The Fourth Wave of Urban Reform

Canada has seen three waves of urban reform sweep the nation. The first saw the formal establishment of cities as self-governing corporations as a way to manage local unrest after the Rebellion of 1837. The Canadian Confederation placed cities firmly under the control of provincial governments which would lead them to become the fiscally weakest cities of developed nations and beholden to rural dominated provincial priorities. This wave was enabled by the Municipal Corporation [Baldwin] Act of 1849 but its focal point can be placed in the ferment of the founding of the Canadian Confederation in the 1860s.

The second wave had its genesis in the United States with the National Municipal League whose manifesto “A Municipal Program” was published in 1900 where it laid out principles of governance for reducing corruption and improving the efficiency and fairness of local government. It advocated at-large elections, a nonpartisan City Council and a corporate structure of government. Diffusing political power made it unlikely that local governments would have the ability to have a sustained commitment to a political agenda and this was in fact the intention. Local government was supposed to be about servicing properties and mediating disputes at a time when most of the country was rural and there was little need for politically visionary agendas. Although this wave hit different Canadian cities at different times its first effects in Canada can be dated to the 1910s.

The third wave of urban reform can be seen as a Canadian manifestation of worldwide social unrest of the 1960s that took place in the context of a global struggle of ideologies. It questioned the authority of science, global capitalism and the modernist movement in design and culture and sought to humanize urban development. Its ethos was postmodernist, rejecting the meta-narratives of the dominant modern Western culture, valuing every opinion equally.

The third wave coincided with the first of the baby boomers entering the housing market. The most politically active lived near the urban cores and their advocacy would play an important role in preventing natural densification of the central areas and increasing suburbanization. Development processes and the role of planning professionals were influenced to favor the status quo which inevitably led to an acceleration of sprawl and a dramatic increase in housing prices. Its focus on an experiential environmentalism and a distrust of capital would favor low-density development.

The three waves of urban reform of the 1860s, 1910s and 1960s, each separated by about 50 years might lead one to anticipate a fourth wave of urban reform soon. What that reform will look like and how pervasive its effects will be will depend on how prepared the fourth wave reformists will be.

A fourth wave of urban reform might seek to strengthen the role of cities from the rural dominated provincial tutelage resulting from the first wave. It would seek a more effective political agenda setting capacity that it was deprived of as a result of the second wave. It would be capable of overturning the web of postmodern planning constraints of the third wave that have prevented it from adopting a more environmentally benign, economically efficient and culturally dynamic form.

I believe that a fourth wave of urban reform would have two features : a greater sensitivity to how cities can reduce harm to the environment, and a greater role for the place of economics in city development.

In the 1960s there was a nascent environmental movement although its focus was on the human experiential side. Maintaining low densities in the city center and sprawling suburbs with large tracts of manicured grass was actually considered environmentally positive. The growth of the biological scientific environmental consensus would eventually prescribe actions that were completely counter to the earlier movement. High density low consumption cities would be favored under this paradigm.

A fourth wave of urban reform might return to the roots of cities — the markets in which goods and services were bought and sold. With the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and with it any support for a socialist command economy in academia along with a growing understanding of market economics in public policy a renewed appreciation of markets should be a dominant feature of a fourth wave.

In the 1960s there was a legitimate lack of consensus about how an economy should be organized and a real sense that capitalism was defective. The command economy was the only credible alternative but in the succeeding decades it would lose the debate with almost all command systems converting to market systems. Meanwhile capitalist economics and game theory have been probing deeper into underlying laws of human behavior and have dominated academic concerns.

Planning regimes of cities are one of the last arenas of human society which continues to embrace the command system of organization. The result has been urban sprawl, a misallocation of resources and high housing prices. As was the case in countries that had adopted the command system of economic organization, environmental, economic and social dysfunctions have been achieved under the banner of social justice.

Since the third wave of urban reform there has been a serious questioning of modern attempts to achieve rational ethical systems. These have largely failed and there has been a renewed interest in Virtue Ethics. These look to the wisdom of past ages for insights into current issues.

It is possible that a fourth wave of urban reform will feature a heightened and sophisticated environmental awareness and a greater reliance on economic analysis and market forces in the development of cities. Virtue Ethics may provide insights into this effort. The Center for Sustainable Market Urbanism is meant to explore these important shifts in values and work to see them incorporated into city culture.

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