Every municipal service that cities provide today is the outcome of an earlier argument between people who wanted to improve urban quality of life and people who didn't want their taxes to go up.`
By Ryan McGreal
Published December 18, 2013
An article in today's Spectator reminds us that walkability is a city-wide issue, not just an issue for the city's downtown areas, which have suffered from a series of planning and roadway design decisions that have rendered them progressively less walkable.
The predominant shape of suburban development has been extremely car-dependent over the past several decades, but suburbs do not have to be pedestrian- or cycling-unfriendly. I grew up in a 1970s-era suburb east of Toronto, but my neighbourhood was marbled with off-street trails that connected destinations at least as effectively as the streets and passed the popsicle test.
Many of Hamilton's suburbs don't even have sidewalks, and it's heartening that suburban residents are starting to demand better walkability and mountain councillors Scott Duvall (Ward 7) and Terry Whitehead (Ward 8) want to do something about it. But something jumped out at me in the article:
When Mountain subdivisions took root, developers weren't obliged to include sidewalks, and homeowners worried about a higher tax bill to finance them, the Ward 8 councillor noted. [emphasis added]
This, in a nutshell, is the ongoing struggle over the proper place for a municipal government in the affairs of the city.
The reflexive approach is to say that a given initiative isn't the city's job and will result in higher taxes: in other words, to focus narrowly on the cost side of the cost-benefit equation.
A more thoughtful approach is to consider the evidence on whether the benefits outweigh the costs. As I wrote earlier this year, the same debate played out in 19h century Paris over the controversial matter of whether and how to modernize the city's fresh water and sewer system.
On the one side, property owners and commercial interests argued that water and sewer services were not the government's job and objected to a higher tax bill to finance them. On the other, city planners argued that fresh, clean water and sewage removal would reduce infectious disease and improve quality of life.
Over several decades, the modern system was slowly, painstakingly built against the steady objections of interests that did not see the value in this public investment. (We can tell similar stories about the Paris Metro system and other infrastructures that are now considered standard responsibilities for a major city.)
Of course, these sustained exercises in infrastructure development transformed Paris into one of the world's greatest cities, with vastly improved living conditions for its residents and, not coincidentally, dramatic increases in property values and business opportunities for the very classes that had resisted them.
Against the great political dramas of the 19th and early 20th centuries, the matter of walkability in a mid-sized Canadian city seems prosaic; yet the same principles apply. Indeed, the walkability dividend is a real, measurable positive return on investment that accompanies sustained, contiguous municipal efforts to make neighbourhoods more walkable.
And like water and sewer services, walkability is increasingly understood today as a public health issue: when neighbourhoods are more walkable, their residents are measurably healthier, with lower incidence of obesity, heart disease, diabetes and so on.
A city that is interested in healthy residents must begin to consider its land use in the context of the role it plays in public health. The North American obesity epidemic is really a land-use epidemic, and neighbourhoods designed so that it is difficult, dangerous and unpleasant to walk or cycle are literally making us sick and reducing our life expectancy.
To those people who say we can't afford higher taxes, remember: every municipal service that cities provide today is the outcome of an earlier argument between people who wanted to improve urban quality of life and people who didn't want their taxes to go up.
We can afford the public investment in walkability because the return on investment is a healthier public and a stronger economy. Indeed, what we cannot afford is to continue with the unsustainable status quo.
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