Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Cities of Bones: Traditional Development of Cities

If you read a lot of urbanist writing, or material about cities the phrase “a city’s bones” will almost inevitably come up. In every context I have seen it used it is a positive comment about the foundational structure of a city and how it established the city with a strong starting point for its present and future conditions. The best bones seem to come from older cities. Cities which were largely build before World War II and the rise of automobile-oriented development.

The better the core structure of the city is, the older the road network and basic infrastructure the more capable it is with dealing with our current problems. Our solutions are largely “back to the future” in their orientation. The concentration of wealth and employment in our cities’ centres make them the bustling cores that are attracting swarms of people to settle within them. As a result the densely populated city is the model that will reassert itself after the experiment of a bedroom suburb and inner-cities that shut down after 6 PM.

Sprawl is basically the antithesis to good bones. The booming, groaning suburbs that have been constructed in the Post-War period seem scarcely able to adapt to changing circumstances. When suburbs face challenges residents with means typically abandon them for greener pastures, often literally, with new green-field construction. This is not the case in cities with good bones. Cities such as London, Paris, New York, and Philadelphia are rooted in a deep strength. Despite deep hardships in the last few decades cities like Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Hamilton (Ontario), Boston, and others have shown real resilience.

I think there’s a certain logic that suggests there is a natural order to cities that automobile-oriented development abuts against violently. Cities from pre-antiquity to the early 20th century share a great deal in common. It is hardly surprising to me that as cities revive it is often in the oldest neighbourhoods.

I worry that Canadian cities have undersize cores and have grown beyond their healthy bones and have become unsound. A report on my hometown of Brampton referred to our downtown as undersized. Instead of growing naturally and expanding overtime Brampton’s downtown remained quite small for decades until massive suburban development hemmed it in from all sides. Now heritage neighbourhoods prevent homes from being torn down and replaced with 2 to 4 storey brick mixed commercial-residential, as cities have densified naturally for centuries.

Our move away from the grid pattern to the cul-de-sac and twisty side roads may be the ultimate osteoporosis that dooms some of our cities. Suburban development as it has been seems hardly able to adapt to the changing circumstances of cities. The metaphor of bones is a valuable one because one’s skeleton is permanent and inescapable. One would think they would want the strongest most resilient structures to be at their core, but development patterns indicate otherwise. I’m not suggesting every city needs to look like the downtown core of a major city, but there is a kinship between the downtowns built by small towns a hundred years ago and what we see in those cities now. They stand in stand contrast to the tumour-like growths on the edge for our big-box stores and other sprawl.

Traditional development accounts for human needs and provides a natural form of growth and development. Ultimately cities will have to look to the past to find structures that are durable and better capable of adapting to change.



Thursday, April 24, 2014

Worth Reading - April 24, 2014

The question of which party is leading as Ontario likely approaches a spring election is wide open. Polls offer conflicting information and numbers have been fluid for months. 

From The Atlantic Cities, Daniel Hertz writes about gentrification and how people act as a magnet for the process even if they do not support it. It creates a tragic cycle because the drivers are social and economic and the actual character of the individuals is irrelevant.

Justin Ling has great fun in this piece taking apart the opposition’s arguments about a stagnating middle class and how it may in fact be boosting the Conservatives’ fortunes. 

Samara Canada has a piece featured on their blog by a political insider talking about the ineffective tele-marketing strategies used by political parties and what that might suggest about their incentives.

David Brooks  in the New York Times talks about the consequence of political consultants and leadership. I particularly enjoy his anecdote about Joe Biden entirely undermining the consultants and proving more effective than their collective “wisdom”.

Alice Funke of Pundits’ Guide looks at the impact of retirements on the 2015 federal election

Alison Loat answers questions about Tragedy in the Commons with The Tyee. 

In the New Yorker, a discussion about the guilt thatvideo game designers feel after sudden, and somewhat extreme success when they become instant millionaires. 

A piece from the Toronto Star that discusses the origins and nature of self-identified class for Justin Trudeau and Rob Ford. I think the author makes some really interesting points here about how class identity is locked in early.


A really intriguing piece in The Grid arguing that gridlock is unfixable. In short, any improvements in transportation will simply invite more people to fill the roads. This is a good sign however because it is a symptom of a vibrant and active economy. 

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Democracy from the Bottom-Up

People get motivated to get involved in politics for a multitude of different reasons. However the scope and scale of the issues that attract some to engage in the democratic process may shape how those citizens feel about the effectiveness of their participation. Perhaps the “big issues” which garner so much attention, and federal politics more generally, is really the worst way to engage citizens.

Back in school I remember being taught about S.M.A.R.T. goals – goals that are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Reasonable and Timely. The acronym varies slightly, but the point is the same. Are the goals that you set for yourself actually achievable or overly ambitious, or amorphous? Getting involved in politics is a similar process, especially when attracted by an issue. Countless politicians become engaged because they took part in some issue and this helped them to become a community leader. Normally these issues are concrete and locally-oriented. So many national and international issues of importance are not. An activist motivated to do something about Russian intervention in the Ukraine or poverty is unlikely to create real change. The problem is too big, or not specific, realistic or timely.

It’s easy to imagine how idealistic people with a hunger to tackle the “big” problems feel so disempowered and disengaged from the world of government, policy and politics. Media naturally focuses on broad issues of a federal nature and overlooks more local problems, but the truth is citizens have far more power to change local issues than international or national ones.

Dave Meslin, a Toronto-based activist, highlights this issue quite concretely. He has run many campaigns that have had a tangible impact on the life of local people with immediate results. Neighbourhood improvement through guerrilla gardening or tearing down fences has immediate improvements that campaigning for an abstract solution simply does not. But Meslin’s success has been translated into larger political successes, like the push for ranked-ballots in Toronto, which is currently before the provincial legislature. If it succeeds it will be the most important victory for electoral reform in decades in Canada. Change was much easier by focusing on the small-scale democracy of the city rather than contending with a national political system.

Sometimes it is about winning small victories in a big cause. The various issues confronting Aboriginal communities in Canada can feel overwhelming. By addressing smaller aspects of the problem activists may be more likely to get results instead of tackling the overall issue. Gary Meratsy (LPC – Desneth√©-Missinippi-Churchill River, SK) wanted to serve his First Nation constituents. He focused on the issue of residential schools and according to Tragedy in the Commons was instrumental in getting the federal government to apologize. Meratsy did not solve the crisis facing Aboriginal communities but he did a great deal of good.


Perhaps the greatest crime of our politics is that it makes people feel powerless. We are governed, we are not governing. Citizens may find greater comfort in confronting smaller, more local and concrete issues in their lives rather than the abstract ones that dominate headlines. Democracy at its core needs to be centred on the community; with reengagement on that level I hope that a trickle-up effect may improve our civic life elsewhere.  

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Worth Reading - April 17, 2014


Former Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page raises concerns about our economy, but argues that nothing can be done to repair the economy before we fix our government

Justin Ling in the National Post dissects Justin Trudeau’s (LPC – Papineau, QC) shallow foreign policy critique of the sitting government. 

Andrew Coyne, once again, on the Fair Elections Act and the potential fallout of its implementation.

This week Olivia Chow and John Tory unveiled their plans for Toronto’s transit system. 

Steve Paikin sets the stage for the (likely) upcoming Ontario provincial election

From the New York Times, suburbs could begin to suffer as young people return to city centres to stay. 


The Ontario Liberals have rolled out their plan to fund transit and some of the early details. It will likely be highly contentious and be a key issue in an upcoming election.


This is a neat graphic that I came across on Twitter; a map of where population isn’t in Canada. 

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Book Review: Tragedy in the Commons by Alison Loat and Michael MacMillan

Disclosure: I was given an early copy of Tragedy in the Commons in order to help Samara Canada put together supplemental materials and I am a volunteer with the organization.


Tragedy in the Commons is an expanded compilation of the MP Exit Interview report produced by Samara Canada which offers a distinct insider view to life in Canada’s Parliament through the eyes of former parliamentarians.

Through dozens of intense interviews the authors collected an image of the life for Canadian politicians in our national body. What Loat and MacMillan discover is in no way particularly flattering to our grand national institution and in fact hints a deep rot or dysfunction in Canadian democracy.

The title of the book is a direct allusion to the economic concept of the tragedy of the commons. To briefly summarize the idea, with a common good there is a benefit for all to preserve the resource for the future, but none of the stakeholders have the incentive to not exploit the resource to full advantage contrasted to his/her peers. As a result the resource is exploited to its complete ruination because the best interest of the individual is so completely at odds with the long-term interest of the collective.

This reference is emphasized by Loat and MacMillan. As they detail the litany of problems in the House of Commons, arguably building towards crisis, they refer to the simple fact that any one politician is powerless to influence the current political culture despite the fact that it serves their own interests. The forces of status quo keep Members of Parliament from obeying their own consciences and upholding their own rights.

Each chapter of the book addresses an area of political life that any MP must navigate: winning nominations, elections, conduct within the House of Commons, committee work, relations with their party and leadership, and even the basic understanding of what an MP is. The MPs interviewed are drawn from all political parties, from government, from opposition, and come from many different walks of life.

I experienced a number of strong emotions while reading this book. The two that stand out the most is a profound anger and sadness. Anger stemmed from both my normal frustration at our calcified House of Commons, but also the seemingly futile efforts of good men and women toiling away with little recognition. For example, Gary Meratsy (LPC РDesnethé-Missinippi-Churchill River, SK) a strong MP who represented his community well and left the House of Commons after a very short career because he felt he could make a bigger difference in the private sector. The authors paint a picture of well-meaning public servants thwarted time and time again by party leadership and the gamesmanship of politics. Current practices do not foster good governance or oversight, such as the treatment of committee memberships, but serve to centralize power.

The book is a shocking revelation to the true nature of our democracy. Despite their best wishes and efforts MPs are relegated increasingly ceremonial roles, and according to the authors, must eke out some specialist area of expertise or pet project to occupy themselves when not dealing with the routine business of aiding constituents in dealing with our federal bureaucracy. But while many MPs embrace this role Loat and MacMillan point out that gaining access to government services through political connections would be called corruption elsewhere in the world and that these pet projects are really only symptoms of MPs’ inability to influence the governing of the nation.

The chief criticism, it seems to me, that the authors level at our political system is that our political culture no longer supports the idea of politicians or public service and that our servants in the form of MPs no longer actually understand their duty. It is a frightening revelation that offers stark reminder of the erosion of democratic life.


The Tragedy in the Commons should be mandatory reading for any person interested in running in 2015’s federal election, or perhaps any office in the provincial legislatures. There is something fundamentally wrong with our politics and government. Who better to learn about it than from those who served within it at its heart? Sadly, the conclusions that Samara’s founders point to suggest that the crisis is interconnected with several independent problems with no simple or easy solution. MacMillan and Loat offer some suggestions in their concluding chapter as to what might be done to ensure a trust is created for Canada’s Commons, but as the title indicates, the tragedy is that abuse of the commons is nearly inevitable as there will always be those who will exploit it for their short-term gain over the mindful stewards. 

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Worth Reading - April 10, 2014

Earlier today we learned that Jim Flaherty (CPC – Whitby-Oshawa, ON) passed away. No doubt a controversial figure in Canada Flaherty was a dedicated public servant, so it seems fitting to begin with a speech he gave on public service

Also announced today, CBC will face further cuts leading to 657 layoffs and the end of professional sport broadcasting. 

From Beyond the Hill magazine, I was interviewed last fall for my first print article. Please indulge my shameless self-promotion and enjoy this article about delegated conventions beginning on page 20

Spacing talks about the strife surrounding Brampton’s light rail line. 

An interesting piece in Maclean’s magazine about the growing class divisions in American and how they are hardening. 

Paul Wells, also in Maclean’s, reviews the seemingly ineffective nature of Twitter in the Quebec election, and perhaps all elections. 

The hardest job in politics may be making a cabinet, or a new government. Steve Paikin writes that changing from one leader to another is likely even more complicated than changing from one party to another. 

Issues of race and class privilege are something I often think about. I think I often get caught trying to figure out a “chicken or the egg” scenario explaining their relative importance. This piece does a good job in separating and linking the ideas

Michael Chong (CPC – Wellington-Halton Hills, ON) is introducing revisions to his Reform Bill. Good luck Mr. Chong, you’re our only hope.


The Economist writes that Britain’s government is essentially out of things to do which is crippling parliament. The strict agreement between the coalition partners, Conservatives and Liberal-Democrats, has delayed addressing certain issues and finished most of their agreed upon policies. 

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Considering Quebec’s Turnout

I do not pretend to understand Quebec’s political culture. From the outside it seems a very lively and dynamic political scene with big issues and stark contrasts. There is something else in Quebec that stood out and that is the incredible turnout in the last two provincial elections.

In 2012 turnout at the provincial level 74.6%, and last night it was again in the 70% range. Participation in Quebec’s elections seems dramatically higher than elsewhere in the country. From my own experience I cannot help but contrast the 75% in 2012 to Ontario’s 49% in 2011. I thought I might spend some time reflecting why Quebec’s engagement is so much more profound than our own.

No province or city holds elections with more at stake than the province of Quebec. The province’s national assembly not only must wrestle with issues of social policy, such as education and healthcare, like its sister provinces, but the fate of its people within Canada. The sovereignty debate is not always front and centre, but it is the foundational principle of one of the two leading party’s constitution. This tension and on-going debate provides a strong incentive for all of Quebec’s citizens to participate.

Criticize the Parti Quebecois for their xenophobic, racist and exclusionary ideas but you cannot say they did not set out a clear difference in policy from their competitors. Compared to the rather tepid, policy-less elections of recent memory in Ontario there were big ideas on the table with passionate detractors and defenders. It is fair to say that the Quebec that would move forward from a Marois majority would be different from the one that will develop under Couillard.

The political diversity is not merely represented by the PQ and Liberals, the CAQ and Quebec Soilidaire, along with other minor parties, offer significant choices in vision for Quebec. This is represented in both personality and policy. Add in a civil society with an activist public, unions, active press and a host of other factors it begins to seem quite understandable why turnout in Quebec is so much higher than elsewhere in the country.

Sadly the lessons of why Quebec’s turnout may be more robust is not terribly applicable to the case of Ontario. The fight in Ontario is over much narrower ground and the division between political parties much smaller. The Charter of Values would be laughed out in Ontario and there is no “nation” of Ontario. These are generally positive things, but lower stakes means that Ontarians naturally have less incentive to participate. The consequence or risk of a disastrous outcome is far smaller.

Still it is hard to look at Quebec’s political culture of activism, passion and citizen/voter engagement and not be a little jealous.


Thursday, April 3, 2014

Worth Reading – April 3, 2014

Kady O’Malley of CBC reports on the recent problems on the riding level and how it may impact voters’ impressions

Andrew Coyne writes in the National Post that the process the federal Conservatives are using to push forward on the “Fair Elections Act” proves they are no normal government

Alice Funke of the Pundits’ Guide blog/database has rolled out a database for the future Ontario election. It’s very neat, definitely worth a look through.

For Ontario political watchers the last two weeks have certainly been interesting. Following the Ontario Provincial Police’s tightening investigation of former Premier Dalton McGuinty and his staff there were substantial leaks about the upcoming Liberal budget. It certainly provides convenient distraction, but now the Liberals are facing more embarrassing scrutiny and their rollout is ruined.

Steve Paikin of TVO writes about the strange fate of twoof the most powerful backroom operators in the country. The Chiefs of Staff to Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Dalton McGuinty offer an interesting case study, in particularly Paikin seems to suggest something about what political outsiders do within the system.

Issues of gender, sexuality and tolerance/acceptance are very prevalent, but outside of the comforting public discourse is the course language that people use in more private settings. This is especially true of young adolescent boys. The Walrus takes a look into Calgary-based program on a new approach for sex education for boys.

With our geographically-based electoral districts Canada has a problem with voter inequality. Votes in different provinces and ridings in those provinces vary in importance and influence. This column in the Ottawa Citizen suggests how a simple change could correct this imbalance

Eve Adams (CPC – Mississauga-Brampton South, ON) was not a particularly well known MP a before a few days ago, but recent revelations have certainly increased her notoriety. Here are two pieces on the drama on this MPs goal to switch ridings. Jon Ivison writes about the rise and fall.  The Ottawa Citizen writes on the Prime Minister’s order to investigate internally

I’m a transit nut. It’s an area of policy I put a lot of stake int. When I first heard Olivia Chow say that there is no need to debate the Downtown/Yonge Relief Line I thought she was crazy. The argument given in this article actually made quite a bit of sense. Why argue about a line that is 5-8 years away. Obviously planning should begin but an overall strategy may be more important than a compliment to one subway line.


Royce James writes again in the Toronto Star about Mayor Susan Fennell. James makes the critical point, Brampton City Hall as aninstitution is more dysfunctional than Toronto’s.  He also raises the critical role of media and how a lack of scrutiny led to this crisis.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Northern Governance

Happy April Fool’s Day, everyone. I hope that your day was not overburdened with extreme suspicion or malicious pranks. I was tempted to try something like that for this week’s blog but such humour is really only valid before 2 P.M. in my opinion.

Today in the Northwest Territories devolution occurred. I apologize if that sentence does not make much sense grammatically. Over the course of many long decades the federal government has surrendered more key powers and responsibilities to the government of the Northwest Territories. The finance minister of the Northwest Territories said that the territory is now just this side of provincehood. There are still a lot of questions that need to be answered and growing pains as the NWT takes greater responsibility of managing its own resources and lands.

Local autonomy is a frequent topic of conversation and an ongoing debate in the North. Today also marks the day Nunavut was formed, fifteen years ago. The federal government and local people have been struggling over how to properly balance autonomy and support. This support has oftentimes been paternalistic, if not colonial, but there are many concerns related to the growing autonomy of the Northwest Territories.

I’m not questioning whether or not the people of the Northwest Territories (or elsewhere in the Arctic) can, or should govern themselves. My concerns are more practical. Despite the dominant role it plays in the lives of people here the government of the Northwest Territories seems awfully small and perhaps struggles to deal with the many responsibilities it has. This is no special observation. Providing quality services across nearly a million square kilometers of rugged terrain with a small population is an incredible challenge and very expensive. Related to this is the difficulties the NWT has had in filling skilled positions in the government.

In one of my Worth Readings I linked an article where the government set the goal to attract 2,000 new residents. It is an ambitious target and it is the sort of first steps that the government will need to take if it hopes meets its new responsibilities.

I must conclude that I am still very new to the North and that I see no simple answers. The downloading of responsibilities to the Territories may mean less effective oversight and management. Ultimately the people of the Northwest Territories should determine how their resources should be used and how their social needs are met, but there is a question of capacity that puts a dark cloud over this process in my mind. It is incredible difficult for small communities to generate the talent needed to provide high-quality services. The government could invest in education but the quality of life in the south will always be a draw for the highly educated.


Northerners are going to have to find a path that works for them and suits their interests and work diligently that their government can manage their affairs as is required to provide effective, responsible government.