Viewpoint (November 01, 2003)

A recent issue of The Economist praised Canada’s progressive social policies, its strongly performing economy and a new spirit of risk-taking and experimentation. The editorial also noted that we need to shift power and money amongst different levels of government with the aim of strengthening our cities. Emergent political observations in Edmonton and Winnipeg reinforce the need to invest in our cities so that we can work toward strengthening a strong economic system that allows for cultural and economic forces to work in tandem.

That same week, the Edmonton Journal suggested that the Canadian Western Bank, a major asset to Edmonton, is thinking of moving its headquarters to Calgary or Vancouver. The bank’s headquarters is located on Jasper Avenue and across the street from the derelict Hudson’s Bay Company. The vacant building contributes to a deteriorated central business district, or what CEO Larry Pollock considers to be an ‘unfocused’ downtown core. Edmonton needs to think about developing a dynamic downtown, or people like Pollock will move his business elsewhere. This is a reminder that cities form a system where the importance of their cultural, physical and economic vibrancy must be recognized.

Meanwhile in Winnipeg, Mayor Glenn Murray has introduced his New Deal for Cities. Murray, a strong supporter of architecture, is advocating an initiative to redesign the way municipal services are funded. He believes in the emerging consensus among politicians, bureaucrats and architects that cities need to be empowered in order to cope with the pressures of population growth and an aging infrastructure. The New Deal proposes to shift municipal revenues away from sources that damage the economy. For example, property taxes, which penalize urban density, would be cut in half. In exchange, the city would substitute several tax sources whose revenue would vary according to the level of services consumed and introduce new taxes in areas such as energy that would spur conservation amongst homeowners and developers. Changing the sources of municipal taxes involves trade-offs but property owners could see their values increase sharply. In such a scenario, renovating a home would become more feasible. More renovations and construction could lead to better architecture for Winnipeg.

Jane Jacobs provided a critique of cities’ ability to recognize the importance of culture and creativity at a conference organized by Toronto Artscape in late October. Jacobs reminds us that cities are the engines of our economies. Perhaps Edmonton is at a tipping point for reinvigorating its downtown core and cultural identity, or it will face economic and physical deterioration. After the conference, I asked Jane Jacobs what she thought of the idea that cities could achieve greater independence from provincial governments and strengthen their economic systems and socio-cultural agendas. Jacobs responded, “you can never decentralize centrally”. With a nod to Murray, she believes that issues such as gasoline and hotel taxes are the right sources of revenues that cities should target, but will not be achieved without a fight. When cities increase financial and political independence from the provincial and federal governments, increased ways of funding public and private developments can be achieved. As cities gain greater independence, links between economics and culture will be strengthened. The future of architecture in Canada depends on our ability to encourage Winnipeg and convince Edmonton to move forward and preserve its cultural vibrancy. Ian Chodikoff