Sam Sullivan – What Am I Skating Towards? A New Wave of Urban Reform

This is Sam Sullivan's response to What are you skating towards in 2012?

A New Wave of Urban Reform

My study of the history of Canadian cities leads me to conclude that we are ready for a new wave of urban reform. Canada has had three waves of urban reform. It is possible to locate pivotal dates for each of them.

The first wave saw the formal incorporation of cities that can be seen as part of the ferment that accompanied the founding of the nation in the 1860s. The second wave was generated from the National Municipal League in the United States when they published their water shed document “A Municipal Program”. This publication attempted to apply rigorous theoretical and practical analysis to the structure of city governance. Although this was published in 1900, its first effects were felt in Canada in the 1910s. The third wave can be seen as part of the social unrest of the 1960s which included a postmodern reaction against an overreaching modernism. The 1860s, 1910s, 1960s… would lead one to expect a fourth wave of urban reform in the 2010s.

What is this reform likely to consist of?

The 1960s reform brought many wonderful values and ideas to Canadian cities but clearly not everything was positive. The negatives have only recently come to be understood. The 1960s reform resulted in a completely suburbanizing centrifugal force that delivered a highly energy intensive and land consuming urban form. The environmentalism of the day favoured a return to the land aesthetic of low-density which could be delivered by a suburban type form. The 1960s reform also promoted a “power to the people” that set market forces against human values. The natural densification that would have happened in the city cores were actively resisted contributing further to the suburbanization of the country.

Since the 1960s there have been many changes in values. The great debate about how to organize society, through central planning or through market forces, was resolved with the fall of the Berlin Wall. The world recognized that market forces did not have to be in opposition to human values. In fact central planning seemed to lead to egregious results that were worse than anything the market delivered.

Another important change in values occurred within the environmental movement. Whereas the 1960s favoured a more experiential environmental ethic in which each human would live close to nature surrounded by greenery a new biological/scientific consensus recognized that this kind of low-density “suburban” lifestyle would in fact be an ecological nightmare. Quantifiable measurements began to take precedence over existential ideals and the clear benefits of high density cities began to be recognized.

There are many other changes in values as well as improvements in understanding that may drive changes in a fourth wave of urban reform in Canada. I will be hosting a gathering in Vancouver in June that will consider a number of them. Who knows, perhaps Canada will be skating into a new period of urban reform that will see fundamental changes in the way we do cities.

Sam Sullivan is the former Mayor of Vancouver, a member of the Order of Canada, founder of the Global Civic Policy Society and Adjunct Professor at the UBC School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture.

Note: I am releasing individual essays from the collection, What are you skating towards in 2012?  on a regular basis. Upcoming contributions are by Cheryl Rose, Jacques Dufresne, Linda Perry, John Mighton, Linda Couture, Sherri Torjman and many others. You can access the accumulated essays here.

Note: Vancouver is hosting the first Cities Summit February 1st and 2nd.

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