A political case for an urban agenda

Next year, there will be two elections fought, first for Ontario, and then for every municipality in Ontario. At the heart of these elections is the future direction of cities. Will they continue to be wider flung and auto dependent, or will they be denser with greater priority given to public transit, walking, and combinations of wheeled transportation?

Unless the relationship between city and province changes abruptly, it will be the former because that is the nature of the system we’ve constructed.

There’s a huge public debate taking place in and around Hamilton over “growth” and in particular expanding the urban boundary. A lot of money is being spent to counter this grassroots campaign to “stop sprawl”. Even the Minister of Municipal Affairs was moved to write an op-ed to put the voters of Hamilton in our place for daring to care about such matters as food, habitat, and maybe dreaming of one day walking to work.

Screenshot from The Spectator

The whole issue goes to council this month, on the ninth. However, regardless of what council chooses, the baked in reality is that Hamilton will continue to sprawl. That truth is defined by the fact that the single largest revenue source for municipalities that can be reliably grown is assessment, or property taxes. Of the sources of property tax revenue, residential, the tax on homes, is by far the largest.

For a municipality that is balancing tax increases with service cuts, revenue growth always looks good. There are several ways to increase assessment. Among them is increased market value, higher density buildings, and new single family builds. New builds are the most immediate means of raising new revenue via assessment growth. Thus, there is tremendous pressure on municipalities to permit new home builds.

Municipal Revenue By Source
Municipal revenue by source, 2018 ($ billions)
Property tax revenues by source, 2018 ($ billions)

Property tax revenues by source, 2018 ($ billions)
Source: https://www.fao-on.org/en/Blog/Publications/municipal-finances-2020

For profit, private developers predominantly build new assessment. They largely build single family housing on greenfields along with large, auto-centric power centres offering a mix of services but mostly retail. The reason developers prefer this is because it reliably makes them money. It’s just cheaper to build on greenfields. Single family homes are prioritized, in part, because that’s what governments will subsidize. In the most recent federal election, for example, the wining Liberal policy platform was heavily skewed toward home ownership when the housing crisis is driven by a lack of affordable rentals.

Because developers build assessment and because cities require new assessment to maintain programs and services and keep a lid on taxes, developers have a disproportionate influence on how and in what direction development takes place. That Ontario has a protected Greenbelt (under threat), really should inform voters on how much farmland and habitat has been lost in Southern Ontario.

“Between 1971 and 2011, cities and suburbs across Ontario grew by an average of 220%, converting 570,200 hectares of agricultural and natural land to urban development. Most of this expansion (72%) replaced high-quality farmland. From 1996 to 2016, the total farm area dropped 11% to 5.0 million hectares,” the Ontario Auditor General reported in 2019.

It gets worse than that. The same auditor general’s report states Southern Ontario has lost three quarters of its wetlands and “half of southern Ontario watersheds have less than 30% forest cover, the high-risk threshold for only marginally functional eco-systems … Essex County, has as little as 3% left and has lost 40% of its forest birds.”

These numbers (and they’re just a sampling) ought to be alarming if not frightening.

Next year’s provincial election will be fought over development and sprawl and Southern Ontario’s Greenbelt is being eyed by developers who fund elections and third party campaigns. “Eight of Ontario’s most powerful land developers own thousands of acres of prime real estate near the highway’s proposed route, according to an investigation by the Toronto Star and National Observer ,” on the proposed Highway 413.

For the opposition parties, opposing highways is not enough if the status quo otherwise remains in place. So long as property taxes and assessment growth remain the sole source of new revenues, cities will continue to sprawl and developer backed politicians will continue to build highways even as the climate emergency worsens.

It’s not just development, either. When Ford was first elected, he intervened in and disrupted Toronto’s municipal elections like the proverbial bull in a china shop. He also scrapped Toronto’s transit plans causing more chaos in a city that seems unable to develop and carry out a plan to move people and goods without political interference. With regard to the disrupted municipal election, the Supreme Court of Canada agreed, last month, with the province. In 2018, Ford’s government argued in support of his rash actions that municipalities, under Canada’s constitution, are “creatures of the legislature“. He’s right.

The fact is Canada’s constitution was adopted in 1867 when Montreal was the largest city with a population of about 200,000. Toronto had a population of 181,000. Hamilton, under 50,000. When the British North America Act was signed, 84 percent of Canadians were rural residents and cities didn’t really factor into it. Today, there are approximately seven million Canadians considered as living in rural communities versus six million for the GTA, alone. More than 80 percent of Canadians and 86 percent of Ontarians now live in urban municipalities. The Constitution, however, remains stuck in the past and with it, the governance of our cities.

“The truth is that cities have no powers. It’s not a question that cities have some powers and they need more powers. It’s that they don’t have any powers under our Constitution when it comes to municipal affairs.”

Doug Earl, Spacing Toronto

One proposal to bring some cities into the Constitution is “Charter Cities“. There exists a charter city proposal for Toronto, and some people are advocating the same for all larger municipalities. A charter city would provide cities with constitutional protections to ensure against a provincial usurpation of authority, as what happened to Toronto under Ford. Proponents believe municipalities ought to have more taxation authority and greater flexibility to borrow for infrastructure projects.

What is needed to address not only the vicious cycle of assessment growth feeding assessment growth, but a slew of urban issues, is a new deal with cities, or an Urban Agenda.

An Urban Agenda ought to be developed around establishing a new relationship between municipalities and the province. Charter cities may be part of that. The City of Toronto, for example, produces half of Ontario’s GDP yet remains a “creature of the legislature” with elections and years of planning all to be wiped away like so many pieces on a game board at the whim of a petulant premier. We need to and can do better.

Ontario requires a government willing to bring the relationship between city and province into the 21st century from the 19th. Climate change and ecological degradation is a ticking clock that doesn’t afford us any more time under a status quo of unbridled growth and consumption of farmland, habitat, and the loss of the environmental services of nature that cleans our air and water, and enriches our mental health.

For that to happen, either the NDP or Liberals must step out of their comfort zones and usual boiler plate policy making and be prepared to reform and empower municipal governance while sharing resources and revenues more equitably. And then the rest of us have to vote.

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