How to Fix Cities and Make Them More Affordable

Philosophers from Aristotle to Montesquieu argue that a distribution of powers is essential to good government.

This ‘mixed government’ should balance democratic and non democratic elements. The British constitutional monarchy we follow in Canada is inspired by Aristotle and mirrors other successful countries. Montesqieu identifies an executive, to administer, a legislative to make laws and a judicial to interpret those laws.

City governments in early Canada were given an unsophisticated structure without executive or judicial bodies. All functions were simply given to the legislative, City Council. In Canada, executive power is not exercised by the Mayor, as in great cities like London and New York; this often defaults to the bureaucracy.

Most cities have no separate judicial body at all. City Councils sit in judgment at disciplinary meetings and public hearings. They not only legislate on overall development but also judge specific proposals. Because of this, small interest groups can prevent decisions that would lead to a healthier city overall. Opposition to change can lead to high house prices and sprawl. And legislators sense a conflict of interest when they seek funding or votes from the people they will judge.

At the Federal level, Parliament makes the law. But only a judge can determine whether an action is covered by that law. City Council creates the law around overall development. Should a separate judicial body decide whether a specific project meets the standards legislated by the Council?


Vancouver has a judicial tribunal called the Development Permit Board although its voting members are from the bureaucratic Executive. It makes important city development decisions with great success. If the membership of this Board were less connected to the bureaucracy and its scope expanded could it provide the distributed powers required for better government?

Vancouver once had Executive Mayors when they chaired the three-member Board of Administration. The Mayor was temporarily removed following a political dispute, then never replaced. A later City Council wanted to take back executive power from the bureaucracy. It reduced the Board of Administration to one person called the City Manager and appointed an elected City Councillor named Fritz Bowers.

Could the wisdom of the philosophers lead us to redesign and improve city government? Could a distributed judicial function and executive powers for the Mayor lead to a better city?

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