city-region as a whole. I felt the same in Vancouver: how “Dunbar was doing” mattered more than how the city-region as a whole was doing.

Now, of course, how the region’s doing does have its effect on how your neighbourhood is doing. There was a wave of small manufacturing job creation in northern Mississauga, Brampton and western Vaughan in the early 2000s: it was a “shot in the arm” for the entire Toronto city-region. There was no similar action taking place in the Vancouver city-region at that time, and the difference showed.

But those things occurred where they did just as much for reasons of local initiative and the inherent clustering that creates — another form of the creative city arguments made by Richard Florida and growth patterns of Jane Jacobs — as by any upper level policy decisions.

So our city-regions need a “Metro” level of government — to build out, coordinate, connect the region — and small, very local community governments, to be highly responsive to neighbourhood needs.

A single city government for 2,540,000 people, as Toronto has? Too many different kinds of communities — there is no policy decision that works well on that scale. Toronto’s recent woeful discussions of public transit are showing this, and not just because of the intransigence of a Mayor who shouts “subways” but really means “nothing in the way of my car” — and sacrifices two public transit lines that would have served his former ward, the one most car-dependent in the city.

For, at the same time, the boundaries of the City of Toronto is too soon to stop any line — just as, in 1952, the bounds of the older city were too soon to stop the lines. That’s why we got Metro in 1953.

Provinces/states and federal governments are loathe to allow city-regions to emerge. These are challengers to their power.

But they’re going to emerge, one way or another. Indeed, they are already “facts on the ground”.

Today we use a variety of ad hoc mechanisms. Metrolinx for regional transport in Toronto. The Port Authority of NY & NJ to span the Hudson in New York City. The Fraser Health Authority in Vancouver to go from Burnaby (36 blocks from the centre line of the City of Vancouver) to Hope, BC, 160 km away, or the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority, heading up to Whistler, BC but encompassing the City, Richmond and north shore communities. None of these are democratic.

In many ways the smaller towns that form a region have it easier. There, townships/counties are logical frameworks. They seldom span state/provincial bounds. Their region can be tied together using existing local democratic forms.

But when a smaller community — Trumbull, CT, is only 36,000 people — is enmeshed in a city-region, those avenues don’t make sense. Then you have to look for true regional authority.

That, in turn, means overturning existing township, county, state/province lines. Sometimes it may even involve national boundaries: Point Roberts, WA and Blaine, WA, are really part of the Vancouver city-region — despite a national border with some very nasty border guards who often violate international agreements signed by the two countries on a whim.

When you have democratic structures set to reflect the reality on the ground, then, and only then, can you effectively start talking about how to improve the region at the lowest effective cost and the biggest effect for the expenditure.

That’s what happens when you get the scale right.

One last point: once we start reconfiguring into regions, we’ll have the revenue sources attached where they’ll do the most good: at the regional level.

Don’t believe that would make a difference?

Singapore. Hong Kong. Two places without natural resources, overpopulated — and wealthy. All because the scale is right.



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  1. William F. Spaulding 27/03/2012 — 12:05

    I was taken back to see my small town/city of Rensselaer IN. mentioned in this wonderful article.Yes we are self contained and rather isolated in many way (which is how we like it to be) but we do have the luxury of being able to draw upon the resources of being not too far from Chicago Ill. and Indianapolis IN. if and when we wish having a major interstate route 65 (a major trucking route) running through the outer east side of our city. We have a great sense of community here and bars on the windows or doors cannot be found here. You will seldom even see a fenced in yard (no need). It’s about location location and the way we choose to have no desire to join in on the “Castles In The Air” type cities. You will find no building above three stories tall here amongst the surrounding farmland which makes for a rather quiet place in which to live. More cities and towns like Rensselaer are what this country needs and can have if only we try to improve WHAT WE HAVE instead of always trying to expand in the hopes of making for a better city by volume. Careful planning can achieve this if enough of us wish it to be so. Thank you Mr.Bruce Stewart for this wonderful article. William F. Spaulding

    • You are most welcome, Bill. Places don’t have to “grow, grow, grow” and lose themselves: as I’ve often said, quality is better than quantity. There’s no reason Rensselaer can’t anchor a vibrant Jasper County, without becoming a dormitory for other places, or swallowing up the land around it.

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