All great rivalries feature contrasting styles as well as divergent aims. So it is with the clash of personalities that has haunted North American city-building for the last 50 years, between that callous but masterful dirt-mover Robert Moses and his bookish, bohemian antagonist Jane Jacobs.
The two 20th-century foes battled over the fate of Washington Square Park and Greenwich Village, but their real disagreement was philosophical. Mr. Moses saw cities as sides of beef to be carved up and served to the people (he famously recommended a “meat axe” to urban planners), whereas Ms. Jacobs saw them as something closer to delicate plants (“organic” was among her favourite words).
The Jacobean worldview won out. Last week, we wrote that North American voters should be wary of politicians promising more “infrastructure” than they can deliver, especially in cities. That’s largely because, in the wake of battles against urban expressways led by Ms. Jacobs and her like-minded followers in Toronto and elsewhere, erecting great public works in built-up cities has become, logistically speaking, close to impossible.
Of course, this doesn’t mean we should give up on building urban infrastructure. Instead, Canadian political leaders should look for creative ways to manage opposition and costs in order to get jackhammers in the ground.
Fortunately, not-in-my-backyardism seems to be waning, in some circles. NIMBY has become a dirty word for many urbanists who now see Ms. Jacobs as a conservative figure.
Planners should take advantage of the growing yes-in-my-city-backyard movement. Too often, the mere prospect of NIMBYism spooks urban leaders into timidity. As world-leading subway-cost watcher Alon Levy points out (we cited him last week, too), that gives transit opponents a veto they don’t even have to bother exercising.
One route around rigid local opposition is the public authority. Robert Moses was the master of this device. His Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority had the power to issue bonds for construction, collected a steady stream of revenue through tolls, and was independent from electoral politics. If Mr. Moses often abused the clout this gave him, the authority also had the focus, autonomy and money to build necessary bridges and roads.
Similar, albeit less powerful, organizations like PortsToronto and Waterfront Toronto (which gets most of its funding from government) have done some of their city’s most impressive building in recent years, notably the island airport tunnel and the renovation of Queens Quay.
Canadian city leaders should look at ways to embolden these bodies and create more of them for other areas of city development. Yes, they take some decisions out of the hands of elected officials. But democracy isn’t being served when small minorities (such as drivers who use Toronto’s eastern Gardiner Expressway and oppose its demolition) hold up projects that would benefit the city at large.
Focusing on maintenance and repairs over dramatic building projects is another good way to improve infrastructure. People will howl when roads are closed, of course, but in general upgrades to existing stock require fewer approvals than new developments.
The cost of building, of course, can be an even bigger impediment than navigating NIMBY shoals. Boston’s Big Dig underground expressway project ended up with a price tag close to $19.5-billion. Numbers like that are usually far too great to come out of general government revenues, but there, too, city leaders should look for clever shortcuts.
Los Angeles offers a recent success story. In 2016, county voters there approved a half-cent sales-tax increase to pay for subway extensions, cycling infrastructure and road improvements. The ballot measure passed with nearly 70-per-cent support, and it promises to bring in more than US$800-million for transport infrastructure every year.
The brilliance of L.A.’s approach is not only that it spreads the cost thinly but also that the benefits are widespread. Bundling money for roads, bikes and subways means no one feels they’re subsidizing services they don’t use. It’s a less divisive approach than was Toronto mayor John Tory’s unsuccessful plan to toll city highways for a transit fund.
The age of the meat axe is long gone, but building in cities still requires something stronger than the watering can. Urban politicians just need to find the right implement.