Tuesday, January 27, 2004

The "New Deal" Goes National

For the past couple of years, there has been a growing list of individuals and organizations campaigning for a "new deal for cities" from the federal and provincial governments. It started (to the best of my knowledge, anyways) in Toronto, spearheaded in part by the Toronto Star and adopted urban guru (I believe that is now her official title, on all her stationery) Jane Jacobs. Since then, the movement has grown, with more voices added from all sides of the political spectrum, and with other municipalities picking up the theme (Winnipeg's mayor, Glen Murray, is a notable and oft-cited example). There have even been signs lately that the message has filtered through to Ottawa and Queen's Park, with Dalton McGuinty being elected in part thanks to his "choose change" mantra being applied to municipal issues, and with Paul Martin taking up the "new deal for cities" phrase (including, in his coronation speech).

This month, there is evidence that the urban issues file has finally made its way onto the national radar screen. Two weeks ago, Maclean's published a cover story on cities; it published five different covers, one for each of five different areas of the country, with the mayor of the major city in that area featured on the cover (e.g., Toronto's David Miller, Montréal's Gérald Tremblay). And last night, a major Brian Stewart documentary was featured on the National, CBC's major evening news program. It was done well, featured a number of urban players from within the political arena (e.g., Miller, Murray) and from outside (e.g., Jacobs, Toronto Star columnist Christopher Hume), and raised a number of questions.

Most significant of those questions, I think, is the issue of how this issue will play out in Canada's rural areas. Typically Canadian municipalities generate significantly more tax revenues than they receive from senior levels of government, particularly the feds; when that money is redistributed, it often tends to favour more rural areas and issues. How does it look when big, gleaming, everyone-loves-to-hate Toronto comes begging for money to fix and expand a transit system that, thanks to wallpaper and bandages, appears to work fine, while (for example) in rural Newfoundland, there's major unemployment no thanks to the moratorium on cod fishing.

The interviews in the documentary noted that it's not just about getting more taxes back from Ottawa: it's about autonomy and control of municipalities over their own operation and development, and the ability to find new sources of revenue (e.g., a hotel tax for Toronto). However, the press conference that followed the recent mayors' summit (C10 summit? M10 summit?) didn't help the perception; critics must have laughed when Miller rhymed off a wish list (full municipal exemption from the GST; acceleration of $2B in infrastructure investment, to be paid now; five cents of the gas tax; and a dedicated share of sales or income taxes) and said, "We're not asking for the world." After all, it's hard to hear about $2 billion here, $2.5 billion there, and not think of it as a very significant amount of money. (Divide it betwen all Canadian municipalities, though, and it begins to sound more realistic.)

I'm starting to ramble a bit, so I'll wrap it up. It's nice to see urban issues make mainstream, national press; it'll be interesting to see what comments are written in to the National tonight (both for and against).

Tuesday, January 20, 2004

Make Your Mondays


The Armchair Garbageman reminds me that I missed Episode 2 of Rick Mercer's Monday Report on CBC tonight.

I guess CBC needs to increase the advertising budget for their New Monday Night Prime-Time Blowout Special Lineup to remind me to watch. Of course, any more advertising for it than there already is, would probably have to entail them sending a guy over to my apartment to hit me over the head with a rubber mallet.

I did enjoy it last week, even if it did come across a bit too heavily at times, and from Armchair's description, I probably would have enjoyed it this week as well. He expresses concern about what will happen if the American right wing catches onto some of the gags pulled at W.'s expense. My first reaction to that is to say that Mercer is nothing if not universally ruthless; this week it may be a George Bush doll with assless chaps, but last week it "What would Jack Layton look like as a gay porn star?" He targeted both Gore and Bush for his "Talking To Americans" segment back in the run-up to the 2000 election (it was Bush that gave him the gem he was looking for, though).

I do see, though, that it takes one e-mail to start circulating. I remember seeing another bit on This Hour Has 22 Minutes, an "apology to Americans" done by Colin Mochrie, and thinking it was hilarious; a few months later, I see it's made an appearance as a bit of urban legend (apparently attributed to Mercer).

Canadians do seem to spend a lot of time and energy complaining that our neighbours to the south don't notice us — that desire for attention is what made Mercer's "Talking To Americans" segments such a hit (a spinning-off, re-running, re-running, re-running to death hit). I think it must be part of our psyche, along with the love/hate relationship with Toronto (which Mercer touched upon last week). Let's see if this week's Monday Report turns into "They only notice us when we don't want them to!".

(As an aside, I quite enjoy the show's webpage. As a traditionalist, I very much enjoy how they've set up an electronic medium to emulate a print medium.)

Friday, January 16, 2004

It's frickin' cold in here, Mr. Bigglesworth!

Yeah, I know, I haven't updated in a week and a half. Now with no net access at home, I thought I would type blogs in offline and simply upload them when I had net access. It hasn't quite worked out that way!

Course, I'm sure my burgeoning readership will be upset. Well, I see at least a couple of links, courtesy James Bow and Andrew Spicer, whose blogs I have been enjoying for a while now. (Thanks, guys! Someday I'll be able to edit my template well enough to return the favour...)

In the meantime, shake those winter blues and drop by Rancho Relaxo (at College and Spadina) tonight for Spookyhorse (more info on singer/guitarist Myke Mazzei's webpage). Or, if you can't make it (or if it's just too darn cold for you to head out), why not come by the Silver Dollar (same area) on Thursday, January 22nd.

Monday, January 05, 2004

905 vs. Forest Hill

While flipping through the television yesterday over lunch, I stumbled across a show on CTV called Real Estate Television. Someone in the development industry was being interviewed, and said that he had been asked by a friend, why couldn’t communities being planned today be of the same calibre as some of Toronto’s more popular old neighbourhoods, like Forest Hill or Etobicoke (he didn’t specify, but I might guess that’s a reference to the Kingsway).

I missed the first part of his answer, due to static on my TV, but he basically said that, give today’s subdivisions twenty or thirty years, and they’ll be better than those old, revered neighbourhoods. After all, when Forest Hill was built, all the mature-growth trees we see there today were just young saplings; we need to give the new vegetation in those neighbourhoods two or three decades to grow (hmmm ... co-incidentally, the approximate length of a typical mortgage). And, what’s more, today’s new homes are so much better than older homes, because of better construction techniques.

Certainly both valid points, I would agree. We complain about having to rake the leaves in the autumn, but trees add a significant element to a neighbourhood — just ask the residents of northern Toronto or Halifax, who have lost large numbers of their trees this year to the Asian Longhorned Beetle and Hurricane Juan, respectively. And I would not be surprised if new design and construction techniques allowed today’s new-home buyers to get more features and higher quality for the same price.

In my opinion, that’s a pretty simplistic explanation to quickly dismiss what I think is a valid concern. Part of this has to do with the appearance of the house. The interviewee made the point that houses designed back in the 1980’s had the appearance of being dominated by the garage, whereas those being designed today don’t have that problem — but this statement was ironically voiced over a shot of a typical new subdivision, being filmed from a vehicle driving down a street, showing a dozen or so houses under construction, all dominated in front (at least to my eyes) by garages. And while developers have made some effort to increase the variety in home design, subdivisions still seem to have the sense of sameness to them; I suspect developers have determined a narrow range of design styles that are most popular with buyers, and asked their architects to conform to that range, with the result being more of the status quo.

Even those points aren’t all that significant in explaining why older neighbourhoods have more appeal, though. After all, mass production in design isn’t anything new: witness the post-war prefabricated housing boom, or even any number of Victorian-era streets in Toronto with remarkably similar house designs. Where these explanations all fail is in their foci on the house. The question was not of the individual houses or lots, but of the neighbourhoods, and that is where we must look for the answer — and not just to the residential uses. We must look to the scale of the neighbourhoods — how often they are broken up visually and functionally with auxiliary uses, such as schools, churches, parks, and shopping areas — and the scale and function of those non-residential uses, especially shopping areas. (More on this another day.) Sometimes I have to wonder if subdivision developers — and new-home buyers — are so fixated on the individual homes, that they only think of these auxiliary uses as an afterthought. I would argue it should be the other way around: when you have a vision of how the entire community should look and operate — including non-residential uses — then you can design or look for the specific individual house.

Friday, January 02, 2004

Happy New Year...

...spent in the back of a U-Haul. From about 11 in the morning December 31, when we picked it up in Hamilton, to about 11 at night, when we returned it in the east end of Toronto. For the most part, it went off without a hitch (pun partially intended). I managed to drive the truck through the narrow streets of the Beach without hitting anything or anyone, and even accomplished the nifty trick of backing onto the sidewalk (intentionally) so we could unload.

The biggest problem was the amount of crap I seem to have accumulated. This being my first completely unfurnished apartment, I'm not used to having to bring much more furniture than my bed, dresser and desk. I brought my grandparents' old hi-fi (from the 70's, when a stereo system was designed to be a piece of furniture), and didn't realize how damn heavy it is. My arms and legs still feel it 24 hours later!

The best news, though: I was so pleased to be reminded how convenient shopping is in the Beach. Craving something to drink, Philippa and I simply walked across the street to the convenience store. Literally across the street. I'm going to like it here, I think...