If we can start to imagine ourselves as a region instead of a bickering jumble of competing interests, Hamilton can finally start to assert itself as an important centre.
By Ryan McGreal
Published September 09, 2011
I'm reading a book by David Rusk called Inside Game/Outside Game, in which he makes a persuasive argument that cities which want to revitalize their urban cores must first unite and align politically with their larger metro areas.
In fragmented metro areas, suburban municipalities undercut, cherry-pick and poach from the host city while dumping their problems there. The result is under-invested inner cities starved for resources and failing socially and economically, surrounded by affluent suburbs that are effectively gated against the poor.
It's particularly interesting given Hamilton's amalgamation blues, but the evidence certainly seems to support it. Reading this has forced me to rethink my earlier contention that amalgamation was necessarily a bad idea.
The real issue is that Hamilton was amalgamated in the wrong manner and for the wrong reasons. The Harris government wanted to cobble together a big enough municipal tax base to download social services costs to the municipal level. (Toronto and Ottawa were forcibly amalgamated with their suburbs for the same reason.)
Given that objective, it is unlikely that amalgamation could have gone better than it did. To borrow a quote from Michael Ignatieff when he expressed regret about supporting the Iraq War, "intentions do shape consequences."
This is why Flamborough was bolted onto the amalgamated city. Flamborough is geographically closer to Burlington than to Hamilton and is more oriented socially and economically toward Halton, but it was a necessary part of the Hamilton social service numbers game, so it went into the pot.
Of course, Flamborough is not the only unfortunate artifact of how amalgamation took place. As a sop to angry suburban voters, the amalgamated city was carved up into wards that preserved traditional communities at the expense of fair representation by population, with the result that the old city of Hamilton is grossly underrepresented on the amalgamated council.
According to 2006 Statistics Canada data, suburban wards 9 through 15 have an average population of 24,959 residents, whereas old city wards 1 through 8 have an average population of 41,231, or 1.6 times as high.
If we further split the old city, wards 1-5 have an average of 36,481 while 6-8 have an average of 49,147. The most populous ward in the city, ward 7, has 58,395 residents - close to four times as many as ward 14, which has just 15,920.
As a result, each voter in a suburban ward has far more voting power than an equivalent voter in an urban ward.
Another artifact of amalgamation was area rating for transit, recreation and emergency services. Under area rating, residents living in different neighbourhoods would pay different tax rates toward those services based on local service levels.
This preserved the fragmented allocation of regional resources that had long starved the inner city while diverting regional dollars to fund the high-cost expansion of those same suburbs.
If we want amalgamation to work for Hamilton instead of against it, we need to fix these issues and align the interests of Hamilton's various communities so that our council can do a better job of thinking regionally and producing working majorities instead of splitting on fractious, parochial issues.
The good news is that Council finally fixed area rating this spring after years of foot-dragging. The issue threatened to be explosively controversial, but Council put together a formula that doesn't pit urban and suburban ratepayers against each other.
Next, Council needs to fix the ward boundaries so that residents are fairly represented on council. One option is to split wards 1-5 into six wards with an average population of 30,401 and split wards 6-8 into five wards with an average population of 29,488.
That would lower the average ward 1-8 population from 41,231 to 29,986, which is closer to the average ward 9-15 population of 24,959. It would also lower the overall average ward population from 33,637 to 28,031.
The third item will require the Province to fulfill its promise to restore social service funding to the Provincial level, where it belongs. Hamilton was amalgamated with its suburbs to create a tax base big enough to carry social services, but municipalities should never have been saddled with such cyclical and geographically unbalanced public expenditures.
This creates geographic conflicts between urban neighbourhoods of concentrated poverty and suburban ratepayers who feel they have to 'subsidize poor people downtown', undermining the effort to build coalitions between urban and suburban interests on a regional strategy that delivers net returns to everyone.
If we can muster the courage and strategic vision to rebalance our municipal governance system and redress the lingering side-effects of amalgamation - if we can start to imagine ourselves as a region instead of a bickering jumble of competing interests - Hamilton can finally start to assert itself as an important centre.
This was first published in the September, 2011 issue of Urbanicity.
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