Tag Archives: housing


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 my research, I’ve uncovered some classic illustrations of how smart developers can mislead the people North Americans elect to govern their cities and towns. In those cases, their pursuit of their business ensures that it is they, and not the representatives we have elected, who decide the futures of our communities. In this entry I present such a case from Edmonton. It happened in the 1980s, but it is worth understanding exactly what occurred because similar events take place every year in many communities, and awareness is the first step toward self-defence.
My research shows that developers found it easy to manipulate Edmonton’s city council again and again, and to put taxpayers in the position of paying for a development over which their representatives exercised no meaningful control. They used a bait and switch tactic which, though blatantly obvious in retrospect, is not always easy to spot before it is too late. Edmonton’s story is a cautionary tale. It ought to be required reading for city councillors throughout North America, and for anyone concerned with democratic control over the development of our cities.
As I said in the introduction to this series, we should not waste our outrage on the developers, who serve their investors – and therefore do their jobs – by exploiting weaknesses in our institutions of local governance. In our democratic system, we have collectively agreed to allow ourselves to be governed in this way. We need to think about how we can change this system, and I hope to address that question in future, but a good first step is to understand the problem, and a clear illustration is a good way to start.

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