Thursday, April 23rd, 2015

What’s the Perfect Size For a City?

My latest post is online over at The Guardian. It’s called “What’s the perfect size for a city?” It is an expanded look at the right scale of regional governance – small box cities, large regional governments, etc. This goes beyond the United States to take a more expanded global view, incorporating some recent findings from the OECD and World Bank. Here’s an excerpt:

“Often, administrative boundaries between municipalities are based on centuries-old borders that do not correspond to contemporary patterns of human settlement and economic activity,” the OECD observed in a recent report. The thinktank argued that governance structures failed to reflect modern realities of metropolitan life into account.

Behind the report’s dry prose lies a real problem. Fragmentation affects a whole range of things, including the economy. The OECD estimates that for regions of equal population, doubling the number of governments reduces productivity by 6%. It recommends reducing this effect with a regional coordinating body, which can also reduce sprawl, increase public transport satisfaction (by 14 percentage points, apparently) and improve air quality.

The World Bank, meanwhile, is worried about the way rapid growth in developing cities has created fragmentation there, too. Metropolises often sprawl well beyond government boundaries: Jakarta, for example, has spread into three separate provinces. The World Bank calls fragmentation “a significant challenge in the East Asia region”.

Click through to read the whole thing.

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Topics: Public Policy, Regionalism, Strategic Planning, Transportation
Cities: Hong Kong, London, New York, St. Louis, Toronto

Wednesday, November 27th, 2013

The Rob Ford Chronicles

It’s Thanksgiving week here in the US, and I’ll be off until after the holiday. But I figure, what better to leave you with than a little humor at Canada’s expense?

First, Saturday Night Live’s take on Rob Ford. The embed likely won’t show in a reader or such, so to watch, click here.

And next, Chris Farley stars in Rob Ford the Movie. If the video doesn’t display for you, click here.

Incidentally, although the crack video has now been found, I stand by my previous assertions that dubious reporting and the underhanded ways people tried to get Ford removed from office were wrong. In fact, I think they fuel the persecution complex that helps explain why even today Ford is more popular in Toronto than President Obama and Congress are here.

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Cities: Toronto

Sunday, June 9th, 2013

The Mad Drive to Subvert Democracy in Toronto

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford. Photo via Wikipedia

Let me stipulate that I think Toronto’s Rob Ford is a terrible mayor. In fact, while I might not go so far as Richard Florida, who labeled Ford “the worst mayor in the modern history of cities, an avatar for all that is small-bore and destructive of the urban fabric, and the most anti-urban mayor ever to preside over a big city,” I’m willing to say he’s probably in the running for the title.

The roots of Rob Ford lie in “amalgamation,” the forcible merging of the city of Toronto government with various of its suburbs by the Ontario provincial government. The idea was cost savings, but of course costs went up. Also, it created a Mars-Venus situation that ultimately led to Ford, a former city councilor in Etobicoke, being elected mayor. This would be like a consolidation of Chicago with Cook County in which a member of the Schaumburg city council ended up mayor. Not good. The urban intelligentsia that despises Ford now find themselves in the embarrassing position of having to explain to their friends that they are in total agreement with Wendell Cox, an implacable foe of government consolidations, who predicted these results.

But there’s a big difference between Florida’s bashing of Ford, which falls within the principles of democratic discourse as we’ve come to know it, and what appears to be an effort by some to subvert democracy by finding any pretext to run Rob Ford out of office.

I’m not sure where the idea that the loser in an election tries to undermine the legitimacy of the government of the winner came from. But in the modern era it could be the Republican impeachment of Bill Clinton that launched it. This quickly proved to be standard fare. There was the brouhaha over the “selected not elected” George W. Bush as well as the more passionate strain of “birthers” when it comes to President Obama. Given that, especially in the big leagues, there is always some dirtiness in politics, it’s easy to find things to seize upon to claim someone’s holding of an office is invalid. After all, it appears that Clinton really did commit perjury and there was shall we say some murkiness down in Florida. However, these aren’t truly what the people raising a ruckus cared about. What they cared about was the man in office they didn’t like – and getting him out of it.

Canada has a reputation as a kinder, gentler nation, but they now appear to have imported from America what Clinton labeled “the politics of personal destruction.” Rob Ford has been the target of a series of vicious attacks, generally aided and abetted (if not outright instigated) by the old city Toronto media that clearly don’t like him, designed to drive him out of office.

One was a lawsuit that claimed he should be tossed out of office because of events related to his using official letterhead and such to raise $3,500 for a charity. Believe it or not, the trial judge actually agreed with this and ordered him removed from office. If that’s the threshold for getting someone kicked out of office, I dare say every major politician in America would be gone. Yes, politicians do often use affiliated charities as a, shall we say, lubricating mechanism. Yes, there’s the appearance or even the reality of some impropriety in these things. But this is such small fry stuff that to throw the mayor of the biggest city in the country out of office over it defies belief. If you think this is removal worthy, I’m confident I can find something just as bad in almost any politician that you actually like. Fortunately, saner heads at the appeals level prevailed and the ruling was overturned.

Recently we’ve also seen reports originating from, I kid you not, Gawker, in which some shady Somalis supposedly showed a reporter a cell phone video of Rob Ford smoking crack. Shortly thereafter the Toronto Star got in on the act, saying their reporters had seen the video in the back seat of the car, though with the CYA proviso that they had “no way to verify the authenticity of the video.” Other media that may not have directly originated such a story have piled on and thus there’s a firestorm awhirl.

Where is the video, you might ask? Good question. Supposedly it’s for sale for $200K but oddly no one snapped it up, not even one of the extremely wealthy Ford haters that Toronto has in abundance. So you want to buy it? Oh, Gawker now tell us it might be “gone.” Hmmm…..

I’m not saying there’s no video. Rob Ford has certainly acted like he’s guilty of something. But it seems amazing to me that in this era in which all types of tapes and documents spontaneously get loose, this one is no where to be found. Also, the idea of the mayor of Toronto smoking crack with a bunch of Somalis while they film him falls into the “extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof” category. The still photo is interesting, but I’ve seen many compromising photos of mayors, who are routinely snapped with all sorts of random people who they may find out later are unsavory characters. I can’t imagine this sort of media feeding frenzy over say, similar allegations against Michael Bloomberg or Rahm Emanuel.

The Toronto Globe and Mail is a serious newspaper that’s roughly Canada’s New York Times. Though they didn’t break the video story, they did follow-up with a rather tabloidesque article about the history of Rob Ford’s family with drugs. Ford’s brother Doug, the focus of the piece, is on the city council himself, so is a legitimate investigative target so to speak, but the piece also digs into other family members.

Not only is the Globe and Mail digging up dirt on Rob Ford’s family, this piece did it entirely with anonymous sources. They claimed to talk to no fewer than ten people who called Doug Ford a drug-dealer, but curiously none of them were willing to talk on the record. That didn’t stop the Globe and Mail from reporting:

Ten people who grew up with Doug Ford – a group that includes two former hashish suppliers, three street-level drug dealers and a number of casual users of hash – have described in a series of interviews how for several years Mr. Ford was a go-to dealer of hash. These sources had varying degrees of knowledge of his activities: Some said they purchased hash directly from him, some said they supplied him, while others said they observed him handling large quantities of the drug.

The events they described took place years ago, but as mayor, Rob Ford has surrounded himself with people from his past. Most recently he hired someone for his office whose long history with the Fords, the sources said, includes selling hashish with the mayor’s brother.

There’s nothing on the public record that The Globe has accessed that shows Doug Ford has ever been criminally charged for illegal drug possession or trafficking. But some of the sources said that, in the affluent pocket of Etobicoke where the Fords grew up, he was someone who sold not only to users and street-level dealers, but to dealers one rung higher than those on the street. His tenure as a dealer, many of the sources say, lasted about seven years until 1986, the year he turned 22. “That was his heyday,” said “Robert,” one of the former drug dealers who agreed to an interview on the condition he not be identified by name.

Upon being approached, the sources declined to speak if identified, saying they feared the consequences of outing themselves as former users and sellers of illegal drugs.

The Globe also tried to contact retired police officers who investigated drugs in the area at the time. One said he had no recollection of encountering the Fords.

The article is full of innuendo about the Ford’s such as the idea that Rob Ford recently hired a drug dealing associate of Doug’s from the old days (highlighted above), along with curious mentions and links to beatings, killings, and white supremacy/KKK. (Rob Ford is a white supremacist who likes to smoke crack with Somalis???) It’s capped off by having various anonymous sources given pseudonyms so that they appear to be actual people on the record. As this excerpt notes, the police record and police contacts don’t back up the story, which just adds to the general notion of dubiosity and suggests this is a very exaggerated piece that tries to throw things to the wall to see what sticks.

All it all, given the extreme reactions to financial dealings that, even if they were proven, would have been a non-issue almost anywhere else, along with a firestorm of allegations about smoking crack and so much more with no actual proof, the Rob Ford affair has thus far generated much more smoke than fire.

Rob Ford is the price Toronto is paying for the foolishness of the provincial government and the failure of an urban candidate to offer a compelling vision for the entire amalgamated city. But it strikes me very much that a group of old Toronto city partisans, who are incensed a guy like Ford had the temerity to win an election, are determined to use any means necessary to correct what they see is that injustice. But just as with what happened in America and its politics in the wake of the Clinton impeachment, Canada may come to rue the day a group of its citizens decided to try to overturn an election by destroying the winner rather than waiting for their next opportunity at the ballot box.

Saturday, May 11th, 2013

Casinos Are City Ruiners by Richard Florida

[ Yesterday’s article on casinos was inspired by a Richard Florida piece bashing a proposal for a new casino in Toronto. Since it was published in a Canadian web site, many American and global readers may not have seen it, so I’m grateful he gave me permission to repost it here – Aaron. ]

The debate over a casino in downtown Toronto is coming to a head. Mayor Rob Ford’s executive committee of Toronto City Council voted 9-4 in favour of a downtown casino, putting the ultimate fate of the casino before a vote of the full City Council.

Ford said he was “optimistic” Toronto will ultimately get a downtown casino, according to the Globe and Mail. “Nine votes, I think that’s a good beginning.”

Fortunately, a majority or near majority of Toronto’s councillors are on record as being opposed to a downtown casino, according to recent reports.

If Council votes no, the mayor said he will take the issue directly to the voters. “It’s either no or yes. If it’s a yes, thank you very much, appreciate your support for creating 10,000 good-paying jobs,” Ford said on Monday. “And if it’s a no, then I guess that becomes an election issue.” But he backtracked on this on Tuesday, saying that: “It’s not an election issue. They are just going have to explain to the voters why they didn’t create 10,000 good-paying jobs. I want to deal with it this year. I’m optimistic. People are seeing the light.”

Ford and the nine committee members who voted yes are not the only ones people pushing for a downtown casino. Key elements of Toronto’s business leadership have either been active cheerleaders for it, quietly supportive, or eerily mum.

You have to ask yourself, why?

Toronto’s business leaders like to think that they are helping to build a great global city, but casino building is city-ruining of the highest order. Virtually every serious study that has ever been done of the economic impacts of casinos shows that their costs far exceed their benefits and that they are a poor use of precious downtown land. A downtown casino will tear holes in Toronto’s urban fabric, create more costs than benefits, and as surely as if it’s holding up a giant sign, will send the message that Toronto is on the wrong track. As the architecture critic Christopher Hume put it a while back: “Torontonians have made it clear they’re not interested.” He added, “the beauty of this city now is that it doesn’t need a casino, let alone want one. In fact the casino needs Toronto more than the city needs it.”

I had my chance to vent about casino gambling in Toronto in the Star last spring. “About one thing,” I wrote, “urbanists across the ideological spectrum are unanimous. And that is that building casinos, especially in an already thriving downtown, is a truly terrible idea.” My colleague Kevin Stolarick put it best: “Adding a casino to Toronto will not make it a ‘world-class’ city. It will make it second class.”

David Olive, the business columnist of the Toronto Star, recently wrote that in the “Toronto casino debate, it’s time to walk away from the table.” Citing a March study by my research team at the University of Toronto’s Martin Prosperity Institute, he writes that:

“The turning point in the interminable debate over a new casino resort in downtown Toronto will be, one hopes, the astonishing report released March 12 by the Martin Prosperity Institute (MPI) at the University of Toronto.

“The MPI found that a casino makes little — if any — sense for the GTA. And it implies that the slick lobbyists employed by casino advocates Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp. (OLG) and its private partners are betting on what they hope is widespread gullibility among Torontonians.

“The MPI report knocks the stuffing out of the casino advocates’ bloated claims of renewed economic vitality in a GTA that, in fact, is already thriving — a rare metropolis to boast the status of North America’s fastest-growing city twice in the past half century (currently and in the 1960s and 1970s).

“The Martin Prosperity Institute is an extension of the business school at U of T. As such, it is pro-business and has a vested interest, for the sake of attracting the best and brightest students worldwide, in the GTA’s economic stardom.

If a new downtown casino, as proposed, could help advance MPI’s interests, the think tank would be a cheerleader for it. Instead, in remarkably blunt language, the business and urban-economy experts at MPI conclude that the casino champions have simply generated a blizzard of numbers, ‘all of them meaningless’ and conveyed in a ‘remarkably skewed’ and ‘misleading manner.'”

The Globe and Mail’s Margaret Wente dubbed Toronto’s casino push, a “dead man’s hand,” pointing out: “Casinos aren’t for cities on their way up. They’re for cities out of options.”

Toronto is hardly unique in the push for casinos. Mega-casino moguls and developers like Sheldon Adelson and Malaysia’s Genting Group are proposing lavish billion-dollar casino complexes in cities across the globe. I called it “the casinoization of everywhere” in an oped in the New York Daily News — the latest manifestation of what the late Susan Strange aptly dubbed “casino capitalism.”

In the U.S. alone, gambling generates roughly $90-billion in annual revenues, a figure that is projected to expand to $115-billion by 2015. Faced with the prospect of laying off teachers, firemen, and policemen, it looks like manna to cash-starved cities and metros. But if there’s one truth we know about casinos, it’s that the house always wins. Casinos generate mega-profits for their developer-owners, who don’t have to deal with the myriads of problems they cause for the cities in which they are located.

Gamblers might fool themselves into thinking that they can get something for nothing, but cities and governments should know better. For all the ostensible billions in tax revenue, spillovers from increased tourism, and higher property values casinos supposedly generate, when all the social, moral, and monetary costs that they levy on cities are added up, they have almost always proven themselves to be financial and economic disasters.

Most of the outspoken opposition to Toronto’s casino has come from academics like me, journalists, religious groups, and civic activists. Toronto’s business leaders have been conspicuously mum on the subject — and on Mayor Rob Ford’s small-minded, anti-urban agenda. In addition to holding the mayor, pro-casino councillors, and the OLG accountable, civically-minded Torontonians should be asking where the city’s business and political leadership stands. Especially when you consider how many of the most outspoken opponents of casinos in other cities have turned out to be prominent business leaders.

A case in point is Warren Buffet, the über-successful investor. “I’m not a prude about it,” he said in 2007, “but to a large extent gambling is a tax on ignorance. I find it socially revolting when a government preys on the weakness of its citizenry rather than serving them. When a government makes it easy to take their Social Security and start pulling handles or playing lotto, it’s a pretty cynical act…. It receives taxes on the backs of those dreaming of a car or colour TV….it’s not government at its best.” When casino gambling was proposed in his home state of Nebraska, he took to the airwaves to oppose it, as seen in the above Fireside Chat.

The same is true of the Florida billionaire Norman Braman, the former owner of the Philadelphia Eagles, who vehemently opposes destination mega-casinos in South Florida. “If you open the door to casinos,” he told the journalist Eliott Rodriguez in the television interview posted above, “you are opening the door to crime and creating more unemployment. No proponent of casino gambling can name any place in the United States where casinos have revitalized a community. Actually, it’s had the opposite effect.” To Dylan Ratigan (the video is posted below) he said, “If you look at all the statistics concerning casinos throughout the United States, whether they’re riverboat or permanent, after three to five years, almost two jobs are lost for every one that’s created.” He makes an important point. As in Singapore, most places that introduce gambling see a quick upward spike, followed by a steep decline. Casino lobbyists prefer to talk about their early successes.

When all is said and done, gambling is one of the most regressive ways to generate public revenue and one of the least productive uses of money imaginable — it takes the most from the people who can afford it the least.

A glitzy mega-casino in the heart of downtown would be a direct affront to Toronto’s brand as a well-managed city of builders and investors. Taken together with Mayor Ford’s bizarre statements on gay rights, his move to abolish bike lanes, and the numerous scandals that surround him, it couldn’t but have a seriously deleterious effect on the city’s ability to attract people and thus on its long-run economic prosperity. As I told the Globe and Mail recently: “Casinos are brand killers. People in the outside world would say, ‘Toronto is a great city, so why are they putting a casino there?’ “

For everyone who’s concerned about Toronto’s future, it’s time to take score. Not just of who’s been in favour of such a city-ruining monstrosity and who’s been opposed to it, but who among the city’s so-called leaders have sat quietly on the sidelines.

This article originally appeared in The Huffington Post Canada on April 17, 2013.

Wednesday, January 23rd, 2013

Toronto: City Rising

This week’s video is from Toronto and is called “City Rising.” This is another one best viewed in full screen high definition. If the video doesn’t display for you, click here.

Wednesday, October 26th, 2011

Toronto Tempo

Reader Steven Lee passed along this nice time lapse of Toronto. As I’m a sucker for these things, here it is for your viewing pleasure. (If the video doesn’t display, click here).

The Urban State of Mind: Meditations on the City is the first Urbanophile e-book, featuring provocative essays on the key issues facing our cities, including innovation, talent attraction and brain drain, global soft power, sustainability, economic development, and localism. Included are 28 carefully curated essays out of nearly 1,200 posts in the first seven years of the Urbanophile, plus 9 original pieces. It's great for anyone who cares about our cities.

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Aaron M. Renn is an opinion-leading urban analyst, consultant, speaker, and writer on a mission to help America’s cities thrive and find sustainable success in the 21st century.

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