Tuesday, August 2, 2016

The Struggle of Municipalities in the Global Economy

When I lived in Fort Smith a strange thought would occasionally occur to me; if the government laid everyone off, would the town even exist anymore? A huge proportion of the people I met with and dealt with were government employees. The Territory employs a tremendous proportion of the population. Fort Smith is a company town where the business is government. We're all there providing services to each other, so if we all were told to leave would anything be left?

It was a silly idea. The Salt River First Nation and other local Dene and Metis population have called the area home for centuries. In a sense though Fort Smith represent a broader problem in a microcosm.  Fort Smith came to be as a missionary outpost turned into a key transportation hub and into an administrative/government centre. All of the old functions have fallen away. Instead of a transport link Fort Smith is now the end of the road and the old industries that gave it life are now gone.

Fort Smith is an extreme example but is shines light on a common problem; what are cities not deemed to be key to the global economy or without natural resources to do? This problem is acutely more obvious in North America which has seen its industrial sector gutted. In post-industrial North America what role do we assign our cities that are not global hubs or resource centres?

Domestic manufacturing and internal trade provided an impetus to many smaller cities. It provided them with wealth to spend locally and connections to the broader world. An industrial town could provide a floor and security for the local population to build small and medium businesses around. Cities that are thriving in North America can be usually set into a few categories: global cities, government/academia hubs, resource cities. Global cities include the obvious New York, Vancouver, San Francisco, etc. These cities are well integrated into global trade and commerce and have sophisticated businesses that connect to cities across the world. It should be noted that these cities should be thought of as city-regions. I am confident one of the reasons Hamilton, Ontario is showing some vitality is because it is connected to Toronto. It has gone from a major, independent, industrial city to a quirky suburb, like Brooklyn. Governments generally don't got out of business. Cities like Washington and Ottawa weather recessions and bad times quite well. Cites with provincial or state capitals are likewise buffeted from the post-industrial economy. Universities and colleges act as the new company towns in some cities. Pittsburgh basically banked its future on it. Finally, cities like Calgary and Houston build their livelihood off of resources.

Many of the cities who do not belong in the above categories have struggled mightily since the 1970s. Some many of these small and mid-sized cities have tried to tied their wagons to the latest fad, be it high tech, app development or biotech. The simple truth is, as it seems the case, that those industries will accrue in academic centres and global cities. Belleville, Ontario and Gary, Indiana are not going to become hubs for biotech innovation. Cities who once acted as important transportation or trade points are now increasingly irrelevant in point-to-point trade and the digital economy. It is not wrong to say that Torontonians have more in common with the residents of London, Chicago, and Hong Kong than Windsor, Welland and Brantford.

The abandonment of these kinds of cities and regions have spurred on resentment and division. If you want to see where some of the 'new' politics we have been seeing in the United States and United Kingdom has come from look to those places. Governments have seemed unable to provide meaningful alternatives to these locales with the departure of industry. Instead, much like Fort Smith, they perpetuate on government subsidy and on providing services to the local/regional population. How to solve this problem (or crisis) will be a defining feature of many of our cities' futures.

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