Canadian cities: stuck in the past?

by Yule Heibel on August 2, 2008

Christopher Hume takes aim at sclerotic Toronto, but his critique could apply to quite a few Canadian cities, including (much-smaller) Victoria.  See his Aug. 1 Toronto Star article, The future out of reach for city fearful of change. Toward the end, he writes:

City hall’s resistance to change has been noticed by many observers who point out that few of the new powers made available in the provincial City of Toronto Act two years ago have actually been applied.

Former chief planner Paul Bedford, for instance, wonders why a city intent on intensification hasn’t implemented minimum height requirements for new buildings. This is obvious and necessary; even the mayor has talked about it.

The key thing in that passage is the Canadian subtext: that Canadian cities “are but creatures of the Provinces,” a fact that goes back to the British North America Act of the last half of the 19th century, where Federalists convinced Provinces to join Confederation by promising that they (the Provinces) would retain complete control over “their” municipalities and cities.

At the time, no one in the wonderland of resource-extraction that was Canada thought that one day cities would figure prominently as independent engines and hubs for the country’s economy.

What’s interesting with regard to Hume’s passage is that provinces are apparently making moves to empower cities so they can act as independent actors on the political and economic stage — Hume’s reference to the City of  Toronto Act (granted by the province of Ontario) alludes to this.

A very recent parallel in BC would be this province’s Bill 27, which empowers cities to create Development Permit Areas and to initiate “green” development by giving municipalities heretofore unheard of power.

But as Hume also indicates, the cities — whether from force of habit or entropy — don’t seem to act with any sort of alacrity to wield their new powers.  And that really does speak to a failure of leadership at the municipal level.

PS: Vancouver is really very fortunate in having a City Charter (late 19th century).  It’s the only city in BC to have one, probably one of only a very few in all of Canada.  Perhaps the Charter has helped to create a climate of assertive independent-mindedness, which can’t have been unhelpful in facilitating Vancouver’s transition to the 21st century.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

maria August 3, 2008 at 10:27 am

Well, I was going to comment that Vancouver seems to be an exception, then I read all the way to the end of your post that made that same point.

My recent (and very short) trip to Vancouver, a city I used to know inside out decades ago, left me amazed at the profound changes it underwent from what seemed like a dour British outpost in 1969 to a vibrant gateway to both Asia and North America at once. The best of it was (and this is personal) is how it also transformed my family for the better — but that is another story, though not negligible if you take the original culture of the city….

Yule August 3, 2008 at 5:24 pm

Yes, Vancouver has an edge. I believe it got its charter in 1886 — would have to look it up, but it was around the last part of the 19th century.

I think that when Larry Beasley was chief planner for the city, he had a lot of support from City Hall — in other words, there were some smart people at the administrative end of the table and at the political / elected end. That helped create a lot of synergistic energy to move the city forward.

At the risk of really pissing off some folks in Victoria’s bureaucracy and/ or political scene, we don’t seem to have teamwork or smart people seeking each other out to work together in an assertive manner.

That could change with the next election (in Nov.08), but the next election could as easily bring a change for the much worse as we have some real luddites and pro-stagnation types just itching to get their hands on power (or continue to hold power, as some of the councilors already in power are backwards-thinking).

(PS: as I already said via email, I’m so glad you enjoyed your trip up here, and next time you’re here, I’ll hop over to Vancouver for sure!)

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