The New Urbanism – Future to the Back?

My ruminations about Toronto as a city state have attracted a furtive trickle of readers over the past year (Toronto City Planning: Can a Goose Play Chicken? and Toronto as a City State.  My posts are repellent to web grazers in part because the issues seem intractable, and in part because my writing is dense and overwrought (like this sentence, for example).  Still, it’s irresistible to a few.

The issue never goes away, so people keep sneaking back to see how sad, optimists like me still hold out hope of a remedy.  Why is the sixth biggest government in Canada relegated constitutionally to 12th place, with less autonomy than a half dozen provinces with smaller populations and economies?  Why is it under the thumb of an Ontario government that depends on Toronto’s vast tax contribution but is politically weighted to favour far less populous and productive regions of the Ontario?  

There is no rational answer to this, of course. It’s an immersive subject that leads you down a dark well of history.  You risk drowning in contradictions.  

I try not to think about it too much, but it popped up in a funny way this morning.  In my local coffee shops dog-eared, communal copy of the Globe & Mail, I noticed a letter to the editor about a group proposing to write a Toronto City Charter.  There are many good things to say about this quixotic endeavor, but what I liked best was the writer’s two-sentence explanation of the problem:

The constitutional status of cities in Canada is as much a vestige of our colonial past as it is our agrarian roots.  The paternalistic posture that pervades provincial-municipal relations not only results in provincial interference in city affairs, but engenders complacency and a lack of accountability at the local level; the province can always be blamed as a reason for inaction. (Karen Farbridge, Guelph, Ont., Globe & Mail, 11/7/19)

This clear but unremarkable statement jumped out at me because, on the facing page, was Max Fawcett’s article about the Senakw project - the Squamish Nation’s plan to drop 6,000 high rise condo dwellers at the south end of the Burrard Street bridge in Vancouver .  This is cast as a defeat of NIMBY-ism, which protects Vancouver’s mature neighbourhoods against the depradations of City planners. Planning at the City of Vancouver favours compact, dense, walkable, and environmentally sustainable urban forms.  Residents favour such plans, in theory, and elect councillors who endorse them, but fight tooth and nail when change looms too close to home.  

One of the options for building facades in the proposed Senakw projectSUBMITTED / REVERY ARCHITECTURE

However the story also touches on the constitutional status of cities in a fresh and funny way.  Just as cities can be overruled by provincial and national governments, so too can Vancouver’s zoning by-laws be ignored by the Squamish Nation – another form of national government.  Resident associations have no leverage either; their NIMBY tactics only work on local government. The development plan is invulnerable to attack from above or below.

It’s like a dream.  A municipal planning objective, which might be undermined by local opposition or overruled by senior levels of government, is coincidentally achieved by a First Nation, without reference to the municipal plan or pertinent by-laws.  Only at the fringes of this development, where transportation, utilities, and other service infrastructure connect the development site to the surrounding city, does any other jurisdiction have influence over what the Squamish want to build.  

This is delightfully disruptive, and illustrates yet again the absurdly elaborate work-arounds required for cities to accomplish their land-use objectives.  By antedating the nation of Canada, marginalized indigenous folk in the lower mainland of British Columbia have accomplished what municipal planners could not.  History has saved the future by confounding the constituted layers of government with pragmaticsm, good will, and common sense.

Before this gets too deep in the weeds, it’s important to see what this serendipity looks like.  It’s a pretty benign design that delivers on the promise and principles known in planning circles as “Vancouverism.”
Artist renderings of areas beneath the Burrard Bridge. SUBMITTED / REVERY ARCHITECTURE

Vancouver is fortunate to be the beneficiary of what appears to be more of spasm than a strategy of development.  An accident of history has allowed the forces that normally constrain cities to be trumped by powers that predate them.  

No one saw this coming.  History, even at the young end of the country, always seems to prevail over timely consideration of the future.  

I was teasing someone in Victoria about the decision to put a provincial capital on an island, and instead of rationalizing the millions of dollars spent shuttling MPP’s and other officials back and forth to the mainland by helicopters, float planes, and ferry boats, my companion decided to give me a history lesson.  

In effect I was told that things are the way they are because they were the way they were.  It was as if nothing had changed since Victoria was incorporated in 1843 or was named the BC capital four years after Confederation.  I jokingly asked whether or not in 1871 they knew they were on an island, or whether they’d assumed that Vancouver Island was actually the continent and that North America, glimpsed across the Strait of Georgia, was actually the island.  Maybe they thought that the North America would never amount to much, and that the southern tip of their island would remain the centre of finance and power forever.  

What I learned, in addition to this bit of history, is that no one in Victoria is amused by me.  No one. The oft quoted Mackenzie King may finally be proven wrong: “If some countries have too much history, we have too much geography.”  In our multilayered system of government, we have enough embedded history to dictate what we do with our land in our cities. Only Canada’s first peoples can escape the combined weight of provincial and federal oversight and the gnawing, nibbling resistance of NIMBY-ism. 

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