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Location: Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

Monday, January 28, 2008

Another Strike to Downtown

Re: Ottawa Citizen Editorial, January 24, 2008, Another Strike to Downtown

This editorial has to be one of the lamest printed by the Citizen. While reaffirming that schools are an essential part of community life and that the choice of where to live is in part a decision about where can the kids go to school, the editors excuse indecision with “neither the school boards nor the cities are exactly flush with cash” as if that makes it alright that a bumbling City Council can’t make up its collective mind or take action on just about anything. And instead of praising the school boards for thinking of the entire community context when making their decisions, the editors deride them for not being “in the urban planning business”. My opinion is that at least somebody is thinking of the whole community.

As the Citizen editors are well aware, good urban planning is much less about laying out roads and sewers and largely about systems of interlocking incentives. Those incentives motivate people and businesses to locate in or move from one area or another. Those incentives, including: the cost of land, the cost of building, the cost of infrastructure, the cost of taxes, the availability of food and retail outlets, access to quality education, public safety, local employment opportunities, the cost and convenience of public transportation, access to healthcare, the presence of recreation and entertainment facilities, as well as the sense of neighbourhood identity, can attract or discourage people from living in an area. By themselves, none of these is likely to determine a location decision, however, a combination likely will. The absence of a neighbourhood school sends a clear negative message to families with children, which StatsCan reports is almost 1/3 of Ottawa households. Thus when local school boards consider school closures it is only good stewardship to consider their broader impact on the neighbourhood because once closed a replacement school is unlikely.

The Citizen editors should also be aware that the absence of such stewardship has been a major contributing factor in the distress experienced by some US cities over the last couple of decades. There instead looking at the broad health of the community narrow planning and lax development attitudes prevailed that tolerated urban sprawl; that refused to acknowledge the priority of cheap, efficient urban transit; that allowed downtown schools to close; that encouraged business development away from the city’s core; that enacted road building and parking policies that subsidized vehicular traffic in the suburbs; and that disregarded the human impact of their planning decisions. But most of all, their decisions assumed that each aspect of community could be dealt with independently.

With their “too bad” attitude regarding the closing of downtown schools, the Citizen editors demonstrate a similar ignorance of the highly interdependent nature of community life. A disincentive to the city’s largest demographic group to locate downtown will ultimately have only negative consequences for the economy and vitality of downtown neighbourhoods as it has in US cities. Instead of criticizing the School Boards, the Citizen editors should be seizing on the closure issue as a clear demonstration of the failure of so-called local leaders to advance an integrated community development strategy.

Supposedly, members of City Council are elected to look out for the whole community and to try and balance the incessant changes that occur across the region so as to avoid the type of ‘doughnut-style’ metropolis that has occurred in many US cities. There inner cities have been emptied of wealth, beauty and hope and their outer city rings have become devoid of vitality, history, and community. Local development requires cooperative planning across many interests and a willingness by local decision makers to discard their sector blinders and look towards the broader community interest. While Council should be a forum for this type of dialogue, it remains too unfocused and too inconsistent to display such coherent leadership. Therefore, if not them then who? The school boards have stepped up and they are trying to initiate a public debate on further school closures and the future of downtown Ottawa. But if they can’t get people to think about the community as a whole who will? Certainly not City Council. And sad to say, apparently neither will the Citizen.


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