Category Archives: Cities are more important now… or maybe they always were

Jane Jacobs: How not to wreck cities

My favourite writer about cities, and a favourite of generations of my students, is Jane Jacobs, a sharp-tongued critic whose polemics were grounded in a strongly positive view of cities. She wrote her best-known book, The death and life of great American cities, when she was a New Yorker, but within a few years she had moved to Toronto, where she spent the rest of her life.

She loved cities and thought that the preservation of their livability and attractiveness was a key to the well-being of society as a whole. It’s central to Jacobs’s concept of cities that they are natural, that they grow organically out of the ways people choose to interact with each other.

As a result, in Death and life, she was scornful of the visions of planners and architects who wanted to create buildings, neighbourhoods, and parks in response to their ideas of what would look good — a philosophy we now know as modernism. (I’m not being entirely fair to modernism, but today’s topic is Jane Jacobs.) Continue reading


It is becoming more evident with each passing year that urban growth is a matter national concern. The growing ease and speed of the global movement of money, goods, people and ideas has made it more and more clear that the prosperity of nations is heavily dependent on the prosperity of cities. At the same time, poorly managed urban growth is a major contributor to the global-scale environmental problems we face. For both environmental and economic reasons, therefore, we need to think of urban growth as a national and global issue, not a purely local one.

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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.

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In a globalizing world, we have to reconsider, not only the way we govern our communities, but also how their governance interacts with the governance of regions and nations, as well as global governance.
By chance or otherwise, I became interested in this topic – and researched and wrote about it – quite awhile before anyone thought of such felicitous terms as rescaling or multi-level governance. As a result a lot of useful data are buried away in publications today’s researchers are unlikely to identify as relevant sources. Therefore, I offer the following bibliographic note, listing the publications in question, together with a brief note for each, explaining its relevance to rescaling, multi-level governance, or the evolving place of cities in a globalizing world. Some of these articles were published as journal articles, others as book chapters, but all are based on original research.
This annotated bibliography does not include my recent publications, such as “Deep Federalism: Respecting Community Difference in National Policy”, which is in the Canadian Journal of Political Science, 39:3 (September 2006) 481–506. In that article, and others recently published or in press, it is clear that the topic has something to do with rescaling.

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The dawn of the 21st Century has coincided with the dawn of the age of community. Some of my age-mates, who were adults or near-adults in the 1960s and 1970s, may not be pleased to hear that the age of community does not necessarily resemble the Zodiacal Age of Aquarius, which, we were told, was to be an era of universal brotherhood rooted in reason.
The age of community is upon us, not because of the conjunction of stars and planets, but because of political and economic changes that are overtaking us, whether we like them or not. It’s important to understand those changes, because they are capable of producing drastically contrasting results, results that can be influenced by political action. The age of community can be one in which some communities prosper while others are left impoverished and powerless to control their own futures. Or it can be one in which the prosperity and economic power of some communities is shared in order to give others a serious degree of control over their own affairs.
The age of community is the subject of my current research, in which I look at the political implications for Canada of the economic changes that have brought on this age. In this first of a series dealing with findings of that research, I will look at the causes of these changes and briefly lay out some of their political implications. In subsequent instalments, I will look at some findings of my research and consider what we can learn from them about avoiding an age of community whose motto becomes “I’m all right Jack” and working toward one that bears at least some resemblance to the Aquarian age.

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Ulrich Beck’s Power in the global age provides a carefully constructed set of concepts and a language that should prove invaluable in advancing our understanding of politics in the age of community. Pointing to economic and technological changes I discussed in a previous blog entry, he argues that the age of the nation-state has been superseded by a cosmopolitan age, which he also calls the second modernity.
His point is that, as freer trade and modern communication technologies are making it easier and easier for money, corporations, goods, people and ideas to cross national boundaries, the ability of national states to control what goes on within their borders is diminishing. In this cosmopolitan age, the only means open to both states and civil society for defending their interests is to escape national confines through international political action.

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In a previous blog entry, I looked at why, in the 21st Century, national governments are becoming less able to sustain the economies and the social safety nets of local communities, even as cities become more obviously central to the economy. In a related entry, I offered a community perspective on globalization’s wild west, and pointed out that globalization is a two-edged sword. Corporations can amass the power and wealth that is achievable by operating on a world scale, but local communities can also operate on a world scale in forging alliances, seeking support and mounting political action.
But politics is not only an arena for conflict among contending forces, it is also a system of organized decision-making and action, a system of governance. If our world is marked by the escalating power of corporate mobility, the declining power the national state, and the growing economic importance of cities, what does that imply for governance? In a world of drastically shifting power relations, should government remain essentially as it was in the 19th Century?
A lot of thought is being given to this question. It is coming to be widely agreed that there are compelling reasons for cities to evolve economic development strategies and social supports specifically designed to deal with their own, unique set of problems and possibilities. But how? Some interesting answers are being proposed, and tried, in Canada. In this article, and a subsequent one, I take a look at them, and consider their significance.

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In the age of community, with corporate mobility undermining the power of national governments, is there a role for national governments in defending the interests of local communities? In my current research, I argue that there is, but that rigid enforcement of a national standard is not the appropriate way to do it, because the differences among communities ensure that what works in one may not work in another.
What is needed, rather, is a degree of flexibility that allows national standards to be met differently in different communities, and that draws on local knowledge to determine what these differences will be. In a previous entry, I outlined briefly how such flexibility is achieved in federal-provincial relations, but there is also a little-known history of such flexibility in the relations between the Canadian federal government and local communities, as well as a current practice that tries to build on that history.
I call such flexibility deep federalism, a species of federalism that extends the Canadian tradition of respect for provincial differences to the level of the local community. An early example of deep federalism was the Neighbourhood Improvement Program (NIP), a federal government scheme aimed at the renovation of public facilities in declining neighbourhoods, which became a community development tool through the simple expedient of a requirement that a plan for neighbourhood renewal be preceded by and based upon a public participation process in each targeted neighbourhood. NIP, therefore, was structured to respect the differences, not only among cities, but also among individual neighbourhoods.

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