Wednesday, September 18, 2013

A Brief History of the Canadian City

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The end of World War 2 marks a good beginning point for this history. North American society went through some big changes and the cities reflect that. In Canada, The Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation was created and with it came the regulatory framework that vastly increased the government’s presence in housing. Government intervention – however – always has its unintended consequences. Post WW2, the Canadian government expanded its highway system, got involved in the mortgage business, and allowed provincial and municipal governments to plan and amalgamate city communities. But central plans have a tendency to hollow out downtown cores that serve the interests of the market. The “Suburban City” is the result of government control over zoning laws and highway construction. These types of communities are sometimes very different from ones created by market means.

While high urban density can be viewed as good or bad, in terms of city functionality, density is a prerequisite for prosperity. City downtowns are market centres. Resources from the periphery are brought to market centres for trade, and within these centres live the people who deal with this market everyday. It has always been the rural farmers and trappers who were the ones on the edge of poverty – surviving the bare elements of nature to reap the rewards later in the city. The city was the centrepiece in the division of labour; a place to go to make a name of ones self. “Simple country living” that suburbia is supposed to reflect was always a Utopian dream. That somehow one could live out in the boonies yet receive the luxuries of a city.
This Utopian dream became a reality with the advent of the car. And with government roads, the possibility of suburbia became technically possible. But just because something is technically possible, doesn’t mean that it should necessarily be done. Market signals are the best means of discovering this information. Individual prices revealed through exchange embody information entrepreneurs use to discover consumer demand and determine scarcity. A major factor in Post WW2 Canada was exempt from this process. Roads, and the whole highway system, were already monopolized by the centralized state. The sudden profitability found in developing rural lands for residential purposes was aided by the non-market actions of building government roads.
“Drive till you qualify” was a widely used phrase that meant the farther one went from the metropolitan centre, the cheaper land became, thus decreasing the income requirements for a mortgage. With cars being more prominent in society, the location of work became less important. Yet with no market forces in the production of roads and highways, the structure of cities changed drastically. Downtown cores eventually gave way to suburbia, but many older suburban areas have been absorbed by the congestion of the city.
These city-suburbs are a new type of urbanization unique to modern times. Residential neighbourhoods are clearly separated from commercial activities. All designs are geared around roads. Businesses usually reside in a large parking lot, physically connected with other businesses. Commercial and residential land are developed around the road. The highway has become the centrepiece with monotonous buildings acting as the peripheral. Urban sprawl is eerily similar to Karl Marx’s prediction of communities in a Communist State. As Marx writes in the German Ideology, “The abolition of the antagonism between town and country is one of the first conditions of communal life.” Indeed, the logical conclusion of Suburban Cities is, “a more equable distribution of population over the country.”
But communism doesn’t work. Despite places like Hamilton or Regina, where this “hollowing out” effect can be seen, city downtowns still thrive because of market means. Cities are still the manifestations of individual spontaneity and despite best attempts, the government cannot entirely erode this process. To do so would spell disaster for government revenue. The market must still be allowed to work if taxation is to have any meaning or purpose.
But markets in the Suburban City are, in a way, non-existent. For many, the suburban home is an island of private life surrounded by other private islands. Everyone commutes somewhere. The suburban neighbourhood offers nothing more than residential homes, ensuring that streets remain empty and void of commercial activities. Children may play in the streets, but there is no natural adult supervision. Contrast this to a city neighbourhood, where the streets are the best places for children. With a mixture of commercial activity, residential homes, apartments and other city neighbourhoods immediately adjacent to either side – the presence of people is always guaranteed. There is a natural “eyes on the street,” where people ensure law and order through their everyday actions.
The government builds roads not streets. The streets are where social interaction normally occurs: among the commercial owners and the residential population. Suburbia segregates market diversity through a series of zoning laws, including running a business out of ones home. There are no “eyes on the street;” police force law and order. A city street with nobody on it is not a safe place.
Jane Jacobs, in her brilliant work, The Death & Life of Great American Cities, assumes that the reason urban density dispersed into suburbia is because a) most people don’t like density and b) most people are unfamiliar with what makes cities and neighbourhoods prosperous. This is true, in a way, but it neglects the government’s role in highway creation and the effects this have on rural lands. While a suburban city could surely arise on a free market, the development of these cities as they exist now wouldn’t have been possible without government intervention. Seeing that life in suburbia is supposed to reflect town living, it’s possible that a free market wouldn’t produce large urban sprawls but instead dense packets of towns regional to a larger city.
Canadians are building new houses, following the suburban format and doing so on a credit binge fuelled by low interest rates. If city density is seen as an impoverishing aspect of one’s life, one is more likely to take refuge in suburbia. When there is no price for money, everybody can do this without any regard to future social conditions. But eventually the boom will end and scarcity will reveal itself. With it, the suburbs will have to adapt or face abandonment.

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