I’ve noticed in the Canadian press a recent outbreak of articles about the Canadian future, possibly stimulated by the 150th birthday celebrations. It is always to be welcomed when people pay attention to the underlying trends of our urban developments, which still often go more or less unregarded, as if there were something rather improper about criticizing the ethics and operations of capitalism. But perhaps as someone who was writing about these things half a century ago, I may be permitted to remark that we still seem to be wrestling with the same problems as we were in the late 1960s.
My first essay into dealing with urban problems came in the late 1950s when I was assigned to write a series for The Montreal Star about the city’s burgeoning western suburbs --- Point Claire, Dorval, Beaconsfield and so on, when I began to spot the problems that might follow the buying and selling of privately held land, as if it were simply a commodity like any other, the major one being the constant escalation in land and house prices to the point that today in at least two Canadian cities, it is now impossible for any ordinary wage-earner to buy a property.
I was then sent as a correspondent to London, England, and that gave me an opportunity to look at the somewhat absurd British system of land ownership. In the cities it was marked by a strange system of leaseholds, the 99-year lease being perhaps the most popular, a lease that could be sub-leased any number of times, each time giving rise to an entirely unofficial payment known as “key money” which became more of a burden than the cost of the lease itself. The rural ownership situation was still frankly bordering on the feudal. Vast land-owning estates held by the rural aristocracy meant that most farms were worked by tenant farmers. Before ever coming to Canada I had worked in Britain for a small Midlands weekly newspaper, for which I wrote a weekly column featuring local farmers, and I had discovered there was still an air of touching the forelock before the master-class, at least from my class-free Antipodean point of view.
In the 1960s I had the chance to examine how they handled things in Scandinavia, and I began to realize how much social change depends upon support from an educated electorate. One nugget that stuck with me was that in 1923, a Conservative city government in Stockholm bought all the urban land on which, twenty or thirty years later, the nation’s socialist governments were able to build the impressive satellite cities that nowadays ring the beautiful capital city. This of course, was just one item in a national programme of dovetailed policies that could be described as social democratic. They made a significant effort to maintain house prices and rents at a level that was affordable, using a complex formula that one would need to be a skilled mathematician to understand properly. They adopted measures designed to take the curse off the idea of public housing, which is such a significant part of the Canadian and American urban ethos. In Sweden, having built thousands of apartments, they rented them to tenants, some of whom were subsidized because of their lower incomes, and some of whom were not. Since no one could be sure whether their neighbours were among those being subsidized, the entire housing complex never was tabbed as public housing with all the disadvantages associated with that expression on this side of the Atlantic, with its history of building “the projects” that seem almost from the first to be destined to become urban slums.
In Sweden also, they had a traditional concept called “Everyman’s right” under which any person could legally approach any piece of land or structure to within a specified distance, on condition that they behaved themselves according to a widely accepted code of ethics. I struck something similar in Britain, where one traditional way in which lands were made accessible to the public was through use. In other words, if there was a piece of land --- the Inns of Court in London are an example --- that had been open to the public for generations, it was thereby declared to be land of public access. Britain was, and I presume still is, criss-crossed by a system of walking paths established across what would otherwise be private holdings, but that are recognized as paths open without question to public use. In that way, too, the great parks of central London, which were originally Royal holdings, fell open to public use because the public had always used them. (In Ottawa when Governor-general Jeanne Sauve closed her residence to the public, I argued that we had the right to use it because we had been doing so since before Canada was a nation, playing cricket thereon. I said her action was the most reactionary government action in relation to open space since Henry VIII.)
In opposition to this, of course was the contrary method in which private landowners, among whom were the vast estates of various nobility, would build a square of graceful identical housing around an area of open land that in the 1960s was still, in many places, restricted for the use of the tenants in the surrounding buildings. When the Labour government was elected in 1945 it made strenuous efforts to open these squares to the general public: some of these efforts succeeded --- for example, in the case of Grosvenor Square, where the Canadian and American governments maintained important offices --- whereas in other squares --- for example, Eaton Square in Mayfair ---- the conservative local governments fought bitterly to maintain these squares as areas of privilege.
Even in European countries that were not practising democratic socialism, such as Holland, the idea of meticulous planning had caught on, because that county is one of the most heavily populated in the world, and unless it was to become a sea of unrelieved horrors, strict measures had to be taken to keep development under control. I remember once when visiting a government official he took me over to his window on the fifth floor of his building, and pointed out to me that we could see five separate cities from where we stood. Each was separated from the others by an area of open space. The North American disease of urban sprawl was not permitted, and there were no such streets as one could find on the south shore from Montreal, a landscape of horrendous unaesthetic disaster, strewn with advertisements, garish lighting and building that seems never to have been subject to any sort of public control.
When I returned to Montreal in 1968 I began to write about Canada’s urban problems, examining the planning background of most of our major cities. I found to my surprise that in the early 1960s little connection existed between the various cities, which were each pursuing very different courses towards their expansion. At one point I gathered my newspaper articles into a book, hoping it would be of interest to anyone who cared about the quality of his or her city. I espoused in that book something like the Swedish system of public ownership of urban land.
In fact, I arrived back almost simultaneously with the coming to power of Pierre Elliot Trudeau, who, during the 11 years of his first administration introduced many innovative programmes such as had never been seen in Canadian politics before. Programmes like the Local Initiatives Programme, under which anyone with a good idea could apply for a grant to carry it to fruition, giving rise to many excellent works across the country, most of them unspectacular in size, but significant in improving the quality of life in our communities; like the Company of Young Canadians, which, as the name suggests, hired young Canadians to fan out throughout the country, to make connections with people whose lives needed improvements they could not afford, and to support them in efforts to improve their quality of life in this way; programmes like the Urban Affairs Ministry, a very interesting development that fell unfortunately between established ministries, and ran afoul of existing jurisdictions; programmes like Kitimavik, which was open to usually aimless youth who were gathered into groups under a discipline of a kind they had never known, and were set to work to improve not only their own perceptions of the meaning of life but also the lives of people affected by the projects they built.
All of these brave programmes fell afoul of established competitors, and had relatively short lives. However in the ferment of ideas that surrounded urban developments at that time, some of the ideas of Europeans as to the proper handling of urban land were introduced. For example, the relatively progressive, although Conservative, governments of John Robarts and Bill Davis, which ruled Ontario from 1961 to 1985, did buy up large quantities of land with the purpose of making development more coherent. But the experience was that, without any firm foundation in the population for a greater public involvement, the land was never put to the use that could have transformed the development of our urban centres, and most of it was eventually sold back into private hands. I remember there was an authenticated story about one leader of the Central Mortgage and Housing Corporation ---- I think it was Stuart Bates ---- who recommended to Prime Minister Lester Pearson that his government should buy up all the vacant urban land in Ottawa so that they could have the controls needed to build a capital city worthy of the name, but the Prime Minister did not share his enthusiasm, as anyone can see who observes how Ottawa’s impressive Parliamentary precinct has been overwhelmed by the high-rise downtown excrescence that has since been built.
Another issue I took an interest in was the swallowing up of Canada’s best rural land for suburban development. In a country which, although vast, has a very limited amount of useful Class A rural land, this is one of the most egregious examples of governmental neglect. I remember a Professor Norman Pearson, who was at various times connected to almost every university in Ontario, who made it his specialty to argue for safeguarding the land of the Niagara peninsula which is the biggest area in Canada capable of growing peaches and other warm-weather fruits. He was an Englishman who set the mark of his British planning education on this country, but although he marshaled impressive facts about our wanton destruction of this precious piece of land, his warnings went virtually unheeded. I worked on a National Film Board film called Niagara For Sale, in which we recorded various politicians from all levels of government expressing their absolute misunderstanding and indifference to the need.
In general one can say that Canada’s prevailing attitude towards the use of land has been entirely dominated by the ethos of urban developers, whose primary interest is in making money. Today the situation in Toronto and Vancouver is verging on the desperate. An acquaintance of mine sold her pretty little house in downtown Toronto for as sum that was $400,000 above her asking price. That was great for her of course but if she wanted to stay in Toronto, all of that money would have been absorbed in buying another property. Instead she moved to Prince Edward county, where she was able to buy a large property on an acre of land for just over the amount in which her previous sale exceeded her asking price.
I myself as few years ago bought a house in Ottawa for $92,000 and sold it as] few years later for something like $268,000, as sum which has turned out to be the only money I have ever saved after a lifetime of work, and on which I am now living my declining years. That is a crazy illustration of a part of the capitalist ethos that has always been completely out of hand, and seems likely to remain so.