Urban Nation: Why We Need to Give Power Back to the Cities to Make Canada Strong
Frank Murphy — September 16, 2010
This excerpt from Urban Nation: Why We Need to Give Power Back to the Cities to Make Canada Strong offers some suggestions for the badly needed reform of municipal government.
The author is Alan Broadbent, Chair of the Canadian Maytree Foundation, which identifies itself as “committed to reducing poverty and inequality in Canada and to building strong civic communities.”
Among the Maytree Foundation’s initiatives is Ideas that Matter which is based on the wide-ranging ideas and principles of Jane Jacobs.
Here’s background on the book: Maytree Policy in Focus newsletter.
The recommendations I thought might be a good basis for discussion here are:
Political Parties – Most cities in Canada do not have a party system. Adding a party system could help local officials articulate policy, and make the system more comprehensible to the electorate. It could also make consensus easier to obtain because of party discipline – but this is a double-edged sword. If party discipline is too strict, it could prevent a diversity of opinions from reaching council, or limit the influence of local councillors.
Mix of Ward and City-wide Councillors – In Vancouver, councillors are elected city-wide, and the electorate votes for their top 10 candidates. In most other cities candidates are elected by a ward and only mayors are voted city-wide. There are pros and cons to both approaches. A mix, where some councillors are elected to represent local issues, and others are elected with the views of the entire city in mind, would likely result in a stronger city government.
Stronger Mayor – Canadian cities are governed by a “weak mayor” system. In most cities, the mayor is the only member of council elected by the entire city. Once elected, they have to negotiate with the councillors of each district or ward. While this arguably provides more opportunity for individuals to have their views expressed through their councillors, it also make it difficult to pass city-wide initiatives.
In cities like New York, London or Chicago, the mayor has substantially more powers than the councillor, and the office has a budget for staff that mirrors that of provincial and federal ministers. They can make appointments to key council committees and senior positions in the public service. They can also prepare annual plans and budgets, subject to approval of council.
These are important suggestions. I do not believe that issues will be systematically examined by the public or Council held to task without civic parties. It’s not that I like parties, it’s just that I think they are better than the alternatives for organizing policies. We already have silent parties in the behind the scenes guise of the Liberals, the NDP, the unions and the Builders Association, even though we pretend that our candidates are all disinterested and independent citizens. Might as well let the cat out of the bag where it can be watched.
Jack Little pushed for a mixed ward/city wide system with, say, four ward elected Councillors, four at large Councillors and an at large Mayor. This would provide better representation of all the areas of our city. It would also mean that voters might have some idea about their ward candidate as they wouldn’t have to try to pick all from a field of 30-40 candidates to whom they had been exposed for perhaps 90 seconds on Shaw Cable and two minutes at the big all candidates meeting. An examination of where our Councillors live in the city shows a definite tendency to cluster.
As for a stronger Mayor, I would need considerable convincing although our current mayor -and perhaps previous mayors- seem to have taken on a unique roll in dealing with staff and in forcing silence on Councillors as in the Jerry Berry affair. The relationship between Staff and Mayor can be a dicey one and there are those who believe that that relationship was/is too strong to the detriment of the electorate. This is not to be construed as implying that Mayor/Council and Staff should be at daggers drawn, but rather to point out that it can be difficult to maintain independence. Besides, the comparison of Nanaimo with New York, London or Chicago boggles the minds of even the most fervent of Nanaimo boosters -at least for the foreseeable future.
I’m looking forward to reading this book. I used that Maytree link to get more information.
You didn’t mention the shockingly radical ideas Mr. Broadbent proposes, such as making the three big city regions separate provinces.
I wonder what would happen to all of British Columbia’s economic indicators if the Vancouver Region was removed from the mix. Would the change highlight some of the insane inequities that exist, but are glossed over because Vancouver raises all the averages? Would the rest of the province be strong enough to address those inequities?
It would certainly be a wild ride unraveling the integration that happens because Vancouver is the only major transportation hub for the entire province. Would a province of Vancouver be as motivated to maintain or expand its portion of the Trans Canada Highway, for example?
Politically, Vancouver provides some balance to offset the conservatism that dominates the rest of the province. Culturally, Vancouver provides some diversity that the rest of this province suffers for a lack of.
I can see where large cities might benefit from the split into their own provinces, but i can’t immediately see a benefit for those of us left out here in the hinterland. Mr. Broadbent might have a solution for large cities that aspire to become another Hong Kong or Singapore, but for the rest of us? How does this make us sustainable?
I have lots more questions. I’m definitely going to give this book a read.
Another book I am looking forward to reading is Jan Gehl’s “Cities for People”. Gehl is a noted architect and urban planner, very influential in the Chicago area. Here is a very nice little interview with Gehl in New York – http://www.fastcompany.com/1689519/cities-for-people-a-qa-with-architect-jan-gehl.
I better get going. There is lots to do and much to read.
Did the Europeans move here many years ago to get away from the crowds and the six storey buildings to get to a land in a Country named Canada, where there was land for everybody, or did my history teacher lie to me?
George, I don’t understand your point. Expand on it will you.
Dan, thanks for the Jan Gehl link. We have to keep after the planners to keep in mind “…the people scale is the most important scale, because that’s where the biggest attractions are–other people–and that is exactly the scale that has for years been forgotten and mishandled.” Christoper Alexander ( http://www.pps.org/calexander/ )is a name that keeps coming up lately and I’ll be reading up on him too.