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Do you want some Canadian cities to look like this?

June 6, 2008

By former Canada’s World blogger Christopher Leo

Downtown Camden, New Jersey, 2004

Photo by Camilo José Vergara. Source: Invincible Cities web site.

Cities can be sources of economic power, a point that’s emphasized in the Canada’s World Discussion Guide and in my previous post. But they can also be economic liabilities, and bellwethers of problems in our economy, and our society. Americans, gifted practitioners of public relations, don’t like to talk about failure, but some of the worst cases of failed cities in wealthy countries are American.

A typical example of a surprisingly long list of such cases is Camden, New Jersey, pictured above, an urban wasteland surrounded by prosperous suburban communities. Camden was hit by a double whammy: the loss of development to suburban tax havens outside the boundaries of the city and de-industrialization.

Canadians aren’t as good at self-advertisement as Americans, but we don’t like to talk about failure either, so we don’t hear a great deal about conditions in some inner city areas of Regina, Winnipeg, Kitchener, Hamilton, Oshawa, Saint John and other cities that have also suffered from suburban flight. Another failure we have in common with the United States is de-industrialization, the most visible sign of which has been a long string of automobile plant closures in Ontario. As a result, such cities as Oshawa, Oakville and Windsor may well be facing the same double whammy that flattened Camden.

Canada and the United States now both have governments whose instinct it is to regard these developments as the natural operations of market forces, which will produce the best possible result for all concerned if markets are allowed to continue to operate with a minimum of government interference. They point to the dazzling success of Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan as proof that the operation of market forces ensures both the production of wealth and its wide dispersal through society. Global markets, we are told, are the tide that raises all ships.

In the United States, this policy line has produced numerous Camdens. Countries in western Europe and Asia that have been more successful in maintaining their cities have taken a more moderate and activist approach, respecting the power of markets to create wealth and allowing them the freedom they need to function, but understanding also that markets can be destructive and that government intervention is needed to ameliorate those destructive forces.

As I argued in my previous post, cities are centres of decision-making and creativity, and are therefore crucial to the health of our economy. Economic health, in turn, is tied in with social health. Expecting market forces alone to maintain that health is asking too much.

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