Category Archives: Slow-growth cities – problems and possibilities

CITY HALL TAKE NOTE: PUBLIC-PRIVATE PARTNERSHIPS WON’T FIX THIS PROBLEM

Everyone agrees that Winnipeg’s spending on infrastructure maintenance is seriously short of what is required to maintain the streets, sewers and water lines in good condition. Anyone can confirm this by taking a drive or a walk around some of the older neighbourhoods and observing the potholes and cracks in the streets. Winnipeggers who keep an eye on the news will observe more fundamental ills, including sinkholes that open up suddenly, sometimes swallowing automobiles or construction machinery, because of the deteriorated state of underground sewer lines.
The causes of this problem are obvious, if you think through what’s happening, and they can be fixed. This is a tad complex, so bear with me.

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RAPID URBAN GROWTH, SLOW GROWTH, AND MULTI-LEVEL GOVERNANCE

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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FIXING SPRAWL WOULD BE A LOT EASIER IF WE’D FOCUS ON THE PROBLEM

In a post entitled “Are You Tired of the Sprawl Game?”, I argued that we miss the essentials of the problem of managing urban growth by focusing instead on images and ideologies – arguing, for example, about New Urbanism vs. modernism, or liberalism vs. conservatism, instead of doing what needs to be done. In this post, I follow that argument up with some practical suggestions for Winnipeg.
I focus on a particular city because that’s really the only way growth problems can be addressed. Each city is unique, and there is no universal template. That said, each city displays many similarities with many other cities. My suggestions for Winnipeg will resonate with many who are familiar with the problems of other mid-size, slow-growth cities in North America.
In Winnipeg, as in many other slow-growth cities, the essence of the problem of sprawl is that we extend roads, sewers and water lines much farther than we need to to accommodate our slow population growth. As a result, the costs of these facilities spiral out of control for want of enough property owners to pay for them. There are a lot of simple, straightforward planning practices that we could be following to help bring our runaway infrastructure and servicing costs under control, while making the city a more interesting and pleasant place to live.

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WHY SPRAWL IS A BIGGER PROBLEM WHEN GROWTH IS SLOW

A lot of genuine experts in problems of urban growth assume that urban sprawl is a big problem for cities that that are growing rapidly, but that it is much less of a problem with slow growth. This is only one of many illustrations of how the problems of slow-growth cities are neglected, because a little bit of reflection is all it takes to conclude that the opposite is true. In a nutshell, the problem of slow-growth cities is that, unlike the proverbial growth machine, they are a machine for the creation of empty space.

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RAIDING THE RESERVE FUNDS

The City of Winnipeg has a series of reserve funds for investment in heritage properties, housing rehabilitiation, improvements to Assiniboine Park, perpetual care of city cemetaries, and much more. The purpose of these funds is to ensure that the city will be able to meet its obligations in the face of the inevitable fluctuations in budget allocations and costs.
In the 1980s it used to be an annual ritual for city council to balance the budget by raiding these funds. Mayors Susan Thompson and Glen Murray, who were the city’s chief executives from 1992 until 2004, had the good sense to put a stop to that practice. Now the city is reviving it.

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SLOW GROWTH ISN’T AN ILLNESS

Cities that are growing slowly are often thought to be in trouble for no other reason than slow growth. The residents and leaders of slow-growth cities often sound as if they’re apologizing for themselves. In reality, it’s not slow growth, but mismanaged growth that’s likely to be the problem.
Take the example of Winnipeg, which has a very modest growth rate and, and, in terms of collective self-image, an ego to match. The word “decline” is often, and inaccurately, used in describing the city’s economy, or population. In self-characterizations, harsh winters and mosquitoes are invariably mentioned, salubrious summer weather and Winnipeg’s acknowledged status as the “performing arts capital of Canada” almost never. If self-deprecation is charming, Winnipeg is Charm City. Continue reading

INTRODUCTION TO MY BLOG

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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