Should we model ourselves after vibrant New York City, Paris or Hong Kong — or sprawling Atlanta? (en anglais)

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Urban congestion is attractive

Should we model ourselves after vibrant New York City, Paris or Hong Kong — or sprawling Atlanta?

By Raphaël Fischler and Norma Rantisi, Special to The Gazette June 7, 2012

Dense urban development, not big homes and large lots like this Brossard development, is a better way to go.

Dense urban development, not big homes and large lots like this Brossard development, is a better way to go.
Photograph by: John Kenney , John Kenney / THE GAZETTE

Wendell Cox’s piece on the virtues of unchecked sprawl (“Urban Sprawl gets a bad rap,” Opinion, June 1) is an ideological manifesto, not a serious piece of reflection on the future of our cities.

Its purpose is to make us believe that cities are simply engines of economic opportunity and that policies that intervene in market processes are doomed to cause economic pain and nothing else. The fact that cities are also communities and ecologies doesn’t appear to matter to Mr. Cox. That public policies can help to mitigate the negative impact of market processes appears to be irrelevant to him.

Mr. Cox’s argument is an utter simplification of a complex reality. Even his economic argument that deconcentration and high mobility are good for urban competitiveness is unfounded. Urban densities are not inimical to innovation, quite the contrary; congestion downtown is a sign of its attractiveness. Think about New York City, Paris or Hong Kong, and ask yourself if Montreal should really model itself after Atlanta in order to become more competitive.

Mr. Cox makes some claims about Montreal and other Canadian metropolitan areas to buttress his ideological views. But his assertions are not tenable.

He argues that commuting times are longer in Canadian metropolitan areas than in their U.S. counterparts because of our land-use policies. This is nonsense. If commuting times are longer in Montreal than in Dallas, it is in large part because more people here use public transit than in Texas and because we have allowed for faraway urban sprawl in an archipelago. (Commuting times for travel by car generally don’t include time walking to and from the car, or looking for a parking spot; on the other hand, commuting times for travel by public transit generally do include the time needed to walk to and from bus stops or subway stations.)

Mr. Cox also argues that the upsurge in real-estate values in Montreal is due to our policies on land development. This is nonsense as well. Despite agricultural zoning in the Montreal region, we have enough land zoned for residential development to accommodate at least 20 years’ worth of new construction. And nothing of significance was changed in our policies over the past 10 or 12 years, a period during which housing prices rose.

If anything, our municipalities have relaxed their zoning regulations to allow for more construction. The recent adoption of new growth controls by the Montreal Metropolitan Community has followed the rise in housing prices, not preceded it. This rise is due principally to economic factors: higher incomes and lower interest rates have fuelled demand for condos and homes.

We agree that wise policy-making on urban development requires weighing social, environmental and economic factors against one another.

It may be that creating a more environmentally sustainable city will increase the cost of housing per square foot, and that demand for large homes on large lots will become harder to satisfy. But the debate about such trade-offs should be conducted in a thoughtful manner, without resorting to what we contend has been manipulation and obfuscation.

Raphaël Fischler is director and associate professor at the School of Urban Planning, McGill University. Norma Rantisi is associate professor in the department of geography, planning and environment, Concordia University. The authors wrote this response on behalf of the Institut de politiques alternatives de Montréal.
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