Hume on heritage, cities, suburbs

by Yule Heibel on March 22, 2008

Christopher Hume is on a roll with three articles in today’s Toronto Star.

In Urban tragedy unfolding as highrise to erase history, he offers a few (troubling) questions about the impending demolition of some 19th-century Toronto rowhouses slated for demolition so that a new condo tower can take their place. I’m not anti-development (nor is Hume, for that matter), but in a country that has a relatively thin historical fabric, you have to wonder about the merits of shredding it further. When a block of buildings went up in flames on Queen West toward the end of February, many people anguished over the destruction of built heritage. There’s no public concern over these rowhouses, however, so Hume asks, “Given the outcry unleashed by the recent burning of a row of buildings on Queen St. W., you’d think that there’d be hell to pay for the deliberate destruction of five houses, all of them beautiful redbrick structures, for something as ordinary, as predictable, even mundane, as another condo.

Perhaps no one cares, Hume speculates, because these are “just” houses (residential), without any commercial history?

Hume closes with these words:

No doubt the developer will tell us that the houses are in terrible shape. How convenient. But if they are, fix them up. Build the tower somewhere else.

It’s time we understood that heritage represents a rare resource, a civic asset, not simply an obstacle on the way to a developer’s bottom line. Our willingness to sacrifice our history at every opportunity reveals a worrisome lack of self-confidence and sophistication.

Regardless of what will replace these houses, the neighbourhood – and with it the city – will be diminished by their disappearance.

It’s a tricky position. Here in Victoria, we can still put most new downtown developments on surface parking lots and other “infill” situations. But that could change here, too. (Perhaps more on that later.)

(On the same page as the above article, readers can also find Hume’s “The Condo Critic,” with a review of One St. Thomas, where he writes, “…it belongs with that small handful of buildings designed to be part of something larger, namely a city.” That’s a good place to belong to.)

The other two articles by Hume are immediately related: Countries die. The city is eternal and The suburbs’ grim future. The first is a sort of commentary on Ricky Burdett and Deyan Sujdic’s The Endless City, with an especial focus on how municipal infrastructure funding and autonomy issues play out in Western cities, including Canada:

Though the megacities of the West don’t face troubles as dire as these, the question of inclusion clearly underlines all others problems. Cities have always belonged to those who can afford them, but that will no longer suffice when cities must accommodate an ever-growing proportion of the world’s poorest inhabitants.

Even in prosperous Canada, affordability and availability of housing have emerged as major issues, along with those of traffic and transit (see The suburbs’ grim future, ID4).

As contributors to The Endless City make clear, in many urban centres, car use has grown exponentially. What was a two-lane road in Shanghai just a decade ago is now an eight-lane highway. Even in Mexico City, where car-ownership is restricted to relatively few, the city recently constructed an elevated freeway that serves a tiny fraction of the city’s population.

London has famously introduced a congestion zone, which though controversial, has been an acknowledged success, reducing gridlock by 20 per cent.

But the urban equivalent of a unified field theory remains every bit as elusive. It is obvious, however, that one issue shared by all civic jurisdictions is that of governance. Although there are European cities empowered to levy their own income tax, federal, national, provincial and regional governments almost universally view municipalities as junior partners.

Yet around the globe the story is the same: Cities deliver 80 per cent of the services people expect in their daily lives on 25 per cent of tax revenues. As a result, public infrastructure is crumbling at every turn.

Canada’s no exception; the latest estimate of the infrastructure deficit in Ontario alone stands at $143 billion. While Toronto frantically tries to avoid bankruptcy, Ottawa has just come through a series of budget surpluses that peaked last year at $13 billion. This national/local imbalance reveals much about where the planet is headed in the decades ahead.

If cities don’t have the taxing powers they need, neither do they have the political power. How interesting that residents of London, a city that dates back millennia, long before Great Britain, didn’t directly elect their mayor until 2000. Since then, London has set an example for the rest of the world in its willingness to tackle problems such as congestion, air pollution, and affordable housing head on. At this point, it’s quite likely more people have heard the name of London’s Lord Mayor, Ken Livingstone, than British Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

That’s shouldn’t be surprising. In the grand scheme of things, Livingstone has greater impact on the daily lives of more Britons than does Brown. Certainly the same could be said of Toronto Mayor David Miller when compared with that of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

If nothing else, the present urban age will bring all this closer to home than ever.

Countries come and go, but cities are here to stay.

Ok, if you don’t live “back east,” you might not know who David Miller is either — but maybe the name Sam Sullivan will register more vividly. Yet Hume’s point still stands: mayors of major cities oversee powerhouses, and all-too-often it’s not recognized by “higher levels” of government, at least not officially as policy. The policy still identifies cities (municipalities) as subaltern.

Hume’s third article, The suburbs’ grim future, is a brief commentary on why the suburbs are really screwed in times of economic downturn:

Poverty is one thing in the city, quite another in the suburbs.

Historically, cities enabled the poor to work their way up the socio-economic ladder. But what happens when low-income families are concentrated in post-war suburban communities where they are isolated and kept apart?

The prospects don’t look good.


Paramount among the lessons to be learned is the importance of urban flexibility. Hulchanski quotes an earlier study done in the 1970s called, “Metro’s Suburbs in Transition.”

“The post-war suburb,” it states, “assumed one set of family conditions for child-rearing and the physical environment incorporated these assumptions.”

But, as the report went on, “The prototype suburban family – father in the labour force, mother at home full time, ownership of a ground-level home with private open space, two to four children, homogeneous neighbours – is no longer the dominant reality of suburban life.”

Though this phenomenon has yet to be fully played out, it’s clear that traditional city virtues of proximity, connectedness and diversity, not to mention public transit, lead to better living conditions and opportunities for the poor than the archetypal suburban qualities of separation by use and distance.

The successful city, varied and adaptable, can be reinvented and recycled over and over again by successive generations. But can the same be said of an environment designed for homogeneity?

So once again, the message is clear: the monoculture is bad news. Flexibility, heterogeneity, adaptability: hallmarks of cities and of people living together in proximity.

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