Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Passage on an Urban Graveyard Train

Jack Diamond - Jack Diamond

What Makes a Successful City?


From Tuesday's Globe and Mail

A 2007 study, Mission Possible: Successful Canadian Cities, by the Conference Board of Canada, identified four cornerstones: a strong knowledge economy to attract business investment and a talented and skilled labour force; a connective physical infrastructure (i.e., a transportation system that can effectively move goods and people); environmentally sustainable growth based on sound planning and industrial ecology principles; and social cohesion, the critical components of which are attractive and accessible housing, a low crime rate, effective immigrant settlement, comprehensive cultural and entertainment amenities (not the least of which are libraries, which act as community centres as much as places to borrow books), and a strong social safety net.

These characteristics are linked and mutually reinforcing. An excellent public school system, for instance, is both a top incentive to attract and retain business investment and a key to social cohesion. Similarly, urban transportation is critical for business investment and growth as well as providing universal mobility.

Integrated mass transit systems are vital to enable low-income workers to commute to jobs that are increasingly dispersed throughout city regions. Such systems also afford low-income earners access to otherwise inaccessible recreation amenities.

Each of these cornerstones contributes to what is still Toronto’s main competitive advantage – its high quality of life.

The evidence can also be found in the Property Scoreboards, published annually by the Board of Trade. For three years in a row, Toronto has ranked high globally in labour attractiveness. In the other domain measured, economic performance, Toronto finished further down due to a lower ranking in productivity and traffic congestion. For this last factor, it was ranked worst of the cities measured.

Richard Florida’s work reinforces these findings: Attracting the creative class, ever more important in an increasingly knowledge-based economy, is dependant on a city’s quality of life and its tolerance of diversity, whether ethnic, religious or sexual orientation.

Paradoxically, those who believe that market forces should be the sole determinants of public policy, or those whose priorities are business and the economy, are among those who blunt our economic advantage. This is so because when it’s inevitably found that there’s no gravy train and thus the slogan “no tax increases, no service cuts” becomes clearly impossible, it’s to realize that service cuts – which diminish our quality of life – become the target. And there goes our competitive economic advantage.

It’s instructive that the KPMG consultants who analyzed more than 150 Toronto city services looking for waste, came up with a long list of cuts toservices. Clearly, there’s no gravy train.

Most residents are not opposed to taxes in order to preserve the services citizens need and expect in a civil society. These also happen to be the services that attract investment, provide physical and social connectivity, and ensure environmental sustainability.

It’s not tax cuts that respect taxpayer values, but respect for tax value.

In Toronto’s case, the business-minded mayor needs to be reminded that there are two sides to a ledger – expenses and revenue.

While Canada’s Constitution doesn’t give cities the fiscal powers commensurate with their tax-generating capacity and need, there’s a strong case to be made to provide an appropriate and secure revenue stream to sustain what is the greatest economic engine of our country – the city.

What’s abundantly clear is that there’s no gravy train. So the primary job of mayors countrywide is to improve the revenue side of the ledger. This can be accomplished through a judicious mixture of revenues derived from taxes, licensing fees etc. and funding from provincial and federal governments, which are themselves much funded by the city.

Any competent business person knows it’s more important to focus on the revenue side than to waste time and energy on the elimination of minor inefficiencies and costs. Focusing on a non-existent gravy train will ensure one thing only – passage on an urban graveyard train.

Jack Diamond is a founding principal of Toronto-based Diamond+Schmitt Architects.

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