Sunday, 16 February 2014

Keeping families in the city - The failure of command control politics


Richard Bergeron, frowner in chief of the Projet Montreal municipal political party, put some of his customary righteous indignation on display in reaction to new Montreal mayor Denis Coderre's first budget.  As he had to maximize the efficiency of the one sentence sound bite offered to him by the Metro commuter newspaper for comment, he said something to the effect of "same old, same old...nothing to keep families in Montreal."

You see, Mr Bergeron has a "cause-celebre" of keeping families in the city.  It appears that he loses sleep at night over the 20,000 people who decamp to the city's surrounding suburbs every year, although a large part of that number surely includes departures for Toronto and Alberta.  Sure enough, Projet Montreal was at it again this week, their chief complaint about the federal budget being the absence of measures to retain families on the island of Montreal.  What is this single-minded dogged obsession to force people to inhabit Canada's second most populous city? Since the amount of quote space afforded to an opposition municipal party in the media is bite-sized in the attention deficit-ridden era we live in, I looked on Projet Montreal's website to find out.

I will give the party credit.  In the total vision-free political landscape of Canada, where every party is eager to use "pocketbook populism" and a "consumer-friendly agenda" to seduce "hard-working middle class Canadian families", we have a substance-free political discourse that is a race to the bottom of the quality ideas barrel.  Our country owns the podium, all right - in pathetic political posturing.  This is giving us a political system that is totally useless for the purposes of advancement, development, innovation, and democracy (James Moore's baseless wireless rhetoric vs. Tom Mulcair's ATM fees cap vs. Andrea Horwath/Denis Coderre's steadfast inflexible opposition to road tolls - which shameless panderer do you like/trust the most?)  In Projet Montreal we have a party not the least bit scared to engage in substantive policy making - too bad it is based on wacky demagoguery and hare-brained logic.

Example one would be the party's flagship policy of building a streetcar to run through downtown.  Even though the metro in Montreal only covers the middle third of the island, leaving the eastern and western thirds car dependent and transit-starved, these people want to build through a streetcar in an area (the middle third) through which RIGHT NOW I can take two different subway lines and hundreds of different buses.  This will reduce traffic and car dependency, in their minds.  Installing an additional transit option in the 10km radius of the province that already has the most comprehensive transit coverage will make it harder to drive through than it already is, it will also waste billions and cause untold construction disturbance and irritation.  That will do a lot to reduce the perception of Projet Montreal as urban elitists in the eastern and western thirds of the islands who will remain transitless under their plan.

Even funnier is the suburban flight issue - the 3-5 billion increase in GDP on the North and South shores the last 20 years is treated as something that was "stolen" from Montreal, as if Montreal's economic activity has a lifetime, ironclad no movement clause.  Unlike the evil suburbs, conniving to steal jobs and families from Montreal, individual families who make the decision to leave the island are described more sympathetically on the site "quittant souvent a regret", meaning they are saying: "You know, I love the city so much but...I don't know.  This brand new house on a forty foot lot vs. my drafty 800 sq foot apartment beside an overpass in a hundred year old building...sigh...so long Montreal.  Thanks for the memories."  Cities vs. suburbs is a trade-off anywhere and families know, or should know, what they are signing up for: Long commutes, which place additional financial and emotional stress on them, higher taxes, boring, soulless cookie cutter developments (Hey kids! Want to go to Smartcentres this weekend?) and isolation.  Urban life has its own set of irritants and as adults we can be trusted to navigate these choices and make our own decisions.  There is obviously nothing you can do to force people to stay anywhere.

Projet doesn't say that.  What they do say is that the city should be giving people additional interest-free loans for 20 years to be able to afford apartments in the city.  Yes, let's put ourselves on the hook for hundreds of millions so that we can keep an optimal number of people in the city, which has been arbitrarily decided by these phd know-it-alls of the party.  The city is the city with its character and its shortcomings and no cash-strapped idealist municipal government is going to change that.  First of all, the cost of living is not that high here compared to North American cities of similar sizes.  Second, people leave because they are done with urban life - snow removal crews honking horns outside your window at 7 am, bums begging for change in the metro, hearing your neighbours fight/fuck under your slanted floor, driving around for 20 minutes looking for a parking spot, parking tickets.  People live the urban life because they consciously choose the urban life, and the same goes for suburban.  Nothing is lamer then seeing the politicians in this party frown all the time because they're so angry not everyone agrees that they know what's best for everyone.

By the time these idiots ever got their rent to own scheme off the ground, the tide will have turned on suburbia anyway.  In some ways, it already has.  Suburbs were unstoppable when developments were closer to the city and gas was 17 cents.  Now were getting to our third and fourth rings of sprawl.  Several generations into it, the appeal starts to wear off.  Yes the 249k townhomes may still sell like hotcakes but take away some jobs and the cheap money that fuels that and look at what happens to those places.  People have started to realize the enormous cost of commuting alone and families are moving back into the cities (which in many cases, alas, is driving prices up).

The way cities in North America have developed post-war has them essentially going two ways.  Either the city centers become choice living destinations and utterly unaffordable (see Vancouver, Toronto, New York, San Francisco), with rent and real estate prices serving as much more effective deterrents to the poor than any suburban ordinance that seeks to keep out "riff raff" ever could.  Poor people are literally banned from the city of Toronto now despite no law or policy ever having been promulgated to this effect.  On the flip side of the coin you have places like Detroit, Cleveland, Buffalo, Memphis, and the South Side of Chicago whose downtowns are so burnt-out that you can often buy a nice sturdy four-bedroom middle class house for less than fifty grand.  These once prosperous urban areas suffered from the decline of manufacturing, white flight, and so many decades of crime and poverty that entrepreneurs are now willing to come into the city, buy up houses, and start businesses and projects.  Will it lead to full-scale revitalization? Probably not, and no Canadian city should aspire to go down the paths of these cities either.

The point is that a city's future is decided by the free market first, and a host of intangible uncontrollable factors second.  I lived in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario, whose major employer basically changed every decade throughout the twentieth century.  Politicians became incensed when questioned about the future of Blackberry when I lived there - what a difference a year and a half makes.  It is in every politician's interest to talk to his or her district/city/region/province/country's residents as if they were the salt of the earth and every bit entitled and more to any economic well-being they are benefiting/have benefited from but reality is much more complex.  Projet seems to want to drill down into this complex reality and find solutions but they come up with a bunch of hokey, impractical, downtown-centred lameness.

It smacks of a phoenomenon I will term urban romanticism which Christopher Hume in the star is probably the foremost practitioner of: the city should be essentially treated like a museum.  Every old building should be refurbished and sparkling, shiny street cars should zip down the car-free, tree-lined streets, universities, hospitals, cultural institutions, and government offices, should be connected by a comprehensive grid of walkable trails, nature, and bullet trains.  Employment should only be in high-value, cutting edge sectors like non-profits, tech, and video game manufacturing.  Vulgarities like malls and fast food joints should be avoided at all costs.

This sterilized, phd vision of the city is as quixotic as it is humourless and uninspiring.  Montreal, with its low real estate prices and cheap rents from political instability, diversified street level commerces, and high concentration of educational facilities with quite a few big companies headquartered here, is a nice city whose nature has moderated the extreme impacts of desirability (making downtown impossible to afford) and radioactivity (making real estate in the city worth pennies on the dollar).  It's worth preserving this balancing act, despite the constant moroseness of local pundits and politicos.  Yes its not perfect and people will continue to leave for a variety of reasons - but do you want to live anywhere forever ? Projet needs to chill the fuck out and remember that people will choose to live in any number of places based on their circumstances, their life stage, where they are from, what they are looking for, and where the things that matter to them (work, family, interests) happen to be.  People are not cattle to be herded in pens.  You don't lure them into staying here or anywhere with idiotic pipedreams financed by their own tax dollars.


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