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High-rise tower-houses made of rammed earth in Sana’a, Yemen, are one indication of the infinite resourcefulness of city-dwellers. (Rex Features/Rex Feature Ltd.)
High-rise tower-houses made of rammed earth in Sana’a, Yemen, are one indication of the infinite resourcefulness of city-dwellers. (Rex Features/Rex Feature Ltd.)

New books explore why cities matter, and how we can save them Add to ...

Reviewed here: WALKABLE CITY: HOW DOWNTOWN CAN SAVE AMERICA, ONE STEP AT A TIME, by Jeff Speck (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux); CITY: A GUIDEBOOK FOR THE URBAN AGE, by P.D. Smith (Bloomsbury)

Hark, Canada, to the sound of the Great Flush of 2012.

The rumbling began with the resignations of the mayors of Quebec’s two largest cities, following allegations of systemic corruption cynical enough to turn – temporarily at least – my anger into amazement. (To give you an idea: After a senior city engineer could no longer find any more room to hide wads of banknotes in his home, he took to gambling away his kickbacks at the Casino de Montréal. “It was my way of putting this money back into the coffers of the state,” he explained to the Charbonneau Commission.)

It continued this week with the burbling of Rob Ford, mayor of this nation’s economic and demographic powerhouse, being washed out of office, perhaps permanently, following conflict-of-interest charges. The whirlpool may yet overwhelm the mayor of London, Ont., who faces conflict-of-interest charges of his own, and Winnipeg’s Sam Katz, who is set to go to court next year for allegations of fraud. The risk, of course, is that not even a cloaca maxima will be able to handle the outflow. Decades of neglect means that, in the case of my hometown of Montreal, the sewers are so rotten that most of our municipal effluvia leaches directly into the earth.

What did our cities do to deserve the kind of leaders that I, personally, wouldn’t trust to oversee a crosswalk in Cape Breton? The problem is partly a made-in-Canada one, going back to British North America Act, which made cities relatively powerless, and chronically underfunded, vassals of the provinces – meaning that, since 1867, political talent has been more likely to gravitate toward provincial or federal office. It is also, alas, a problem that afflicts all of North America, where intellectuals and opinion-leaders for too long turned their back on thinking seriously about the city and its future.

Perhaps this should come as no surprise. In the last decades of the 20th century, downtowns and inner suburbs across the continent were abandoned to their fate, like quivering urchins dropped on a Tenderloin curb, by policies that favoured freeways and sprawl. The few voices defending the intrinsic virtues of fine-grained urbanism – notably William H. Whyte in New York and Jane Jacobs of Greenwich Village, and later Toronto’s Annex – were overwhelmed by a chorus of suburban triumphalism. In Edge City (1991), Joel Garreau trumpeted the emergence of the highway-interchange non-place of office parks and subdivisions as the millennium’s quintessential metropolitan form. In The New Geography (2001), Joel Kotkin dismissed such pre-automobile cities as New York and Paris as moribund relics, touting the loop-and-lollipop street plans of car-dependent subdivisions as the natural choice of the American consumer. And in a 2002 article in the Atlantic, conservative columnist David Brooks heralded the emergence of a “paradoxical and inexplicable condition: suburban greatness.”

What a difference a decade (and a Great Recession) can make. In the United States, the suburban poor now outnumber the urban poor, and the last census revealed the residential populations of once-shrinking downtowns have, on average, swollen by 13 per cent in only 10 years. Canada’s three largest cities – which never underwent the kind of decline that hollowed out American urban centres – are experiencing an unprecedented (and, in the case of Toronto, probably unsustainable) surge in downtown condo building, and city-themed magazines like Spacing are providing a much-needed corrective to the self-image of a nation that (pace the small-town iconography of Tim Hortons ads) is overwhelmingly urban.

As the Millennial generation recolonizes such given-up-for-dead urban nabes as Brooklyn’s Red Hook, Montreal’s Saint-Henri and Philadelphia’s Northern Liberties, and their boomer parents downsize from ranch-styles to walk-ups in walkable neighbourhoods, North America may be crossing into a dangerous zone. The pro-urban discourse of the new champions of the city may soon rival their ’burb-loving predecessors for overweening hyperbole.

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