In a recent issue of Plan Canada, a house organ for professional city planners, my colleague Andrew Sancton pointed out that, in the establishment of the Ontario Greenbelt, provincial government imposition produced a result that would have been much harder, or maybe impossible, to achieve through regional governance. Urban affairs columnist John Barber, writing in the Globe and Mail, cited Professor Sancton’s findings to suggest that, perhaps, old-fashioned provincial oversight over municipal government makes more sense than all that fashionable piffle about multi-level governance.
“While the hives buzz with talk of European-style ‘subsidiarity’, national urban policy and new ‘governance structures’,” Barber writes, “Prof. Sancton points out that the actual Ontario government has quietly implemented almost all the policies the quasi-constitutional reforms aim indirectly to achieve.” As a long-time, and unrepentant, purveyor of multi-level governance piffle, I guess it’s my turn to speak.

Readers who have taken a look at some of the things I’ve had to say about deep federalism and respect for community difference may be surprised that I believe Barber has a point. While multi-level governance has usually been taken as synonymous with devolution of power to local government, it makes a lot more sense to me to think of it in terms of doing whatever it takes to ensure that different local communities are governed in a manner appropriate to their widely varying circumstances.
From that point of view, genuine respect for community difference might lead to devolution in some cases, centralization in others, and more complex forms of intergovernmental co-operation in still others. And, since a very substantial portion of my research career has been devoted to urban growth issues, I came to the conclusion some time ago that any effective approach to urban growth in Canada and the United States would have to involve a significant centralization of power.
I got my first inkling of that conclusion when I did a study in 1995 of urban growth management in Portland, Oregon, where such a centralization has taken place, as I showed in an article cited below. Two years later, I published a comparison of European and North American approaches to urban development that solidified my thinking, and further research has continued to reinforce that view. In this and subsequent blog entries, I hope to support Professor Sancton’s findings and Barber’s arguments while placing them in a wider context. I’ll start by very briefly laying out one of the main conclusions I reached in my 1997 assessment of research on continental European and North American approaches to urban development.
In France and Italy, in the cases I looked at, the national government played a much larger role in urban development decision-making than in the United States, with the result that, in the United States, developers were better-placed than in Europe to exert direct influence upon urban development. I found that the Canadian situation was similar to that of the United States.
Anyone who pays attention to local and national politics can confirm those findings by ordinary observation. Land developers, and others with a financial interest in land development, are in a good position to exert a great deal of influence on local decision-making, while, in national government, they are bit players on a stage dominated by the heights of national and international finance and industry. Therefore, when urban development decision-making is largely local, it is bound to conform much more closely to the interests of land developers than when it is national. And, as I have argued elsewhere, the interests of developers are far from synonymous with the requirements of environmental sustainability, as well as those associated with an efficiently managed network of urban infrastructure and services, and healthy commercial agriculture at the urban fringe.
In subsequent blog entries, I hope to support these findings, and add detail and nuance, by looking at other research.
The 1997 article I refer to is:
Christopher Leo, “City Politics in an Era of Globalization.” In Mickey Lauria, ed. Reconstructing Urban Regime Theory: Regulating Local Government in a Global Economy. Sage, 1997, 77-98.
The 1995 study of Portland was published as:
Christopher Leo, “Regional Growth Management Regime: the Case of Portland, Oregon.” Journal of Urban Affairs 20 (4), 1998, 363-394.
John Barber’s column appeared 2 October 2007.

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