Category Archives: Multi-level governance


James Howard Kunstler has been telling anyone who will listen that we will, very soon, experience a shock that will force a fundamental re-thinking of how we build our cities. Kunstler is the author of Home from Nowhere and Geography of Nowhere, sharply worded polemics against modernist architecture and street design. More recently, in The Long Emergency, he has become a prophet of suburbia’s doom.
His latest argument, in a nutshell, is that, having passed into an era in which world supply of oil has entered a long decline, we face, not only sharp increases in the price of oil products, but also shortages. Once the shortages hit, we will be forced into a fundamental re-thinking of our consumption habits in general and our urban development practices in particular. Wrenching social and economic change will follow, and suburbia as we know it, as well as much of the rest of civilization as we know it, will become a thing of the past.
That’s a good way to sell books. Whether it – despite overwrought rhetoric and probably exaggerated claims – contains a kernel of sound political analysis remains to be seen. But before we dismiss Kunstler’s argument altogether, it’s worth reflecting on how quickly and easily apparently impregnable political fortresses have been known to fall in the wake of a shift of public awareness and attitude.
In my youth, I saw drunken driving, smoking in public buildings and vocal racism all flagrantly, and often boastfully, put on public display. Today, though all three are still with us, they are widely frowned upon, and strict legislation has driven them underground. “If you can’t drink and drive, how are you going to get home?” is no longer considered a funny line. In all three cases, a change in public perception was a tipping point after which legislative change came relatively easily.

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Winnipeg’s Sam Katz, who has been mayor since shortly after Glen Murray resigned in 2004, is worth watching. It’s not clear whether he is a fire-breathing neo-conservative or – as the Winnipeg Free Press’s astute city hall observer, Bartley Kives insists – a moderate, but lately there have been some straws in the wind, and they may herald a new direction in Canadian urban politics, one that could be emulated in other cities.
Mayor Katz (rhymes with “dates”) has set the objective of eliminating the business tax, leaving a $55 million budget hole that must be filled in ways not clearly specified. He is a shrewd, sophisticated political operator, who, so far, has commanded city council votes with apparent ease, and side-steps embarrassing questions with the finesse of a magician making a coin disappear. He is also a skilled practitioner of budget magic, as we will see.
So what does that have to do with a social revolution? Stay tuned.

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In previous posts, I have tried to show that:
It’s more important than ever in the past for national governments to treat different cities differently.
It can be done.
It’s often done badly.
However, in those entries, I used examples from my research to illustrate successes and failures in national government attempts to respect community difference. In this post, I want to take a step beyond examples, and draw on Canadian experience to sketch out three approaches – policy models for multi-level governance that respects community difference. I refer to such multi-level governance as deep federalism.

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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.

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In recent years, my research of multi-level governance in Canada has encompassed 13 case studies, dealing with six policy areas in three Canadian cities. Taken together, those studies provide a considerable body of evidence that the quality of national policies could be improved if local communities, or their authentic representatives, had a bigger role in policy formulation and implementation. They show with equal clarity that, while the federal government pays lip service to the importance of community input into policy-making, federal politicians and public servants are reluctant to match their words with action. A quick look at some of the studies my research assistants and I conducted provides a glimpse of these findings.

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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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I’m a professor of politics at the University of Winnipeg. I’ve spent most of my adult life doing research, writing and teaching, first about African politics and, more recently, city politics. Before becoming a professor, I was a journalist, writing for daily newspapers.
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