Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Keep Metro Vancouver's Cities Free

It's simple: people like building things. Creation is one of the central drives of humanity, and it's a good thing too, because otherwise nothing would ever get built. We take sand and rocks and wood and we build cities. The problem arises when people put those acts of creation on a pedestal; when the creation becomes the most important thing, without sparing a thought for the consequences of that creation - whether or not the thing would have been better left unbuilt.

These days, we don't see many new cities rising up out of nothing; where "new" cities appear, it's usually through old ones. The pattern stretches back centuries; Vancouver didn't always have its modern borders, after all. Yet for the past ten years, Metro Vancouver has been the largest metropolitan area in Canada that has not experienced - or, more to the point, been forced into - municipal amalgamation. Yesterday, through Tenth to the Fraser, I found a week-old but still disturbing article on Vancity Buzz proposing the "consolidation" of Metro Vancouver - that is, the awkward shoving-together of the independent cities of this part of the Lower Mainland in the name of "efficiency," or to create more pleasing maps.

"When tourists fly into Vancouver, the first ground they touch is Richmond, not Vancouver. And when tourists want to experience the beautiful outdoors they visit the North Shore, not Vancouver," writes Vancity Buzz's Token White Guy. "Consolidate interconnected municipalities and redraw boundaries. Such reorganization will allow for more use of shared resources and reduce the inefficiency of having so many municipal governments."

I had no idea that it was so hard on tourists to cross so many invisible municipal borders. Please, won't someone think of the tourists? While we're at it, who needs independent municipalities capable of paying close attention to their citizens and dealing with local problems when we could run the whole show from Cambie and Broadway?

Even better - amalgamation would simplify transportation... transportation that's handled by the same regional entity anyway, but let's not think about that for a second! New Westminster would have its not-elaborated-upon "transit issues" resolved by amalgamating with Vancouver and Burnaby - perhaps this is meant to mean the shelved United Boulevard extension that New Westminster didn't want anyway - while Burnaby "will benefit by gaining downtown New Westminster and gain a promising tourist face." Because why should Burnaby develop its own downtown or tourist face when it can just piggyback off a city that did?

Am I in favor of this? Short answer: no. Long answer: nooooooooooooooooooo!

This is where New West starts, and don't you be forgetting it.

Let me just say that I can understand some Vancouverites, specifically long-term Vancouverites who haven't lived in another major city, talking seriously about amalgamation. It's an intellectual exercise to them; they've never lived through it. They only know about it on paper. Me, though, I'm from Toronto. Even if I wasn't living within its borders on January 1, 1998, I am well aware of what it was like when the six cities of Metropolitan Toronto were dismantled - despite a non-binding referendum in which 70% came down against amalgamation - to form the present megacity, and what happened afterward. Witness also the example of Montreal, where the twenty-seven cities of Montreal Island were forcibly amalgamated by provincial fiat; when the Quebec Liberals came to power in 2003, they gave those former cities the chance to hold de-amalgamation referenda; of the twenty-two that did, fifteen bolted and are now independent once again.

I have no reason to suspect that the experience would be much different in Metro Vancouver. Different cities need different things, and people in different places have different priorities. I'm pretty sure that an amalgamation into Vancouver would be seen by many people in the outer cities as a way for Vancouver's "downtown elites" to impose their bike lanes and their ways of thinking onto their communities; it's arguable that this sort of thought, and the pushback against it, was one of the factors that allowed Rob Ford to win the mayoralty of Toronto last year on a solid base of ex-suburban support. Had Metropolitan Toronto endured, Rob Ford might have made a fine mayor of Etobicoke - but he also would not have been in the position to demolish the planned Transit City LRT network, or work on closing libraries from one end of Metro to the other, and so on.

The experience of Toronto, particularly over the last year, demonstrates that the more authority is consolidated and concentrated, the more power an individual has to reshape the subject of that authority. Independent municipalities are a natural bulwark against that. The city government of New Westminster can work toward what it considers to be good for New Westminster; but if it isn't, at least the spillover effects are minimal beyond New Westminster. Checks and balances are important in government - in my mind, it should be an extraordinary situation if we're thinking about removing them.

Practically as an afterthought, the writer suggests that another option is expanding Metro Vancouver's power by giving it control of things like policing and transit operations... which would, effectively, make it into what Metropolitan Toronto was before the amalgamation. This would make a lot more sense. We already have a regional transit provider in the form of TransLink; I wouldn't be surprised to see a Metropolitan Vancouver Police Department in some future time. Things like policing and transit, these are issues that transcend city boundaries, and in a highly-urbanized area like Metro Vancouver, it makes sense for them to be dealt with in a regional way.

That doesn't mean we should only focus on regional matters. There are very good reasons to think locally, to govern locally. A local government is far more responsive to local issues; a single government, especially when perceived as being geographically or culturally remote, leads to social friction.

Municipal amalgamation is a subject that should be approached very carefully. In an ideal world, no amalgamation would go ahead without the citizens of the cities involved voting in favor, preferably strongly in favor. However, if a future amalgamation of Vancouver presents itself in the same manner as in Toronto and Montreal, it won't matter what we think. In both circumstances, the amalgamations were pushed through by the respective provincial governments without regard for the opinions of the people affected by the reorganization.

People pushing amalgamations often say they're chasing efficiencies. Yet life is more than just a well-oiled machine.


  1. This comment by Noel Maurer is crossposted from A Bit More Detail.

    This is not a good argument, Andrew. I'm an American, I live in Boston --- I see the terrible problems with independent cities every day.

    First, Mr. Ford. He was elected in a weird wave, and seems to be unpopular. So, one dumb election is enough to abandon amalgamation? By that standard, Canada is also a lousy idea. What you need to do is show that the amalgamated city is systematically, poorly-governed compared to its independent predecessors.

    Second, NIMBY and redistribution. People hate things in their backyard, and people dislike paying taxes that support services for others. That's why the Montreal cities (all rich) seceded; that's why Staten Island has tried to leave New York City. That seems like the kind of impulse you would reject ... especially since the larger size of Canadian cities is directly related to their liveability.

    (I know, you don't read my blog, but I have a couple posts reviewing the literature on this stuff. If you're interested, I'll post the links, but only if you're interested. Zoning laws can be super-boring if you're not. Short-version: the higher-up in government zoning rules are set, the easier it is to build stuff where people like you and me think it should be built.)

    Third, accountability. Regional organizations have diffuse and mushy lines of authority. Who's responsible for things you don't like at the MBTA? Damned if I know. Governor Patrick, I suppose ... but he's also in charge of the chunk of the state that isn't in the MBTA, while Governor Chafee is in charge of parts of Rhode Island that are. Ditto BART, or the NYPA. Much nicer for a concerned voter to have those things under one governmental body.

    Finally, the bit about tourists: the guy at the link was complaining that central Vancouver didn't benefit as much as it would if the municipalities were linked. That ain't unreasonable.

    In short, you're wrong! Change your opinion, young Jedi.

  2. First, Mr. Ford. He was elected in a weird wave, and seems to be unpopular.

    Mostly because his supporters are waking up to the fact that he's breaking his campaign promises like a bull in a china shop. He was very, very popular before he started talking about closing libraries and so on.

    So, one dumb election is enough to abandon amalgamation? By that standard, Canada is also a lousy idea.

    If you were to apply the logic of municipal amalgamation to Canada, the most cogent comparison would be abolishing the provinces entirely and placing all power with the federal government... which I agree would be a lousy idea.

    That seems like the kind of impulse you would reject ... especially since the larger size of Canadian cities is directly related to their liveability.

    Metropolitan Vancouver doesn't seem to have much of a problem in that regard, if the Economist is anything to go on. Do you have a link for that direct relation?

    Third, accountability. Regional organizations have diffuse and mushy lines of authority.

    Metro Vancouver is only "diffuse" because its responsibilities are equally diffuse. When Metropolitan Toronto existed, its council was voted in by the people.

    It's very possible for there to be accountable regional government without getting rid of everything below it. It worked in Toronto for forty-five years, for one.

  3. Let's see if this works.

    Re Ford: uh? You repeated my point. He's a bad
    mayor. It isn't like that didn't happen in smaller cities, to even greater effect and to even greater negative impact. (See Detroit, Michigan, or Boston, Massachusetts.) This argument remains specious.

    Re Toronto: Your point about Metro Toronto is a good one. It is true that the city had a metropolitan government before amalgamation. It is also true that program costs for programs not already in Metro's hands fell after amalgamation. It is also true, however, that zoning and police were in metropolitan hands (as in Montreal), and that is the source of the biggest problems with metropolitan fragmentation.

    You can find my Canada posts on my blog; I await your input.

  4. Hey, it works now!