Multi-level governance distinguishes itself from the traditional federal system by treating cities, and sometimes communities, as visible and significant partners in the interplay among levels of government, and not simply as the lowest level of government. The emergence of this change in the way the federal system is conceived is related to the enhanced economic and political importance of cities in a world marked by greatly increased freedom of movement for goods, people, ideas and money. In a world marked by free movement, cities become magnets for wealth and production on one hand and problems on the other. In the process their political importance is magnified.
If she were still with us, Jane Jacobs might appreciate the irony that it has taken the economic realities of globalization to force a recognition of the centrality of cities to the national economy. Long before anyone was talking about globalization, she led the way in making the case, in Cities and the Wealth of Nations, that running a country as if it constituted a single economy was a sure way to get governance wrong. And since the economy is intimately interconnected with all other areas of national life, there are many policy domains in which national uniformity is a good recipe for failure.
Each city, or at least each urban-centred region, is a different economy, and should be governed differently from other cities. I have used the term “deep federalism” to describe policy that succeeds in respecting community difference. How can we accomplish that? There is no easy way to understand community difference, no simple set of generalizations that will allow us to say that a community of type A has characteristics B, C and D, while a community of type E has another set of readily definable characteristics. If there were, there would be no need for deep federalism. The federal government could develop a different policy model for each of a finite number of well-defined community types and administer everything from the centre. But there is nothing finite about community difference.

Despite that, my research on multi-level governance has uncovered one variable that seems particularly robust, and my findings regarding this source of community difference confirm the results of earlier research. (See also “Being realistic about urban growth”, listed below.) A very basic reason why different cities need different policies is population growth rate. Cities with rapid population growth face a very different set of problems than cities that are growing slowly. This is obvious in a number of policy areas, including two – housing and immigration – that are covered by my multi-level governance research. An exploration of the importance of this source of difference in both policy areas helps us to better understand the need for deep federalism while providing insight into some of the problems posed by differences in growth rate.
Immigration is always a sensitive political issue in Canada, and it has been especially so in recent years, as immigration legislation has undergone a series of hotly contested revisions. Throughout these changes, the government has been under pressure to limit immigration, on the basis of fears that immigrants will place undue burdens on the social safety net and that they will take jobs from Canadians. Whatever the merits of those arguments — the case against immigration is less than compelling — a point that has been frequently overlooked is that immigration has very different impacts on different communities. Much of the controversy surrounding immigration is centred in major metropolitan areas, especially such growth magnets as Toronto and Vancouver. In Toronto, much is made of fears that the city will attract large numbers of immigrants with limited skills, many of whom, it is feared , will end up a burden on the state, and perhaps become involved in criminal activity. In Vancouver, there has long been controversy over allegations that Asian immigrants are driving up the cost of housing.
If such arguments have any substance at all, they are relevant mainly for the few metropolitan areas in the country with rapid population growth and high housing costs. In our research, the clearest contrast with Vancouver and Toronto is Winnipeg, a slow-growth centre that is not even remotely in danger of becoming inundated by large numbers of any population. By the same token, the city is an ideal location for people, especially those with limited resources, who are looking for a stable community and a chance to make a future for themselves and their families: a large stock of affordable housing; some decent schooling at all levels, even in poorer neighbourhoods; and, for people from dozens of different countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, Southern and Eastern Europe and Asia, a supportive community environment.
The benefits Winnipeg offers immigrants are matched by the advantages their influx holds for a city suffering from labour shortages and badly in need of more residents in declining older neighbourhoods. The Manitoba provincial government has been aware of the potential benefits of immigration in a slow-growth jurisdiction since at least the late 1970s, but a federal government response was slow in coming. Thus, until the late 1990s, Winnipeggers were treated to the spectacle of Torontonians bitterly complaining about immigrants while national policies denied Winnipeg the immigrants it needed. Immigration policy, therefore, provides an excellent example of the importance of deep federalism, and the significance of urban population growth. A uniform national immigration policy is simply counter-productive, for reasons intimately connected with urban growth rate. A slow-growth city like Winnipeg may be looking for more immigrants, even while rapidly growing cities are struggling to cope with the influx they already have.
Similar observations can be made about urban growth and housing. Rapidly growing Vancouver, typical of cities in similar circumstances, suffers from runaway housing prices, prices high enough to pose serious problems for the middle class and to drive some poor people into the streets. Winnipeg, meanwhile, has much more affordable housing. A Statistics Canada comparison of salaries and housing costs for Vancouver and Winnipeg gives some sense of the scale of that contrast.
Click here for cost of living and housing comparison.
With housing cost differentials that dwarf differences in income, it is small wonder that Winnipeg has less absolute homelessness — the social service term for life in the streets, under bridges, in parks or in shelters — than Vancouver and Toronto. In Vancouver, homeless censuses produced a total of 1049 in 2002 and 2112 in 2005. In Toronto, according to David Hulchanski (cited below), the average number of people using emergency shelters on any given night was 4900 in 2000, 4600 in 1999 and 2400 in 1992.
Meanwhile, a report titled “A community plan on homelessness and housing in Winnipeg”, prepared by the Social Planning Council of Winnipeg and representing the views of 36 community groups involved in service delivery to homeless people, did not attempt a count of the absolutely homeless. Rather, in a carefully thought-out strategy for dealing with homelessness, the focus was not on street people but on what service providers call the relatively homeless: people who are paying far more than they can afford for housing, or are living in seriously inadequate shelter.
Why? In Winnipeg, as in other slow-growth centres, while the numbers of street people are not as overwhelming as those in Toronto and Vancouver, the numbers of people in desperate need of housing that is both affordable and conducive to stable family life is nevertheless very substantial, because low housing costs undermine the incentive for home maintenance. The result is relatively ready availability of a great deal of ramshackle housing, and a stakeholder consensus that the priority must be affordable housing.
In short, the rate of urban population growth is a critical determinant of a range of important differences among cities. Certainly in both immigration and housing, uniform national policies for cities growing at different rates are a good way to go wrong.
The points made in this blog entry are documented in:
Christopher Leo, “Deep Federalism: Respecting Community Difference in National Policy.” Canadian Journal of Political Science 39:3, 2006, 481-506.
Want to find out more about this topic? Take a look at:
Jane Jacobs, Cities and the Wealth of Nations. New York: Vintage, 1984.
Christopher Leo and Martine August, “National Policy and Community Initiative: Mismanaging Homelessness in a Slow Growth City.” Canadian Journal of Urban Research 15 (1) (supplement) 2006, pp. 1-21.
Christopher Leo and Wilson Brown, “Slow Growth and Urban Development Policy.” Journal of Urban Affairs, 22 (2), 2000, 193-213.
Christopher Leo and Katie Anderson, “Being Realistic about Urban Growth.” Journal of Urban Affairs. 28:2, 2006, 169-89.
J. David Hulchanski, “A New Canadian Pastime? Counting Homeless People.” Toronto: Centre for Urban and Community Studies, University of Toronto, December, 2000.
Social Planning Council of Winnipeg, “A Community plan on Homelessness
and Housing in Winnipeg. Winnipeg: Social Planning Council, 2001.

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