Ramblings on urban theory

Post by Eric Mang in ,


sprawling neighbourhoods

Here at CityCaucus.com, we try to keep our readers apprised of what’s happening in our City Halls, what scandals are afoot, what our elected officials are doing to improve or impoverish our cities, all served with a heaping dose of opinion.

Occasionally, we delve into ideas and theories of what makes our cities great, what makes them tick, what makes them worth living in. Sometimes these posts are slightly academic and for some, boring.

I am going to be boring.

Recently, I read a selection on theories behind urban development in Savitch and Kantor’s (2002) “Cities in the International Marketplace – The Political Economy of Urban Development in North America and Western Europe”. An interesting and worthwhile read (You may also want to check out Michael Keating’s “Comparative Urban Politics: Power and the City in the United States, Canada, Britain and France”, 1991).

Poorly planned over-development, sprawl, anti-environmental policies, uncompromising devotion to the automobile, erosion of civil liberties…These things rattle me and I scribble, sometimes too often, about them.

I thought I’d offer some of Savitch and Kantor’s ideas, and then look at them in light of a recent victory won by citizens against developers. Further, this is a clarion call to community activists who can harness certain variables, allowing the triumph of the vox populi over unelected businesses.

Savitch and Kantor help us understand that neither business nor local governments are monolithic entities. Rather, there is a significant amount of interplay between the two, where bargaining is diminished or fortified depending on the interaction of four key variables, which consider market and political forces.

These four variables integral to urban theory are: market conditions, intergovernmental support, popular control, and local culture. Savitch and Kantor divide the four variables into two categories: driving and steering variables. The driving variables, market conditions and intergovernmental support, give cities economic power and leverage over business. The steering variables, popular control and local culture, are “choices about the strategic direction of development” (p. 47). These emphasize citizen behaviour.

Savitch and Kantor conclude that when cities have more bargaining advantages, they have more control over urban development. Further, if a city has greater control over the driving variables, this gives that city bargaining power over private sector interests.

Finally, these four variables allow us to better understand the concepts of “structure” and “agency”. “Structure” describes those “fixed forces” that cannot be readily adjusted by people. For example, a city’s geographic location. Human choice and “freedom of action” is defined as “agency”.

At the beginning of 2009, the City of Toronto opposed a proposal to transform 700,000 square feet of prime real estate into a jumble of franchised businesses anchored by Wal-Mart. This proposal, located on the former Toronto Film Studios’ land, was viewed by the City and the local community as a place for the creative arts and not for Big Box stores. Further, it was felt that the presence of Big Box stores would drive up local property prices making rents for local businesses increasingly unaffordable. In a rare ruling, the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) sided with the City and denied the establishment of Wal-Mart et al on the former TFS site.

In this example, we see Savitch and Kantor’s model in play. Flagging market conditions made the protection of local businesses even more critical. Also, as the largest city in Canada and the hub of the country’s economic activity, Toronto bears some structural advantages that give it leverage when bargaining with business. The OMB is a provincial body, and when it sided with Toronto, it gave the City necessary intergovernmental support. With a vocal community group opposing the project and joining forces with the City, Toronto also held a significant share of popular control. Finally, local culture does not typically support Big Box stores. While Toronto is the centre of much of Canada’s private enterprise, its citizens are not always so enamoured with Big Business, particularly when it threatens the character of local communities.

It is worth concluding with Savitch and Kantor: “…elected political authorities gain bargaining advantages by putting together coalitions that can play a vital role in the urban development game” (p. 42).


The weak link in the chain is the human political factor.

The underlying problem with both San Francisco born David Miller and Michael Ignatieff is one of history or to be more precise a lack of history. Mr. Ignatieff was abroad for 34 years and David Miller did not live in Toronto before 1981. As a senior and Canadian born, I have found it challenging to appreciate the many facets of Canada's history and diverse cultures. I say this being a history major in university and having thirty years museum background. It is easier to understand their gaffs and naivety when approaching issues given their lack of history. Both men too seem to share a similar elitist education that was urban based in values. That is fine if they confine themselves to urban issues but sadly that is not the reality. Both feel they represent all Canadians in their actions when in reality only urban issues are dealt with. Mr. Ignatieff may be the best the Liberals can offer but sadly it is not enough. So too Mr. Miller with his limited socialist vision is not the best leader for Canada's largest city. Sadly for Canadians we have drawn the short straw with these two.


Your post seems like a big non sequitur. I know I am "rambling" about urban theory, but I didn't mean to invite rambling.

As far as Ignatieff and Miller go, I'm not a Liberal, so I'm not too chapped about the former and Miller hasn't done much that could be considered socialist.

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