Ideas

GRIDS and Lost Opportunity

Outer greenfield development takes people and money out of the core. It is a zero sum game or worse, and the empirical proof is in your taxes.

By Ted Mitchell
Published May 26, 2006

Hamilton, as one irreverent writer has put it, is the city of the donut. Not the Timmy's kind, but the hole-in-the-middle type of city that is all too familiar to our southern neighbours.

Despite the rhetoric, GRIDS is effectively the slut of the development industry. Hamilton city councillors should check themselves for fiscal STDs. Probably syphilis, which has a predilection for affecting the brain after getting stuffed by one too many developers' big wads of cash.

Look at the content of GRIDS: Greenfield developments and no real commitments to rehabilitating brownfields or rebuilding the core. How did our elected representatives come to the conclusion this was desirable? Because they are confined in a mental prison of cultural assimilation that prevents intelligent, objective thought.

The entire western concept of land ownership is illegitimate. For an example, go to Caledonia today, where our cultural concepts are running up against that of another more mature and sustainable one that traditionally does not recognize personal land ownership.

The economist/philosopher Karl Polanyi recognized that treating land as a commodity is fundamentally dishonest, indefensible and destructive. Land cannot be manufactured, and it cannot be disposed of once sufficiently degraded. Land is fully a part of nature and subject to all the laws of science.

Economics, the "dismal science", does not even slightly follow the basic laws of nature, so that the entire concepts of natural capital and waste disposal are not captured. These concepts are fundamental to any honest pursuit of sustainability, but they are external costs to our capitalist system, and therefore earmarked for marginalization.

There are two ways to deal with this. The best would be to force our economic system to grow past infancy. But since I have observed no examples of economics maturing and capturing some of the realities of nature by itself, there is little hope for the globally insolent brat.

The next option is for the state to lay down some rules. By "state" I mean all levels of government, from local to international. The ideological may call this interference with the naturally superior system of Capitalism. But in all honesty, western social democracies derive all of their civility and distributed wealth from an intelligent balance of state and capital power. Presently the balance is eroding since globalization is tilting the playing field in capital's favour.

Without the balance, you have something like communist Russia. What a disaster. Too far the other way, you have modern capitalist Russia, which is perhaps even worse. Check out their skewed wealth distribution for a taste of laissez-faire capitalism. America looks communist in comparison. Even Ayn Rand would be unimpressed with her former nation's quagmire.

But restoring balance does not require size. You do not need to be big if you have good ideas, because good ideas are an endangered species within the mental prisons of cultural construct. Their power is substantial. Even a puny local government like Hamilton's can make a difference, if it is open to ideas. It is not up to fate or inevitability. But what to do in the shadow of that inevitability monster?

One answer is "two for one" land use planning. Greenfield development, sure, but match it acre for acre with core redevelopment. For the developers of that newest big box store or serpentine subdivision, go ahead and build it. But also, you must rebuild a decaying downtown building. Retrofit an old dilapidated neighbourhood. Renew a brownfield site to a new industrial, retail or residential use.

Let's not get bogged down with pride. If being a transit-commuter bedroom community of Toronto is necessary to make our downtown economic, then go for it.

Economically, this planning rule would be at least "two for one" for the city tax base. In the current donut model, outer greenfield development takes people and money out of the core. It is a zero sum game or worse, since low density fringe development has higher infrastructure costs than downtown. That is false growth, and the empirical proof is in your taxes. Real growth would mean a decrease in taxes.

If we insist on "two for one" development, then no new greenfield building permits are given out until an equivalent (meaning area or economic worth, it is open to debate) portion of the core donut starts to get filled in. This allows only real growth, that which is necessary for the population, and stops the spread of increasingly low density, increasingly costly development. The tax base of the core goes from negative to positive. Ignore that, and no greenfield development imaginable could hope to compensate for the core economic handicap.

Electing an intelligent city council will not automatically mean that such ideas will come to pass. Council needs to make three huge changes before this city starts to get off its back:

  1. Listen to Hamilton citizens
  2. Listen to city staff
  3. Stop dealing with developers behind the back door

One more, overarching point: Discuss these ideas in public forum, on the merit of the idea and not the source. This is as much the duty of the press as of the city. Are you listening, Spectator? If this last point can be achieved, it does not matter how powerful the developers are or what political bent individual councillors have. There is a name for this system: Democracy.

Ted Mitchell is a Hamilton resident, emergency physician and sometimes agitator who recently completed a BEng at McMaster University. He is fascinated by aspects of our culture that are harmful, but avoid serious public discussion.

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By mwickens (anonymous) | Posted May 27, 2006 at 09:48:46

Laissez-faire capitalism means that people and businesses are free to trade amongst themselves as they see fit. Giving Russia as an example of this system is laughable. Putin shamelessly uses the power of the state to appropriate businesses from his enemies and hand them to his friends. This is an extreme form of statism, not capitalism.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted May 27, 2006 at 10:27:44

Well, yes, but I would argue that extreme laissez-faire leads directly to statism.

In the absence of clear rules and regulations to correct the excesses of capitalism and of democratic oversight and public accountability, capitalism turns into cronyism, moguls hook up with governments to protect and promote their interests, and big business and the state begin to entwine each other.

It's also called fascism. Benito Mussolini and Giovanni Gentile wrote the entry on fascism in the Italian Encyclopedia: "Fascism should more properly be called 'corporatism,' since it is the marriage of government and corporate power."

Sounds like Russia under Putin.

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