Solving an African mystery: My Kenyan adventure

When I arrived in Kenya in the early 1970s to do research for my Ph.D. thesis, an advisor suggested I do a study of something called the Million-Acre Settlement Scheme, a massive government program to settle thousands of African families on small farms. It was the best advice I ever had, because it propelled me into a mystery that fascinates me still, and experiences that changed the way I looked at the world, deeply enriching my understanding of it.

It’s a long story. I can’t tell it all at once, so let’s start with the mystery. Continue reading

Preventing urban sprawl: The state of the art

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The title of this post — “Preventing urban sprawl” — is likely to provoke, in some readers, one of two reactions, the first driven by good old Winnipeg complacency and the second by antagonism:

  1. What are you talking about? That’s impossible.
  2. You can’t tell people where to live.

The second reaction is easily refuted: Yes, the government can tell people where to live. In fact, everybody takes the power of government to tell people where to pursue all their activities for granted. Continue reading

What I loved about Africa

We don’t read a lot of good news about Africa. As I write this, and google “Africa —- News”, the top hits are:
• Convoy attack kills three children, 19 adults in Central African Republic… Bodies burnt in street….
• South Africa marks worst year in rhino killings…
• South African [mineworkers] strike at… platinum producers
• China and Japan scramble for Africa

These headlines are not representative of African reality. They’re certainly a far cry from the Africa I came to know when I lived there for two-and-a-half years in the early 1970s. To be sure, one of my earliest African memories is of being adrift — the first time I ventured outside of Nairobi’s tourist bubble — in a bewildering sea of black faces. But once I got to know Africans personally, it became clear, on one hand, that they were just people like everyone else, and, on the other, that they had ways of understanding themselves and relating to others that were distinctly African. Continue reading

Academic blogging fills a niche academia ignores: A personal account

Before I went to graduate school, I spent some three years working for a series of daily newspapers. I was only 22 years old when I started, and I loved the work. Being a newspaper reporter gave me a licence to pick up the phone and ask anyone any question that interested me, something I might otherwise hesitate to do. A colleague commented that journalism was an ideal occupation for shy, curious people.

In those three years, I worked a number of beats: business and labour in Marshalltown, Iowa; education in Lancaster, Pennsylvania; and in York, Pennsylvania -– at the late and lamented Gazette and Daily, reputedly the only left-wing daily in the United States –- city hall and the courthouse. Continue reading

Venturing into Africa, and learning about voluntary colonialism

When I first lived in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, in the early ’70s, everything I saw was strange, except the little, gilded ghetto I lived in, and that was repugnant. My ghetto was the Central YMCA in Nairobi, where, for a very reasonable price, I got a comfortable studio apartment, meals in a cafeteria, and the use of a swimming pool.

So what’s repugnant about that? Kenya had thrown off European minority rule — and a racist social, economic and political system — several years earlier, but for me, my pleasant, comfortable lodgings served as a demonstration of how hard it is to dismantle a racist social system. Remove the formal rules that support racism, and informal ones take their place. Continue reading

Slow growth: The language has changed, but what about policies?

A number of years ago, with help from two friends, I published a pair of academic articles on the subject of slow urban growth, a topic that had previously received almost no attention, either by academics or in the “real world”. The articles were novel because they a challenged conventional wisdom, in which it was taken for granted that slow urban population growth was undesirable. This view was so entrenched that, for the most part, both academics and practitioners stated it as fact without bothering to argue the case.

In my articles — you can read them by clicking here and here. — I argued that neither slow growth nor rapid growth is inherently good or bad, but that they are different in ways that our decision-makers need to appreciate. On the surface, it looks as if the articles may have had a modest influence, at least in Winnipeg, because today slow growth is often spoken of simply as a fact, not as a blight to be eradicated. But policy doesn’t change as easily as language. Continue reading

Taxes and fees aren’t the only ways to tackle Winnipeg’s revenue problem: A taxpayers’ bill of rights

Last week Winnipeg City Council endorsed a proposal to ask the provincial government to allow the imposition of new fees on residential and commercial development. It was the latest turn in a decades-long struggle by the city to overcome an infrastructure deficit of at least $7 billion. The proposal, followed by a quick refusal from Broadway, unleashed a flurry of news and commentary, accompanied by more than 200 letters from readers. (See links at the end of this post.)

From the start, the fees were referred to as “taxes”, and for the most part, comments, by both writers and readers, focussed on taxation. Absent from the discussion was a recognition of the fact that the infrastructure crisis wasn’t caused by insufficient revenues, and will not be resolved by the imposition of additional fees or taxes. A major, but completely overlooked, cause of the crisis is the city’s failure to draw up a coherent growth plan and stick to it. Continue reading