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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

The Regionalist: Do we need a new “new regionalism”?

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The new toll bridge crossing Rivière-des-prairies: a prime example of top-down planning (Photo by Alanah Heffez)

So it looks like the real reason IQT Solutions shut down its Laval operation (in addition to its operations in Trois-Rivières and Oshawa) and put 450 people out of work is because it is opening new call centers back in Nashville, Tenessee, where the company is headquartered. And why is it moving jobs to Tennessee? Presumbaly because the City of Nashville is giving the company some sort of tax credit or financial incentive (although we can only speculate at this point).

The sad thing about this story (whether IQT is relocating to Tennesse or not) is that it is, in fact, quite banal: call centers pack up and leave cities all the over world without an explanation, as that is part of the “call center business model”. What is more interesting (and perhaps novel) about this particular case that it is, in many ways, the realization of the “new regionalist prophecy”: municipalities in North America no longer compete primarily against one another within a given metropolitan region (e.g., Laval vs. Blainville). According to the so-called “New Regionalist” perspective (which is now at least 10-15 years old), the competition for capital does not take place between states, provinces or cities. It takes place between metropolitan regions. IQT did not leave Laval or Trois-Rivières; it left the Greater Montreal Region.

To give a bit of background: New Regionalism emerged out of the obvious impasse that was reached in the Localism vs. Regionalism debate in the 1990s. It became evident, on the one hand, that the absence of some form of regional redistribution (or at least coordination) within U.S. metro regions was ecologically irresponsible (think urban sprawl), socially detrimental (think white flight) and economically inefficient (contrary to what Tiebout and his followers have claimed). On the other hand, it also became evident that local autonomy could not be suppressed in a political culture like the U.S., where school and fire district budgets are still approved directly by voters in most states (Portland being the exception, not the rule).

The solution adopted by most major cities and their suburbs (under the impetus of State governments and/or the business community) was to invent (or settle for?) a new form of regional governance, based not on bureaucratic, top-down decision-making, but rather on the active participation of civil society (and most prominently the private sector) and voluntary cooperation between municipalities. At its best, this type of governance involves meaningful public participation and allows local governments and other civil society actors to take an entrepreneurial approach to “governing” (i.e., to stop waiting for the State/Provincial and the Federal Government to take action on things like climate change, affordable housing and economic development). The regional planning process in Washington D.C. is a good example of that.

At its worst, however, New Regionalism has simply been used as a pretext for State and Provincial governments to “download” more responsibilities unto municipalities and regions without giving them the appropriate funding to carry them out as well as to outsource municipal and regional services (like garbage collection) to the private sector. It has also resulted in a different kind of entrepreneurship on the part of metro regions, one based on the competition for capital through financial incentives from municipal governments in what some have called a “race to the bottom” (where each city-region tries to undercut its competitor). For instance, we now know that Electrolux’s decision to relocate from Montreal to Memphis in December 2010 was based on some sort of “deal” with the City of Memphis.

Interestingly, New Regionalism seems to have been (so far) largely ignored or dismissed by our own political elites: regional governance in Quebec is still very formal and top-down, without much civil society involvement (with a few exceptions). This is problematic, insofar as our institutions have not fostered the development of a strong “regional” civil society. However, it might also be a blessing: when and if regional governance is reformed in Montreal (and Quebec), we will have the opportunity to invent a new “new regionalism” (constructive regionalism?) – based on the meaningful exchange of ideas between governments, citizens, businesses, community organizations and other interested actors and without governments shying away from their legitimate responsibilities.

Also importantly, metro regions don’t necessarily need to conceive of themselves as businesses trying to “steal” market shares away from other regions. Indeed, under constructive regionalism, our cities (and their hinterland) could aim to create (vs. attract) wealth and well-being using their own resources (human, natural, agricultural, technological, artistic, etc.) in a way that is ecologically responsible, socially beneficial and economically efficient. I hope you will excuse the use of this old cliché, but there’s not reason why we can’t make the pie bigger (as opposed to serving smaller and smaller portions of the same size pie).

Perhaps a first step would be to create a regional forum on food – using the Toronto Food Policy Council as a model. I think Montreal and Montrealers are ready to start taking ownership of their future. What we need now is someone to give the initial push.



  1. Thank you for a nice, well written and carefully reasoned article. 

    Another important element to underscore is the interplay between inter-connected economic regions. In Quebec political discourse, it’s very rare that you hear about the role that one region can play in terms of generating growth in another. It’s been a long time since I was a researcher in this field, but at that time Swedish “leader-follower” regional theory was relatively popular in Europe and quite an important part of EU development policy.

    William Raillant-Clark
    Dip EHESS Paris 2007 (Geography)

  2. Nice article. Just in terms of those examples of lost jobs, Tennessee also happens to be a ‘right-to-work’ state, meaning labour unions are illegal. Because of this, tonnes of major manufacturers and other companies with big labour costs are moving to the US south because they can pay their workers way less than most other places on the continent. So it’s not just a regional issue but a labour policy issue.

    To combat this, it seems like regions are trying their best to improve transportation and other connections that make getting whatever is being manufactured to the markets where they are sold. So dealing with freight traffic, just general traffic congestion, public transit (so that the markets are bigger since me people can get to them, etc.) on a regional level or providing more affordable housing to make general living costs cheaper — offsetting higher wages — may be the way to stop this kind of job loss. But I dont know if these regional policies are ‘new.’

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