Two weeks ago, I wrote an Op-Ed which was published in La Presse and which stirred some controversy – at least in the Facebook/Twitter world. The basic question that I posed was the following: is there a moral dimension to an individual’s (or a corporation’s) decision to move from the city to the suburbs or the exurbs. The answer I gave was that the current patterns of development in the Montreal region were unjust and therefore morally reprehensible. I further argued that the responsibility for this failure does not primarily rest upon the individual, but upon the collective.
Given that a number of people raised questions (to me directly, to people I know as well as in the comments section of different websites) about the arguments I made, I thought it would be useful to clarify what I meant – which will hopefully allow the debate to progress.
First, it is important to distinguish urban sprawl (“étalement urbain”), which refers to the horizontal expansion of the city and is generally difficult to describe and define, from haphazard development (“éparpillement urbain”), which refers specifically to the lack of coherence in urban development and is revealed by the scattering of infrastructure, the fragmentation of agriculture land and natural habitats, the poor connectivity of new residential areas, etc.
Second, it is important to understand that I am interested in the effects of a cause, and not the cause of an effect. I am not trying to explain haphazard development, but rather to outline what its actual and potential consequences are – and there are many. Therefore, when I say that haphazard development is unjust, what I mean is that the distribution of its negative effects – whether it be the scattering of public funds, the degradation of natural habitats, the decline of areas of the city that “natives” have abandoned, spatial segregation by race and class, etc. – is highly skewed and therefore unjust. In this case, it is clear that future generations, other animal species, recent immigrants and poor recent immigrants in particular bear the brunt of the social and ecological costs associated with this type of growth. That, in and of itself, represents in my view a moral failure.
Third, when I write that the responsibility rests upon the collective more than it rests upon the individual, what I mean is that this state of affairs was brought about first by our collective disengagement from local politics and land-use planning and second by our collective tolerance for mediocrity. Citizens in other parts of this country as well as in many parts of the U.S. have fought to preserve the landscapes that they collectively valued. Protecting a landscape usually requires citizen mobilization and collective action – and that is precisely what has not happened in the Montreal periphery over the last few decades, until recently.
Of course, the collective is made up of individuals. But the most important land-use decisions are made by elected officials, and it is our collective responsibility to express our discontent or get them out of office if they are consenting to socially and ecologically destructive urban development. The individual who decides to move into a greenfield development project where there used to be mature trees or a cultivated field is responsible for his or her choice, but it is our public institutions that have allowed (or encouraged, in many cases) development to happen there in the first place. And our public institutions are (ultimately) what we make of them.
Finally, I want to clarify that I did not choose the picture that was used on Cyberpresse: the Longueuil métro is NOT an example of haphazard development. In fact, it represents quite the opposite.