March 10, 2006
Charlottetown Mayor Clifford Lee wants to beautify his city. So does Toronto Mayor David Miller, Vancouver Mayor Sam Sullivan and literally hundreds of other mayors across Canada who tout beautification campaigns for their towns and cities, often with the sponsorship of the Canada Lands Company, a federal Crown corporation that’s big on beautification.
I have no quarrel with the approach taken by many of these beautifiers. Who could argue with the exhortations to “tidiness” and “floral displays” that most cities endorse through national and provincial Communities in Bloom programs? But I do offer some recommendations of my own to help the gardens grow and make us all proud.
1. Abolish property taxes. In European countries that taxed property on the basis of window size, property owners minimized glass to minimize tax. In Canada, where we tax all improvements to property and reward dilapidation with tax decreases, we likewise foster a shuttered facade: One of my neighbours has a delightful home interior, to the amazement of those who enter it for the first time. From the outside it resembles a hovel.
Property taxes also pit neighbour against neighbour, as seen in decades of battles over the gentrification of inner city communities. Rather than rejoicing that their neighbourhoods were being upgraded by newcomers with style and energy, the poor and those on fixed incomes grew fearful as rising property values – and thus rising taxes – increased their cost of living in their own homes, although they cost the city not one extra dime in services. These long-standing residents, suddenly asset rich but cash poor, and faced with the prospect of leaving their homes, took to opposing their neighbours’ improvements and often succeeded.
2. Abolish minimum parking requirements. To minimize disputes over parking – the single biggest neighbourhood complaint in any big city – politicians force property owners to provide more parking than they otherwise would and also prevent property owners from replacing their parking facilities with, say, a garden. No city beautification program would mandate more asphalt. No city should, either.
3. Abolish apartheid neighbourhoods. In most cities, the liveliest, most engaging neighbourhoods intertwine commercial and residential uses. Montreal’s vibrancy comes largely of such mixed uses. By all means, enforce bylaws to control noise and other nuisances but don’t rule out benign neighbourhood businesses through class-based zoning.
4. Decrease city planning. With rare exceptions, the handsomest districts of any city were created before the era of planners. Without rigid rules dictating setbacks from sidewalks, distances from lot lines and sizes of buildings, individual property owners continually adapted their properties to meet the changing needs of their families – an addition on the back when more children came along, a partition to form a duplex when the children left and income was needed to carry the property. The flexibility that came of minimal rules also allowed owners to manage their properties efficiently, keeping them in good repair, to the credit of the neighbourhood.
5. Privatize garbage collection. Before governments municipalized garbage collection service, homeowners had access to a range of services. In many municipalities, garbage cans would be picked up from the side or the back of the house, neatly emptied and then returned to their proper place. With the advent of government control, and an emphasis on union rules and cutbacks in service, unsightly and foul-smelling garbage is usually left overnight by the street and emptied garbage cans are generally strewn on sidewalks and front yards the following day, until residents return from work.
6. Entrench property rights. City bylaws are written to disallow almost any development of any size, forcing the developer to require city permission for virtually any proposal. This, in turn, leads to community consultations and to the politicization of all design decisions. Through this process, the designs drawn up by the greatest architects in the world are routinely trumped by neighbourhood committees that, in effect, force their own views of desirable design upon the architect and the developer. Design by committee is necessarily pedestrian. Cities become mundane.
The bottom line on beautification: Less government means more beauty. The government that steps out of areas that should properly be left to the citizenry will be doing a beautiful thing.
Lawrence Solomon, author of the forthcoming book Toronto Sprawls, is executive director of Urban Renaissance Institute and Consumer Policy Institute, divisions of Energy Probe Research Foundation.; www.urban.probeinternational.org.
A reader responds
While Mr. Solomon makes some good points regarding, in particular the perverse impacts of municipal property tax systems and neighbourhood apartheid, I take issue with his notion of reducing city planning.
Unlike days of old, when contractors built a few homes in a neighbourhood, today it is common for developers to build entire subdivisions or communities with thousands of dwellings.
Unfortunately, my own experience is that the developer in our area continually, and in a willy-nilly fashion, changes the plans to increase density. Now, a planned community of 1,700 low-rise homes will grow to 2,000 units. Such increases in density can easily overtax water and sewers, which were built according to lower-density numbers. Would anyone want their basement to fill with sewage because several neighbours decided to increase the number of families living on the property? The notion of city planning is to ensure that items like the sewers and water are available and that roads can manage the traffic.
Rather than cut out city planning, how about we promote more community pride and involvement?
David Smith, National Post, March 18, 2006