The landscape that will never pay for itself

It’s hard to find anything in the world that I find more tiresome than listening to an ‘expert’ explain how the suburbs can be more sustainable if they were planned better – but we have to accept them because the suburbs are where the cheap housing is. It’s as if cheap suburban housing is an Act of God and expensive housing in the city centre is the distaff performance. The latest in a long line is Joel Kotkin in the Globe and Mail, (March 14).

Cheap, suburban housing has got zero to do with good or bad planning. It never has, not since Levittown was invented. Cheap suburban housing was a political creation, it always has been and remains so. It’s a deliberate, continuing act of city councils right across North America. Suburban tract housing, highway arterials, warehouse districts (malls) are subsidized by all levels of government and have been for 70 plus years.

Like most things, it started quite innocently. Levittown seemed to be wonderful – cheap housing on a plot of grass, not too far from the city where young men coming home from the war had a chance to buy a house in exchange for a commute to their jobs in the city. It seemed like a very good idea at the time, just taking the old suburban idea and making it bigger. We did the same thing in Ottawa and every other Canadian city.

The problem that was scarcely noticed 70 years ago was this cheap housing depended on someone else paying for the major infrastructure – the expansion of the roads, the water and sewer systems, the emergency services, because the low intensity, ‘sprawl’ couldn’t generate enough taxes to pay for the services required. But the time the tax base of the older parts of the city was so robust this subsidy scarcely noticed. A few million to pave a county road, then a few more million to widen it, then a few more million to create a divided highway – no problem. The benefits were clear – the kids got cheap housing. But the innocent child grew into a monster until it now absorbs the budgets of nations.

At home, the twinning of the 417 to Carleton Place cost the provincial treasury 300 million to serve less than half the population of an average city ward. To put this in perspective, the renovation of the Plant Bath in the old city cost 7.5 million, took ten years to finance and needed the community to raise money for it. More perspective, 90% of Ottawa’s 400 million dollars in stimulus funding went into road construction. This was typical of the entire country. The billions of dollars we all spent on ‘recession recovery’ mostly went into roads.

Almost all of the city’s parking revenue comes from the streets of the old city. Whereas virtually all suburban parking is ‘free’. Yet just one large parking lot say (IKEA) if it was obliged to charge a city street access fee which is what street parking is would raise the same amount of money (25 million) as all of the city’s on street parking raised in the old part of the city. (Ottawa isn’t special in this regard. This is true of every modern city.) Multiply this asphalt subsidy by every ‘free’ parking lot in every suburb nationally and you begin to see what Kunstler means when he talks about the ‘trillions’ of debt that flows out towards the suburban landscape every day.

The only cities that have been protected from seeing their tax base disastrously erode to subsidize suburban infrastructure are ones like Vancouver and San Francisco who are built on peninsula’s and have been able to keep some control of their local government tax dollars. But most cities (Ottawa, Toronto, Halifax, Montreal) have had their independence taken away from them through forced amalgamations and they can’t stop the bleeding.

It doesn’t happen overnight but gradually one of two things happens to the part of the city that can actually pay its way. If it’s lucky, it gradually becomes the home of the very rich and the very poor. If it’s unlucky, it becomes a refuge to only the poor until even the poor abandon it. This is what is happening now in many older American cities eg. Detriot, Philadelphia, Camden et al.

This is the journey the very innocent initiative of Levittown began and this is now the dominant reality of our North American existence. We have collectively built a landscape that will never pay for itself, that can only exist through subsidy and we can’t do anything about it, because the folks who live in it have no alternative – and they are the majority.

The solution when and if it ever comes will not be knowledge, we have that now, it will be via the same process that created it, the political process. The pessimists among us like Kunstler say this political change won’t come until the entire system crashes because politicians get their mandate from the status quo, not the future reality.

If you think he’s wrong take a hard look at the coming election. Will more sustainable cities be central to it? Will a national transit plan be central to it? Will anything be done about the starvation share of the taxes cities receive, 8 per cent? I doubt it. In the meantime, don’t lumber me with the ‘better planning’ enthusiasts. Please.

photo by Andreas Praefcke


  1. Tough to argue with the criticisms of the suburban model of development, but I do have one point to make: It is hardly “luck” that helps cities proper continue to be successful, in the same way that Detroit isn’t just “unlucky” and that’s why there’s the massive flight from its true city core.
    With proactive policies and proper planning, cities can continue to encourage people to live downtown and offset the “suburb levy”. I don’t see people fleeing from downtown Ottawa right now, for instance; rather, with massive condominium booms, it looks like urban living is having a bit of a renaissance in our city. (Or maybe that’s just the optimist in me.)

  2. If the latter’s the case, Peter, then you’re not the only deluded optimist in the room right now. It does seem as if a determined effort to not give up on our central urban cores is paying off in some way. Seeing as Mr. Doucet was among those who’ve been working for that goal over these last few decades, I hope we see the consequences play out to the overall benefit of these various cities.

    Historically speaking, I’m not entirely sure cities – and municipalities in general – have ever had overmuch independence within the Canadian framework. If I’m wrong on this, we’ll find out shortly.

  3. I’m not sure if I agree with the hypothesis that suburbs are being paid for by inner-city money. Ottawa’s suburbs of Orleans and Kanata flourished pre-amalgamation, showing that a suburb can grow without being subsidised by a large city. Though Doucet’s logic does suggest that services (roads, parking) in the suburbs cost far more than those in the inner-city, I’d be interested in seeing hard evidence that suburbs represent solely an outflow of money from the city. For one, most commercial space remains in the city, filling the city’s coffers with tax dollars that are in part funded by commuting suburbites.

    Additionally, while the maintenance of infrastructure in the suburbs may be assumed to be more expensive than in the city (due to more road area per resident, larger distances between houses, etc), I would think that this would be offset in part (if not in full) by the cost of maintaining ageing infrastructure in the city.

    One of the main causes of suburb growth is the income potential for developers. Developers, not the city, fund the construction of suburban developments, and their enthusiasm to build more and more sprawling residential developments suggests that there is profit to be made solely in the purchasing of land, construction, and sale of houses.

    Of course, one aspect that can’t be argued is that sprawling growth is environmentally unsustainable. The reason for this is that environmental costs are not monetised–a developer has no financial interest to preserve a wetland, for example. Just as carbon pricing may help to solve the world’s greenhouse gas emissions problem (by providing a financial incentive to reduce gasses), environmental damage must be monetised if we intend to stop sprawl. Until irresponsible sprawl is no longer financially viable, suburbs will continue to grow.

  4. Don’t fret, Clive. Joel Kotkin is notorious in the United States for his ridiculous shilling around. I’m sorry we let him loose onto Canada as well. He even has the audacity to try to pose his pro-sprawl arguments under the guise of “being against centralized government planning.”

    As if there isn’t anything centralized or government about sprawl. He consistently ignores the painfully obvious counterargument you’ve laid out here; if you really wanted to get government out of real estate, the first thing you’d do is stop building massively expensive highways and telling every developer where he’s going to put what. (Residential zone, commercial zone, industrial zone, etc.)

    The most likely result wouldn’t be suburbia, with its bevy of tax breaks, subsidies, and heavy-handed land use regulation. Indeed, without the massive subsidies you mention, and the fact that zoning requires setbacks and other considerations that basically mandate developers’ proliferation of parking lots, we would have much more constrained suburbs. Market-based suburbs, if you will.

    The more interesting thing to think about is why Vancouver and San Francisco are in the same box. It’s not just that they were built on peninsulas:

    It’s a spirit of environmental consciousness mixed in with a heavy dose of West Coast libertarianism that made these cities both less likely to want sprawl and less likely to want the government that must pay for it.

  5. I don’t get this gushing over Vancouver and its urbanism. Guess what? Vancouver has as much sprawl as the next city. They are rapidly paving over what little farmland BC has in the name of housing and big boxes. And the reason Vancouver gets away with it? It’s not amalgamated with its neighbouring municipalities.

    It was one decision, over several years, that has indelibly changed our perception of Vancouver: the decision to not build an expressway into the core of the city. Surely, this has resulted in a highly urbanized core and successful (for the most part) downtown. But to paint the entire Metro region with the same brush would be a mistake.

    Richmond, Delta, Surrey, Burnaby, Port Coquitlam, Langley– all flat-out suburbs, some of which have been fortunate to have rapid transit extended to their municipality, resulting in some higher density areas. Others, like Langley and Abbotsford, not so lucky– but people are still commuting to Vancouver from there.

    Praise of “Vancouverism” should be given– but we should also be very careful to make it something it’s not. And a city with no sprawl it is not.

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