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The gravy in density (Fernando Morales/Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)
The gravy in density (Fernando Morales/Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)

Jack Diamond

The gravy in land use and density Add to ...

It’s the level of services in a city that puts the urbane into urban life. It’s the quality of life of Canadian cities that ensures their competitiveness. It’s the services that our cities provide that give them their competitive edge.

The assumption that cities across Canada can somehow balance the books by eliminating what has been called gravy is clearly mistaken. Attempts to cut “fat” end up cutting muscle and bone from the urban body. Squeezing public services to address a structurally defective funding system is like raiding the piggy bank to pay a mortgage.

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Selling the family jewels, another exercise in futility, will only result in short-term gain for long-term pain. This is particularly true of the sale of social or rent-supplemented housing, a critical component of ensuring social equity, surely a Canadian value.

What municipalities need is increased revenue. But our Constitution gives no fiscal power to cities. That infrastructure planning, investment, construction, maintenance and the funding of services require long-term commitments and stable financing only makes that lack of power more acute.

While there’s little or no gravy to be found in current city operations, there’s enormous wastefulness in the form of our cities. But there are, at the federal, provincial and municipal levels, more effective means to reduce or even eliminate such excess without constitutional change.

To understand where the wastefulness exists, consider the layout of 21st-century cities. The Golden Commission analyzed the cost of operating different forms of urban configuration and found that the extra cost of operating a widespread, low-density city such as Toronto, compared with a more compact city such as Zurich or Vienna (to say nothing of Manhattan or Hong Kong), was an average of $1-billion annually over 20 years. And that was 1996!

Indeed, municipalities in which the predominant land use is that of single families or other low-density forms of accommodation find that real-estate taxes simply don’t meet the cost of providing hard (street lighting, garbage pickup etc.) and soft (libraries, parks etc.) services. To continue building cities in this way can only plunge municipalities even deeper into debt.

Given our constitutional constraints and the extent of low-density suburban growth already in place, how do we address this seemingly intractable condition?

First, the federal government could review the way in which it has provided infrastructure funding, which has not been made on the basis of the most effective long-term benefits. In 1997, Ottawa created the Canada Foundation for Innovation, with $4-billion sequestered for health care and biomedical research. Applicants compete on the basis of objectives, means and targeted outcomes. The fund has attracted the very best from around the globe and stimulated research that brings kudos to Canada and will be of enormous benefit worldwide.

Why not apply this model to infrastructure funding? The federal government could demand performance standards designed to reduce the cost of operating cities and, at the same time, improve their productivity and quality of life. Cities with proposals that best met the performance standards would win the necessary funding. Consideration of this model is particularly timely, as Ottawa is to hold talks with the provinces and cities on what a long-term infrastructure plan should look like. (The Building Canada Plan expires in 2014.)

An essential criterion might be to improve the modal split – that is, to increase the ratio of public ridership versus automobile use. Another might be to increase average residential density. (This wouldn’t mean no single-family housing, only a more balanced residential portfolio.) One result would be that investment in transit could pay its way.

Second, the provinces could introduce full cost pricing. Currently, they fund expressways, water and sewage trunk services – in effect, subsidizing the developer at the expense of the city. Such a measure would benefit the city’s configuration and its servicing costs.

And third, at the municipal level, improvements can be made through zoning and city bylaws. These could be rewritten, for example, to allow development of any land use, whether residential, commercial or industrial, only within 1,000 metres of a transit stop. This would tie land use and density to transportation capacity (Planning 101) and also ensure jobs accessibility and reduce commuting times. It also would encourage the integration of all modes of transportation across city regions.

The large parking areas now surrounding shopping centres should be rezoned to allow their development as town centres; and single-family housing should be permitted to convert to duplexes, potentially doubling the existing residential capacity without further land consumption.

If this approach is too radical, consider the alternative: Besides increasing debt, there’ll be more sprawl and needless consumption of agricultural, recreational and conservation land, yet longer commuting times, lower productivity, less efficient emergency services, more pollution and a diminished quality of life.

The efforts at all levels of government, particularly municipal, should be focused on land-use planning where the true avoidable costs are, rather than raiding the piggy bank to try short-term fixes.

Jack Diamond is a principal of Toronto-based Diamond + Schmitt Architects.

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