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