Here’s an audit that would help us know how well we’re governed

The rules governing Winnipeg’s growth are rigged in favour of growth and against the city’s ability to pay its bills. The city is like a drunk who keeps ordering refills, hoping someone will be found to pay the tab. But unlike the drunk’s pals, Winnipeg’s taxpayers must pay up or face the consequences.

The neglect of the public interest is evident throughout our system of urban development. In Winnipeg – and, unfortunately, in many other North American cities – the development of new areas of the city is governed by the proposals of developers, not by the public interest. Developers have a responsibility to their shareholders to make proposals that maximize their bottom line. It’s up to the city to ensure that the proposals that are accepted are in the public interest.

A minimal definition of the public interest would be that development be phased to minimize the burden it imposes on the public purse. If we were serious about governing land use appropriately, that could mean many things, but at the least it would mean that city infrastructure and services were extended to places that produce significant tax revenues. What we have done instead is to extend infrastructure wherever a developer wants it, even if that means extending it across vast green fields, which produce minimal tax revenue. Let’s take a look at an example of what that means in practice, with help from Google Earth.

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Are businesses more efficient and effective than governments?

A particularly disheartening feature of the world we’ve been living in since the 1990s is the assumption — widely held and expressed in many ways — that anything governments can do, private enterprise can do better. It’s not exactly a lie. There are indeed many things private enterprise can do better than government, but the generalization of that proposition to any and all government programs doesn’t hold water.

My August 12th (2014) entry in my Passing Scene column points — too cryptically, I’ve decided — to two examples of the misapplication of market principles to governance — one from a recent newspaper article and another from a study a student and I did a few years ago. The newspaper article is written by a competent journalist and is self-explanatory.

The academic article is a different matter, Continue reading

Justifying the colonization of Kenya: European attitudes and African reality

In order to understand what happened after Europeans took over the country we now call Kenya, we have to know something about both the attitudes of the invaders and the reality of African life.

Elspeth Huxley, a writer who was popular with residents of what used to be called Kenya’s White Highlands, has done those of us who want to understand what happened the favour of speaking plainly in her defence of colonialism. She argued that colonization was founded, among other things, on

…an inherent conviction that civilization in itself was good. In [the early days of European settlement], when abstract morality had a concrete meaning, there was a Right and a Wrong, people did not doubt that it was better to be civilized than savage… There could be no question therefore, but that the white man was paramount, and must remain so until the native became — if he ever did — the intellectual equal of the European. (Huxley [see below], pp. 80-1)

Savage?
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Kenya’s Land Freedom Army: Why Africans couldn’t get over their hatred of colonial rule

My search for the truth about Kenya’s Million-Acre Settlement Scheme turned me into a student of history, and helped me understand why, in the 1950s, Kenya endured a bloodbath. Kenya’s freedom fighters, known to Western journalists as Mau Mau, took to the forests of central Kenya in a bloody, seemingly hopeless battle with handmade weapons against the might of Kenya’s colonial regime.

In the kind of contradiction that never seems to deter purveyors of media myths, much of the Western press portrayed Mau Mau as bloodthirsty savages on one hand and crafty agents of Communism on the other. To Africans in Kenya, they came to be known as the Land Freedom Army and in retrospect it’s clear that their apparently suicidal assault on the colonial regime was in fact a turning point on the road to Kenya’s independence.

DedanKimathiStatue of Dedan Kimathi, a leader of the Land Freedom Army
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Time out

I’m taking a leave from my blog for a month or so, to pursue other professional and personal duties and pleasures. In the meantime, some of you might be interested in taking a look at some blog entries that I think are worth reading, but that are buried in the nether recesses of this blog, and an earlier version of it.
“Radar Dogs” remind me that all is not (yet) lost
Take a deep breath, St. Clements, and get a whiff of chaotic development Continue reading

Discussion: Are car-free cities possible?

On April 20th, 2014, in the Passing Scene column to your right (or below if you’re reading this on your device), I raised the above question. Peter Woolstencroft was good enough to comment in Facebook, and gave me permission to post his comment below, together with my response. There’s also an exchange with my friend and former student, Dave Danyluk. Here’s the picture I refer to in my response to Peter:

Leipzig6A delivery vehicle in downtown Leipzig, manoeuvring carefully to avoid pedestrians.

Peter Woolstencroft: A car free city is a nice idea, but what happens to the costs of road building, maintenance, and repairs? Who is paying for these expenses? I like the firetrucks and ambulances that go past my house on a paved and well-maintained road. Much appreciated are the trucks that bring goods and services to people in their houses and apartments. In other words, what proportion of road building costs and maintenance are accounted for by gasoline taxes, licenses, vehicle permits, and whatever else motorists generate by way of their economic activity (such as taxes on insurance)?

My response:

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Solving an African mystery: Everything I thought I knew was wrong

When I arrived in Kenya in the early 1970s to do research for my Ph.D. thesis, an advisor suggested I do a study of something called the Million-Acre Settlement Scheme, a massive government program to settle thousands of African families on small farms. It was the best advice I ever had, because it propelled me into a mystery that fascinates me still, and experiences that changed the way I looked at the world, deeply enriching my understanding of it.

It’s a long story. I can’t tell it all at once, so let’s start with the mystery. Continue reading

Preventing urban sprawl: The state of the art

MarkhamGnblt
The title of this post — “Preventing urban sprawl” — is likely to provoke, in some readers, one of two reactions, the first driven by good old Winnipeg complacency and the second by antagonism:

  1. What are you talking about? That’s impossible.
  2. You can’t tell people where to live.

The second reaction is easily refuted: Yes, the government can tell people where to live. In fact, everybody takes the power of government to tell people where to pursue all their activities for granted. Continue reading

What I loved about Africa

We don’t read a lot of good news about Africa. As I write this, and google “Africa —- News”, the top hits are:
• Convoy attack kills three children, 19 adults in Central African Republic… Bodies burnt in street….
• South Africa marks worst year in rhino killings…
• South African [mineworkers] strike at… platinum producers
• China and Japan scramble for Africa

These headlines are not representative of African reality. They’re certainly a far cry from the Africa I came to know when I lived there for two-and-a-half years in the early 1970s. To be sure, one of my earliest African memories is of being adrift — the first time I ventured outside of Nairobi’s tourist bubble — in a bewildering sea of black faces. But once I got to know Africans personally, it became clear, on one hand, that they were just people like everyone else, and, on the other, that they had ways of understanding themselves and relating to others that were distinctly African. Continue reading

Why the academic world needs blogs

Before I went to graduate school, I spent some three years working for a series of daily newspapers. I was only 22 years old when I started, and I loved the work. Being a newspaper reporter gave me a licence to pick up the phone and ask anyone any question that interested me, something I might otherwise hesitate to do. A colleague commented that journalism was an ideal occupation for shy, curious people.

In those three years, I worked a number of beats: business and labour in Marshalltown, Iowa; education in Lancaster, Pennsylvania; and in York, Pennsylvania -– at the late and lamented The Gazette and Daily, reputedly the only left-wing daily in the United States –- city hall and the courthouse.

(The Gazette was well known to journalists across the United States as a pioneer in investigative journalism, a craft that was later immortalized by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffmann in All the President’s Men. When I was there, we didn’t go after the President, but we gave York City Hall, the York Police, and the Pennsylvania Railroad, with its unguarded crossings, a lot of grief. And woe betide the police if someone was charged with resisting arrest, but not charged with anything else.) Continue reading