Last month I talked about Christmas presents for politicians. Here is another: Perverse Cities by Pamela Blais, is the perfect gift for your local council member.
The book has a great subtitle: Hidden Subsidies, Wonky Policy and Urban Sprawl. It explains how councils could make our communities more efficient, more attractive and cheaper to run. They can even make us smarter.
Blais is a city planner and consultant.
She spoke at a recent conference in Hamilton called Transforming & Revitalizing Downtown. Registration cost $1,000. The book makes a better gift.
If we took Blais’ advice, not only would it make our communities more attractive and cheaper to run, it would slow global warming and reduce our environmental impact. And it would also make the North more creative. How can you resist?
Blais shows that many of our policies provide hidden subsidies for sprawl. Sprawl results in higher costs and worse family life.
It is pretty obvious, when you think about it – the farther apart people live the more roads you need to pay for, and the more time mommy and daddy spend driving back and forth. That means kids get less face time with their parents. More time with wiser, informed adults makes kids smarter.
It naturally follows that subsidizing sprawl and long commutes makes kids dumber. That is just one way stupid policies make us stupid.
Consider development fees, for example. Developers hate them, but they make new homeowners pay a larger share of the cost of servicing their properties.
This is good economics. People should pay the true cost of the services they use. If their new house will need extra miles of road and sewer expansion, they should pay more than people who buy homes where servicing is cheap.
You don’t expect to walk into Home Hardware and pay the same amount whether you take four or 40 metres of PVC tubing. Developers do.
A developer with a new property out on the edge of town pays the same fee for kilometres of sewer, sidewalk, road, water and other services as the developer who needs just metres to connect.
The development fee system is a good idea, but done badly. It is also viciously unfair. Why should smaller and more centralized projects subsidize bigger properties farther out?
Shouldn’t people who need less road and sewer get more park and other amenities for the same money? Uniform development fees transfer money to property owners on the edge of town and subsidize bigger houses for people who need more roads. Blais shows that water, sewer, electricity, gas, phone, cable pricing, and even postal prices all work to encourage sprawl.
Many of these wonky policies are easy to fix. Councils can make charges reflect the true cost to the community.
It is perfectly legal. For example, paragraph 394 of the Municipal Act allows development fees to be set based on the location, size and shape of a property.
If your councillor can’t figure the pricing, get a new councillor.
Some are not easy to fix. The Municipal Act actually forces councillors to use a stupid property tax system. Paragraph 309 says, “All taxes shall … be levied upon the whole of the assessment for real property.” Buildings and land must be taxed at exactly the same rate. The result is that we make apartment dwellers and condo owners who use little land subsidize hobby farms and big lots in the suburbs.
We also subsidize parking lots and penalize office buildings. We encourage land speculation and discourage industry. Paragraph 394 is the nemesis of good city planning, the enemy of economic development and just plain bad economics.
There is a natural economic tendency to develop where servicing is cheap.
Pamela Blais shows there is a mess of hidden subsidies and wonky policies that prevent nature from taking its course. These policies make us poorer.
They also make us dumber. Social and urban-planning activist Jane Jacobs showed that economic growth and culture are driven by people connecting with other people. That’s why cities are hotbeds of invention. Sprawl-friendly policies keep people apart. They make us less productive.
They make us stupid.