Commentary

To Believe in Our Cities Again

An ambitious platform calls for the creation of a Ministry of Urban Affairs, the establishment of three new national holidays, and setting clear limits on sprawl.

By Chris Erl
Published September 11, 2008

Sprawl is killing us. It is waging a winning war against society, against nature and against taxpayers. Someone has to stop it, before there is nothing left but endless rows of suburban cookie cutter houses interspersed with the occasional Power Center.

The Canada's Next Great Prime Minister contest is held every year by the CBC, Magna International and its partners, Fulbright and the Dominion Institute. Open to any Canadian youth aged 18 to 25, it calls for those who are interested to enter a video of themselves explaining how they would make Canada a stronger nation politically, socially and economically. When I found out about this competition, my first thought was "Hey, that's easy. We make our nation stronger by making our communities stronger!" and it all seemed to roll from there.

My plan is informally called "To Believe in Our Communities." It is an ambitious platform that calls for the creation of a Ministry of Urban Affairs, the establishment of three new national holidays, and setting clear limits on sprawl. Many people have asked me "Why should we care about sprawl? It's only an urban problem." To fully understand my platform, we must look at a few key points.

Sprawl Costs

It is a well-known fact that sprawl has stripped away the sense of community that once bound our neighbourhoods together and replaced it with tension, suspicion and, occasionally, violence. Gone are the days of "Love thy neighbour" and the community potluck or barbeque. In my own suburban neighbourhood, early attempts at forming a community association failed and now rivalries and animosity has consumed our community.

The cost of sprawl hurts as well. Working families, rural and urban, are the ones shouldering the $69 billion tab for sewers, roads and other services that needlessly expanding communities in Southern Ontario alone will require over the next 20 years. That's not even including the personal costs of items like gasoline.

It is true that sprawl is a problem that mostly effects highly urbanized places in Canada, namely Southern Ontario, The St. Lawrence Corridor and cities such as Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver. So our Federal Government dismisses this problem as a regional one that is the responsibility of the municipalities to correct. But the reality is, this sprawl affects Canada's rural regions as well, as rural regions are the ones being destroyed to make way for sprawl.

Ministry of Urban Affairs

So now to my plan. As Prime Minister, I would immediately establish a Ministry of Urban Affairs, which would oversee the implementation of a National Urban Development Plan and a National Rural Protection Plan.

The National Urban Development Plan would set a development standard for all cities based on their size, natural surroundings and economic base. The Plan would also encourage revitalization of failing city centers, promote sustainable development, and encourage the improvement of necessities, such as affordable housing, transit systems, libraries and civic centers. Essentially, the plan would draw on the First Principles of Raise the Hammer, and the writings of people like Jane Jacobs and groups like the Project for Public Spaces.

The National Rural Protection Plan would set clear limits on sprawl by dedicating acres of land for Green Belts and establishing Protected Agricultural Zones to save the endangered Canadian family farm. Land will still be set aside for expansion, as our cities will always need room to grow, but both Plans will ensure that this growth is sustainable, environmentally sound and holds community advancement at it's heart.

Further Initiatives

Ministries and Plans alone will not save Canadian community. As Prime Minister, I would establish three new nation wide statutory holidays: May Day, Earth Day and Election Day and would encourage different cultural and community groups to hold celebrations highlighting their heritage on St. Patrick's Day, St. Anthony's Day, Oktoberfest and other important holidays. Celebrations bring people together, showcase local heritage and culture and give hard working Canadians a well-deserved rest.

These are not the only measures I would take as Prime Minister. I would increase the share of the gas tax transferred to the cities, include Canada's Mayors in First Minister's Conferences, lend federal assistance to the creation of affordable housing units in Canadian cities and establish an ambitious mental health and social assistance program to assist our city's most vulnerable: the homeless.

Stopping sprawl, rebuilding community, respecting our cities. It seems simple, but putting a plan like this into play would take dedication and perseverance. I am willing to fight for it, to believe in my community again. Are you?

Chris Erl, a born and raised Hamiltonian, has wanted to change the world ever since becoming the Westwood Elementary School Chief Returning Officer in Grade 5. After receiving both a B.A. (Honours) and M.A. from McMaster, Chris decided to purse his passion and study urban planning.

In addition to serving on the City of Hamilton’s LGBTQ Advisory Committee, Chris is also a registered candidate for Public School Board trustee in Wards 1 & 2.

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By adam1 (anonymous) | Posted September 12, 2008 at 12:04:34

Great article! I hope the up and coming generation has a ton of people who want to do something about this issue. Once baby boomers retire time will be ripe for change.

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By beancounter (registered) | Posted September 12, 2008 at 12:38:40

Hey, adam1.

As someone who was born just a bit too soon to be a baby-boomer, I heartily endorse the spirit of the above article.

It's good to see young(er) people catching the vision.

But then, I am not retired yet.

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By Jordan Alcock (anonymous) | Posted December 24, 2008 at 11:06:31

Well written, but I must point out that adding the Mayors of Canada to the first ministers' conferences would mean inviting Thousands of people... After all, every municipality has a mayor. Would you also invite reeves? You couldn't really discriminate based on city size either; how could you justify including the mayors of major cities but not of smaller cities like Kingston, Brantford, Sarnia, Saskatoon, and the like?

The only other issue I really take is that your plan is calling for the centralization of the plan in the federal government. The federal government is not only less efficient, but also blind to the particular needs of municipalities and individual constituencies. I think returning more of the gas tax is a fantastic way to allow cities self-determination in a fair way across the board.

"Working families, rural and urban, are the ones shouldering the $69 billion tab for sewers, roads and other services that needlessly expanding communities in Southern Ontario alone will require over the next 20 years"

Quick question: Who do you believe should be paying for these services? I have to pay for them as a citizen of Ottawa, but I also get to use those services. And because the amount of property tax one pays is based on the value of their home, the amount of tax you pay is generally proportional to your wealth and/or income. The only other people I can see paying for the cities are the rural taxpayers who are already over-burdened by paying for the cities, and massively under-represented politically.

Your goals are nice... but I think getting there is not as straight forward as it may seem.

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By Jordan Alcock (anonymous) | Posted December 24, 2008 at 11:18:04

Well written, but I must point out that adding the Mayors of Canada to the first ministers' conferences would mean inviting Thousands of people... After all, every municipality has a mayor. Would you also invite reeves? You couldn't really discriminate based on city size either; how could you justify including the mayors of major cities but not of smaller cities like Kingston, Brantford, Sarnia, Saskatoon, and the like?

The only other issue I really take is that your plan is calling for the centralization of the plan in the federal government. The federal government is not only less efficient, but also blind to the particular needs of municipalities and individual constituencies. I think returning more of the gas tax is a fantastic way to allow cities self-determination in a fair way across the board.

"Working families, rural and urban, are the ones shouldering the $69 billion tab for sewers, roads and other services that needlessly expanding communities in Southern Ontario alone will require over the next 20 years"

Quick question: Who do you believe should be paying for these services? I have to pay for them as a citizen of Ottawa, but I also get to use those services. And because the amount of property tax one pays is based on the value of their home, the amount of tax you pay is generally proportional to your wealth and/or income. The only other people I can see paying for the cities are the rural taxpayers who are already over-burdened by paying for the cities, and massively under-represented politically.

Your goals are nice... but I think getting there is not as straight forward as it may seem.

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