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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

DOUCET: Cities are not a biological phenomenon

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F-35 (with engine): a viable National Transit Stragegy?

Cities are not like trees. They are not a biological phenomenon. You can’t just add water and sunlight and expect a city to grow out of the ground. They are dependent on human organization and human organization has always depended upon politics. Politics are how we allocate the resources that produce a city’s food and water supplies, the infrastructure, the governance, the built form, the security, the possibilities for commerce, the commitment to shared objectives. Without successful politics cities fail.

The most important thing that happened to the city of Ottawa in the last decade was the 2006 election. In the Chiarelli/Munter/O’Brien election, the winner Larry O’Brien with John Baird’s crucial support managed to kill the contract that would have created the lowest cost light rail line in North America and begun to the transformation of the city from a car dependent city to a transit-first city. The direct costs to the city of that contract cancellation were a $100 million in lost start up costs and fines for broken contracts . The indirect costs were in the billions.

The 2006 election also stopped the transition of Ottawa to a more sustainable city dead in its tracks. The Mayor and the 2006 council that the public elected spent most of its time fighting between those devoted to a progressive vision for the city and the ones supporting a return to the car-first/developer-first city of old. The progressive side lost. We saw the international competition cancelled in favour of giving Lansdowne Park away to three local developers; zoning being smashed at the convent site in Westboro and most of the 400 million in stimulus funding spent on roads.

The federal election on May 2nd , like Ottawa’s 2006 election will determine much for decades to come. It is very clear if Harper gets his majority, he will accelerate the changes that he has already begun. There will be more money for prisons and jets, less for city priorities. If Mr. Harper is elected I can’t see there will be a need to convert a film studio in Toronto for jail space as was done during the G-20 conference. Obviously those voting for Mr. Harper regard this favourably as those voting for Mr. O’Brien thought killing the Ottawa light rail contracts was a great idea. If a majority Harper scenario unfolds, the opposition and most of the Conservative Party can go home because they won’t be doing anything. If no Conservative political candidate can attend a political debate during an election, think about how much he or she will be allowed to say during a Parliamentary session.

Every election is more about the people that do the electing than the politicians fronting the show. Canadian voters will send the final message on May 2nd whether or not they want a federal government (which spends 50% of their tax dollars) to put more emphasis on civic issues like income support, national transit and housing strategies, local food supply polices – and spend less on the military. One can assume at best a continuation of the status quo with a Harper majority, at worst a deepening gulf between the problems of cities and federal interest in solutions to these problems.

After the 2011 election is completed, we the public will be largely helpless – until the next election, and that could be four years. As infrequent as the opportunity to have our say is, all over the world there are people suffering and sometimes dying for just such a privilege. On May 2nd, above all, we need to vote.

-photo by U.S. Navy Imagery



  1. That transit proposal was a glorified street car that would have cost more to operate than the current bus and taken longer. Why does anybody listen to Clive any more?

  2. Having light rail on its own would do very little to densify the city or contain sprawl.
    I believe that equating the addition of new transit medium to the beginning of the end of car-dependance is a fallacy. No transit plan is going to be successful if it is not matched with transit oriented development.

    The initial plans for light rail in Ottawa that I had seen were nothing like TOD; stations were in the middle of nowhere with no concrete plans for high density development on top and around them.

    This is actually a recipe for a huge transit backlash as tax payers who fund light rail would have just seen poor ridership and be desillusioned about the whole thing.

  3. So, let’s see if I understand: Light rail transit good, density bad.
    Can you have a sustainable city by having the former but not the latter? I don’t think so, otherwise another city would have implemented it.
    No development charges or property taxes being collected in the core, because development is bad for cities and doesn’t belong downtown, just low-density suburbs stretching off to the horizon, is that it? How is a city supposed to fund transit to its far-flung, low-density/ridership suburbs?
    Another unsustainable dream from a dreamer, not a planner.