Editorial

No Jackboot Required

The trick is to remove impediments and restrictions so that real growth and development can take place at natural cross-roads and meeting places.

By Ryan McGreal
Published February 19, 2005

This month's issue is five days late. The entire technical team (i.e. me) came down with the horrible cold that's been going around, and that effectively stalled the publication of this issue. Sorry for the delay, and thanks for your patience! - Ed.

No Jackboot Required

Critics of smart growth claim that it is narrow, heavy-handed, and punitive to developers. At its most benighted, smart growth is just that - a magic formula applied with all the insight and subtlety of a sledgehammer.

Obviously, planning has its place and sensible regulations can help smooth the flow of investments, but cities since the early twentieth century seem to have forgotten that growth (increasing the size of economic activity) and development (increasing the density and complexity of economic activity) occurred naturally throughout most of history without teams of planners to micromanage the process.

Instead, city councils lurch convulsively from fad to fad, desperate not to be left behind. Now it's a low-density subdivision; now it's a community-smashing megaproject; now it's a bizarre "urban village" located in the middle of nowhere on prime farmland.

After mis-reading The Rise of the Creative Class with mounting horror, councilors find themselves suddenly wondering how to attract more software designers and street musicians, as if that was the cause and not the effect.

It doesn't have to be this way. In fact, real smart growth is exactly the opposite: open, creative, organic, dynamic, and diverse.

As Jane Jacobs explains, the trick is to remove impediments and restrictions - like zoning regulations that segregate uses, parking requirements, basement requirements, etc. - so that real growth and development can take place at natural cross-roads and meeting places.

The legacy of the postwar planned community still hangs over us. Even some New Urbanists are caught up in the notion that urban nodes can be plonked down any which place, disconnected from their surroundings as long as they are internally consistent.

But the worst culprits are still the developers, accustomed to segregation and bland, sanitized sprawl. They hide behind the mantra, 'But we're just giving consumers what they want!'

I wonder.

Put bluntly, the residents of suburbs do not pay the real cost of living there. Everything from road building and maintenance to water service is subsidized, usually by the residents of more established communities.

Economists like to argue that public subsidies are market distorting, because they create an artificial demand for products that people wouldn't otherwise be willing to buy, hence mis-allocating investment capital.

Now, I'm not opposed to subsidies where they serve the public good - for example, by helping lower income citizens to pay for good housing integrated in the community - but should the city really be depleting its scarce resources to subsidize McMansions at Rymal and Nebo?

More to the point, would there still be a rush to these places if residents had to pay the real costs of living there? Not likely.

The suburb was first conceived as a kind of everyman's country house, a manor for the many, made possible through cheap, abundant transportation in cars.

Over the last century, however, the logic of suburbia ran its course. Suburbia turned in on itself, swallowing up so much land (for roads, highways and parking) that even cars themselves could no longer get around easily.

Demand for car infrastructure keeps outstripping all increases in supply, so that cities actually dig themselves deeper into a hole the more they pave.

Governments at all levels have planned and managed every aspect of suburbanization, from financing automotive infrastructure all the way to subsidizing oil development - to the tune of over a billion dollars a year.

So, can we take some lessons from all this?

  1. We should be aiming for more choice, not less. That means eliminating or scaling back artificially restrictive rules that require minimum parking requirements, eliminating zoning rules that artificially separate residential and commercial buildings, removing restrictions on minimum road widths, minimum front yard depth, etc.

  2. Property tax systems that subsidize sprawl by undercharging suburban developers and homeowners while overcharging downtown residents actually distort the housing market and drive artificial business to the suburbs.

  3. A healthy city reduces the need for all those short car trips that actually make up the bulk of traffic and would be walkable or cyclable if homes and businesses were organized less mechanically.

It's time to reclaim urban issues from the false dichotomy that binds them into "free market" - i.e. heavily regulated and subsidized in favour of developers and homebuyers who would not otherwise be able to afford suburban homes - and "radical" - i.e. balanced, inclusive, sustainable, and fair (not to mention better for business in the long term).

Locke Street

In related news, Locke Street is starting to diversify.

Long in danger of passing through the Hair Salon Event Horizon (to nick a phrase from Douglas Adams) and out of the visible universe, Locke Street will soon be home to two new businesses: Beach Road Meats & Delicatessen, whose original Ottawa Street location is world renowned for its kielbasa, and Goodness Me!, the organic grocer and health food store that has long graced the East Mountain.

In addition to Locke Street Bakery and the Atlantic Seafood Supermarket, Locke Street is turning into a real destination for local residents - a heart - instead of just a trendy spot for antique furniture shoppers.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan writes a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. He also maintains a personal website and has been known to post passing thoughts on Twitter @RyanMcGreal. Recently, he took the plunge and finally joined Facebook.

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