I’ve been having some fun at Westgate Books lately. A couple of weeks ago I wandered into the store looking for Saskatoon: A History in Photographs by Jeff O’Brien, Ruth Miller and William P. Delainey. They didn’t have it but the staff that was helping me went to look in the warehouse. Instead of the book I was looking for, he came up with two books, Saskatoon, the First Half Century by Don Kerr and a Saskatoon, Hub City of the West: an Illustrated History by Gail McConnell.
I looked at them and took them both. I also put my name down on a list if Saskatoon: A History in Photographs came in. A couple of days later I got a phone call that told me that my book was in and come to pick it up. Last Friday I went back to get it and it was the wrong book. It was Saskatoon: A Century in Pictures by William Duerkop, John Sarjeant and William Delainey In hindsight I kind of wondered if there was a bit of miscommunication when I ordered Saskatoon: A Century in Pictures but I looked at this book and I realized I wanted to read it as well. I had a blast all week looking at it. So has Mark.
Since I am talking about books, it looks like Gail McConnell was doing Kickstarter long before Kickstarter was a thing. The last 20 or so pages of her book is dedicated to patrons who helped pay to publish her book. Local Saskatoon businesses sponsored the project and she does a one page profile on each company. Who knew a history book could be so cutting edge.
While I was getting that book, another staff at Westgate Books went looking for the book in case they missed it and found me another book on the history of electric transit in Saskatoon. I didn’t have the money on me to get it so they put that away for me. I’ll wander by this week and get it. Now I am curious as to what other books I will find in my brief stop at the store.
I know being in the used book business is a hard business to be in but I haven’t had as much fun shopping as I have had in Westgate Books in a very long time. I hope that still counts for something.
There has been less longing, in recent years, to be part of our own country’s version of a rust belt – the one that comprises such Southwestern Ontario cities as Windsor, London and St. Catharines, and patches of Eastern Ontario. Young people have fled in droves as the region’s employment numbers have tanked, seeing the loss of more than a quarter of manufacturing jobs in the last decade.
The plight of the region has been a driving force behind a provincial deficit that remains at over $10-billion, as well as a net loss for Ontario in the migration of people within Canada, and an alarmingly aging population.
Even with Alberta driving the national economy, the country could ill afford Ontario’s struggles; it’s hardly healthy for the largest province’s per-capita GDP to be lower than the rest of Canada’s, and it helps explain why the federal government has remained in the red.
With oil’s current slide, Canada really can’t afford for it to remain a drag – and in fact there is some expectation that Ontario will instead reclaim its old role as the leader of Canada’s economic growth. Its premier, Kathleen Wynne, recently expressed optimism that plummeting oil prices and a sinking dollar will prove a boon to manufacturing. “I don’t wish for low oil prices and a low dollar for Alberta,” she said earlier this month. “But at the same time, we want our manufacturing sector to rebound. So if that [low oil price] helps, then that’s a good thing.”
While they could indeed help in the short term, it’s difficult to imagine those volatile factors leading to the lasting revival of traditional sectors competing with consistently low-cost jurisdictions such as Mexico, China and even the American South.
For sustainable renewal, Ontario’s old industrial towns will have to work harder at reinvention – and they should be looking to some of their counterparts in the U.S. A two-week road trip through Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan revealed in often surprising ways how our neighbours are much further along in reinventing their most hard-hit cities, and how much we have to learn.
“The wind is at the back of these cities in a way that it wasn’t before,” says Jennifer Vey, a fellow at the Brookings Institute who studies the revitalization of old industrial centres. And although many of them will remain smaller than in their industrial heyday, the numbers bear that sentiment out. When the Manhattan Institute ranked America’s 100 biggest U.S. metropolitan areas for their economic performance in the wake of the Great Recession, mid-size Northeastern and Midwestern cities accounted for nine of the top 20.
As Mr. Piiparinen and others are quick to stress, jobs will always be the cornerstone of any regeneration. But employers themselves can be drawn to a city by affordability and infrastructure, and like to set up shop where highly skilled people want to put down roots. The renaissance of former industrial powerhouses is fuelled by attracting and keeping well-educated, entrepreneurial citizens committed to community-building and capable of creating wealth and quality of life around them.
Of course, direct comparisons between the U.S. and Canadian experience is never exact: The places I visited tended to be larger than their Canadian counterparts; and although they may have such superior amenities as major-league sports teams and world-class museums, they also suffer from some entrenched disadvantages – notably an appalling history of race relations that has left a legacy of poverty, crime and troubled public schools.
So why is it that a younger generation is finding opportunity in these Rust Belt cities (or some of them, at least; nobody sees Flint, Mich., or Gary, Ind., as models) more than in places like London or Windsor, which have some decent bones themselves? As Ontario attempts to take back Canada’s economic reins, it would do well to learn from what’s worked, and know what it’s up against.
SYRIZA has promised to cancel the austerity measures Greece adopted as part of the bailout package and renegotiate its debt obligations. This could trigger a confrontation with Athens’ lenders in Europe and the IMF, potentially resulting in a Greek exit (or “Grexit”) from the eurozone. Prime Minister Samaras is playing up this risk. “We shed blood to take the word ‘Grexit’ away from the mouths of foreigners, and SYRIZA is bringing this word back to their mouths,” he said in a speech late last year.
It seems Samaras is getting help in this campaign from Berlin. By 2012, Merkel had decided Greece must be kept in the eurozone to mitigate the risk of a “contagion” effect that could hasten the departure of other members and threaten the common European currency. This position implied Greece had some leverage, because its exit would hurt Germany and other eurozone members, as well. Now, according to the German news magazine Der Spiegel, Merkel appears willing to accept a Greek exit, and her government is preparing for that possibility. Officially, of course, Berlin’s policy hasn’t changed: It wants to keep the eurozone intact. But it’s hard to read the unnamed “German officials” who spoke to Der Spiegel and not conclude that Germany wanted to send a message to SYRIZA that Berlin will call its bluff if Athens demands onerous concessions or scuttles austerity.
Tsipras publicly scoffs at the possibility that Greece will be forced to leave the eurozone. “We are through with the possibility of a Grexit, and there is only a Samaras-exit,” he has said—a nifty bit of sloganeering that has failed to soothe the nerves of Greeks who worry a SYRIZA victory will result in tumult between Greece and its creditors. Tsipras has tried to lessen those fears. The closer he gets to power, the softer his rhetoric has become. Only six months ago, says Economides, it looked like a SYRIZA victory would result in a Grexit. “Now they’ve talked their way out of that corner, and they’re leaving it open that they’ll do their utmost to stay in the eurozone,” he says.
London is gloriously un-plannable and horribly unplanned. From the Romans to the Romanians, the immigrant tribes who now call themselves English have been drawn to our uniquely cosmopolitan capital. This heterogeneous cultural mixture may help to explain the lack of appetite for plan-led “improvements” or urban reshaping. There is no common cultural foundation upon which to create a formal grand plan.
On my bedroom wall hangs an artist’s perspective of the plan Wren touted for the City after the Great Fire of 1666, fleshed out with buildings of classical design, looking like a beaux arts continental city. It is the first thing I see when I wake every morning and provides a constant reminder of the dangers of “master-planning”. If Wren, or any other planner, had had their way London would have ended up like Paris, Bath or Milton Keynes – architecturally inspired, but difficult to adapt to changing and unforeseeable future needs. Paris is formally planned, lacking in cultural diversity and inward-looking – no one can become a Parisian. London is unplanned, culturally diverse and a world business centre – anyone can become a Londoner.
Of course un-planning only takes you so far as the author continues. Without planning (more specifically, land use restrictions), your entire city will suffer.
But while gloriously un-plannable the capital needs to be loved if we want to avoid the phenomenon of “lights-out London”, with homes just used as boxes for spare cash. It cannot survive without careful management and subtle control. Left to untrammelled market forces it will become an unstoppable nuclear reaction. George Osborne has claimed our dizzying house price inflation as his miracle of “economic growth”. Long gone are the days when planning was the bag of a politician of intellectual calibre, such as Michael Heseltine.
He goes on
Workers and residents want comfortable accommodation near the ground, with attractive spaces and facilities close at hand. Manhattan, the City and Canary Wharf can justify building office towers because their land area is constrained and demand for commercial space high. Office towers can be built in tight, sustainable clusters. This minimises their environmental impact and maximises their economic advantage – if they are serviced by a high-capacity public transport system.
The same does not hold true for housing. The highest density residential neighbourhood in London is Chelsea, which is gloriously free of towers. In the 1970s, the Greater London Council created some of the highest density housing estates. These six- to eight-floor redbrick developments were built around the edges of their site, leaving attractive central gardens. Lillington Gardens, in Vauxhall Bridge Road, is a fine example, beautifully maintained and highly popular with its residents.
A residential development in Central London is now likely to make four to six times more profit than an office scheme. Without planning control, much-needed offices have given way to piles of “safe-deposit boxes” rising across the capital. These towers, many of dubious architectural quality, are sold off-plan to the world’s “uber-rich”, as a repository for their spare and suspect capital. The purchasers are attracted by London’s rocketing residential prices, born of our unusual fixation on home-ownership. But many chose not to live here.
Rented housing is a much more efficient use of scarce urban land, because people only rent what they need. London’s house price inflation is also being fuelled by that “buy-to-let” property boom, which has aggravated the situation by reducing the security of tenants. We need an expanded, professionally managed, residential rental sector with dependable tenant security if we are to have any chance of addressing London’s housing crisis. This would provide equal scope for development investors and the construction industry but also provide Londoners with what they need – not just a global financial laundry cum bank vault.
The Treasury now controls the policies, delighting in the destruction of the last tools of planning. The Use Classes Order has been neutered to let offices, and soon shops, be turned into homes without planning permission. Rather than stimulating the reuse of empty buildings, this measure has seen the rapid disappearance of much-needed office accommodation in prime locations. Without land-use control, planners are powerless.