Cities for people

Post by Eric Mang in ,


Toronto sprawl
Sprawling Toronto: where's the leadership in this?

We scribblers at disagree on some things. At times, our disagreements make this site interesting and illustrate that we do not hold homogeneous opinions. I know that some people come to read us, confirmation biases firmly entrenched, disappointed that we don’t all think the same, but our differences become our strengths (or something like that. I think a drill sergeant yelled that into my face once).

However, there are two things that make most on the Crew furious and melancholy: sprawl and unsustainable living.

This isn’t an ideological issue; rather, Daniel, Mike and I embrace evidence. The preponderance of scientific evidence finds that there are anthropogenic causes to climate change (and to ignore the preponderance of scientific evidence removes one from skepticism and dumps one in the camp of ideological deniers); that potable water supplies are not unlimited; that oil and gas are finite fossil fuels; that airborne pollutants augment and foment chronic disease, particularly respiratory disorders; that sprawl is an environmental catastrophe. You don’t have to be on the left or right to recognize what science is telling us.

Unfortunately, the scientifically illiterate (e.g. those who don’t dispute the physics keeping an airplane aloft but feebly try to rebut evolution without a shred of scientific proof or understanding) are boisterous, well-funded and know the public’s appetite for good stories.

Humans wrestle with probability and statistics but love a ripping yarn. This is why people buy lotto tickets or hear one story (the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine “causes” autism) and statistical proof or empirical evidence don’t easily change their minds (the MMR-autism issue has been so thoroughly debunked, it’s sad to see it persist. Those who “believe” it to be true are victims of a logical fallacy called post hoc ergo propter hoc).

So when we are told that we need to reduce our carbon footprints, that we need to make our cities more habitable by reducing cars on the road and improving cycling lanes and public transit, that we need to staunch sprawl, that we need to stop wasting water, there are a few chest-thumping libertarians who simply will not be told what to do no matter the evidence.

This was supposed to be a short intro for this excellent opinion piece by the Toronto Star’s Christopher Hume titled "Wake Up and Smell the Exhaust." But it got away on me. Here's a sample of Hume's argument:

Let's look instead to cities that lead, cities that are reinventing themselves as places where people live because they want to not because they must, places that are remaking themselves in the image of a human being, not a car, places that offer quality of life not just low taxes.

Cities as disparate as New York, London, Stockholm, Copenhagen and now Sydney, Australia, are moving to reclaim their public realm for people. Historic squares that were turned into parking lots in the years after World War II are now being returned to pedestrians. Café life in Copenhagen, for instance, which didn't exist 40 years ago, now flourishes. And, yes, they know what winter is.

Whole precincts in these communities and others have been set aside as pedestrian zones. And local merchants notwithstanding, business prospers in these designated areas.

Toronto, meanwhile, has been too scared to do anything more than close off a street here and there for a day or two.

So in the spirit of a more relaxed August-minded (august?) urban affairs blog, I strongly urge that you read the Hume piece in its entirety. And of course come back to for more thoughtful debate about sustainability.


Glad to see that this current spans the entire CityCaucus. But please don't slag the 'chest-thumping libertarians' without due cause. True libertarians do (or should) chafe at the myriad of zoning and parking regulations that the state uses to mandate car-oriented forms of development and to prevent (or at the very least discourage) more urban forms of development.

Interestingly enough, Jane Jacobs is quite the star among the libertarian crowd, too, for her love of the small and her insistence that urban neighbourhoods be left unfettered by misguided planning.

Principled conservatives and libertarians want to see individuals and the market figure it out and are opposed to all kinds of 'social interventionism', including the kind that requires parking, or insists on separating different land uses.

See for an interview with Reason Magazine or for right/libertarian-ish interviews with her, and realise just how hard she is to pin down!

Hey Des,

Thanks for this and for the links.

Perhaps I shouldn't have used "libertarian". In North America, it's a term most associated with those on the right who support an unfettered, free market and are pro-property (incidentally, the market has not done a very good job "figuring" things out for many humans, especially lower income and those living in poverty) but traditionally, it is a term used to describe anarchists, communists and socialists.

Left libertarians and libertarian socialists want equal freedom to the tools of production and want to see large, meddling institutions eliminated or reduced in scope. Libertarian socialists want to see the end of private property, while left libertarians (like Noam Chomsky), want equal distribution of resources and income redistribution.

But since this definition of libertarianism is used more in Europe than in Canada and the US, I figured that I would be safe using this label. But perhaps I was wrong to do so.

Jacobs is sometimes seen to be left libertarian. But some of her politics may have come off as syncretic.

Appreciate the comments and I hope this reply helps clarify my post.

Eric- thanks kindly for the reply. I definitely appreciate your recent coverage of the strike in Toronto and the breadth of issues that you guys look at in general. But again to pick a bone, libertarians "who support an unfettered, free market and are pro-property" would/should be aghast at the way in which the city-building 'market' is neither unfettered nor free, and has all kinds of niggling little rules and such (eg minimum parking requirements) that result in car-oriented forms of development. On rare occasions, heroic interventions by some planners/developers/architects can sometimes manage to circumvent these rules.

As to what would happen if there were no rules, hmmm... dunno if that's a good idea either. But a real libertarian'd be mighty choked with the current set. It'd be a very interesting project to try to understand what rules were in place when some of our most cherished mixed-use, pedestrian-oriented urban neighbourhoods (I'm thinking Gastown, the Exchange district, Kensington Market, the Plateau, Saint-Roch, etc) were first built up. I'd be surprised if those builders were obligated to provide a parking space for every dwelling...

Thanks for the good effort/coverage/takes...

To Des's point, much of the worst and least organic development in sprawling cities happened because regulations required sprawl or create disincentives for renewal, not the other way around. That's still the case in many cities. I get tired of the finger-pointing and label-pointing - "libertarian" and "socialist" and "conservative" are more brands now than words with meaning - but there are villains on all sides of the urban planning debate, not least those who believed too much planning was the correct substitute for too little.

But I also think it's important on this issue to realize just how slow it is to turn. That photo of downtown Toronto might look like sprawl hell from where you all sit, but I don't see it that way. I used to live in a building that's visible in that picture, and having seen Toronto change, I can tell you that there are FAR more residential towers visible in that shot than would have been there even fifteen years before, and even in recession, downtown Toronto is vibrant enough that there is reasonable hope for more density in the future.

Can't say that about too many cities in North America, so whether it's "leadership" or something else, the City of Toronto proper is far from the first example of cities I'd pick on for this topic.

Hey Brian,

I agree with your comments (I don't choose the photos or captions that go with my stories. Indeed, I used to work at the corner of King and University, which can be seen in the lower right in the photo. High density living has been a boon for TO).

Toronto has done some remarkable things in terms of sustainability, but I agree with Hume that we need to do more to make our cities better places for people. More greenspace, more cycling paths, more pedestrian malls, close down sections of the downtown core to traffic, etc. Large pedestrian zones are critical, as Hume notes.

Too many TO councillors are still in thrall by the automobile and this is a problem. My introduction to the Hume article, while touching on sprawl, was also about sustainability and enhancing urban habitability.

Thanks again for your thoughtful comments.

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