WHY LOCAL GOVERNMENTS CAN’T BE TRUSTED TO REGULATE CITY GROWTH

Last October I sketched out my argument that local and metropolitan governments can’t meaningfully regulate urban land use because developers swing too much political weight at the local level. I pointed out, on the basis of European case studies and my own analytical work, that the position of developers is markedly different in countries where a significant amount of city planning takes place at the national level than it is in the typical North American case. We can verify that by considering the concrete reality of how land use decisions are made in Canada and the United States.


This is not easily done, because it’s impossible to trace the influences that determine complicated land use decisions without careful and persistent research. The results of one such piece of research some time ago offer a revealing example. A 10-month investigation in the late 1980s by two Globe and Mail reporters deals with land development in the area north of Toronto, part of what is now known as the Greater Toronto Area – a wide ring of suburban communities that are the primary focus of growth in the region.
The investigation concluded that the provincial government adopted a hands-off stance toward a lack of urban planning that allowed private developers to control the growth of communities in the area and that the “role of citizens in the planning of their communities has been trivialized to the point where it is ignored by many municipal councils.” Specifically, the investigation found that “A small group of powerful developers… Have a near monopoly on developable land in the… area [north of Toronto] and are a factor in rising house prices.”
The Globe and Mail documented a “loan” of $80,000 that was not repaid from a developer to a company owned by an official in the region, which was followed by approval of an industrial development proposal that had been filed by the company that gave the “loan”. There were also stories of a cheque for $4,000 from a developer to a “senior municipal official” and at least two cases of envelopes containing several thousand dollars in cash delivered on behalf of a developer to a councillor.
While such stories are rarely told in as much detail as this one was, the story comes as no surprise to anyone familiar with the conventions of growth politics in major metropolitan areas. In fact, it’s not necessary to point to apparent corruption to see why there is very little meaningful regulation of urban growth in most North American cities. The urban studies literature is rife with examples of city councils being overawed and bamboozled or bullied and sweet-talked into decisions that can endanger both the environment and the viability of cities.
It’s important to stress that there is more at stake here than conventional shock stories about influence pedalling, graft, or lack of political will. Urban growth is a critical economic issue and will necessarily play a central role in any realistic attempt to address the economic challenges and environmental problems our societies face, as I will argue in subsequent blog entries. How much longer can we afford the luxury of allowing the growth of our cities to be determined primarily by the private economic interests of those who control the development of urban land?
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You can look further into the arguments in this blog entry by checking out:
Ferguson, Jock and Dawn King. 1988. Hidden money fuelling regional growth. Toronto: Globe and Mail, 2 November 1988, 1, 11.
Christopher Leo, “Urban Development: Planning Aspirations and Political Realities.” In Edmund P Fowler and David Siegel, eds., Urban Policy Issues (second edition.) Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2002.

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