The New Feudalism: The Future of Cities

Worth A Look, Urbanization, Frontier Centre

In the name of now-fashionable New Urbanism planning, the Ontario government last week announced dramatic new controls over where citizens of Toronto and its satellite cities will be able to live in the next 25 years. It is a deliberate strategy to curb suburban growth and force more people into downtown high-rise apartments — thus frustrating the hopes and dreams of many young potential homebuyers across Southern Ontario.

No doubt everyone gets the government, and the urban planning, they deserve. But at least we should be honest about the terms we use. And New Urbanism really doesn’t capture the imperial urges of the McGuinty government. A more accurate term for this planning doctrine would be New Feudalism.

Last Friday, David Caplan, Ontario’s Minister of Public Infrastructure Renewal, unveiled the Greater Horseshoe Area Growth Plan, the final component in his government’s designs for stopping the organic expansion of most cities in Southern Ontario. By 2031, 40% of new residences must be built in existing downtown areas in 25 designated communities ranging from Waterloo to Barrie to Peterborough and all Toronto environs. There are also strict density targets of up to 400 people or jobs per hectare for urban areas, which appear wildly unrealistic. (By comparison, Vancouver’s West End has a population density of a bit more than 200 people per hectare, as does Paris.)

Building on previous New Feudalism planning tenets such as the Greenbelt legislation that expropriated the development potential of great swaths of farmland and the construction of massive taxpayer-subsidized public transit monuments, Queen’s Park will now dictate where residents can live as well.

New Feudalism is the cure for that age-old government problem of individual choice. King Dalton has issued his proclamation on where everyone in his kingdom shall live and how they shall travel to work. If it happens to conflict with what the serfs want, well too bad. No one’s asking them. And his royal fiat now extends to local governments. Any municipality that responds to the wishes of its electorate by emphasizing family-friendly suburbs at the expense of cramming more people downtown will find its official plan rewritten from the Throne Room in Toronto. Perhaps we should just be thankful there’s no sumptuary law — yet.

To get a sense of how government policy conflicts with individual aspirations, consider that an October, 2004, poll for the Greater Toronto Home Builders Association found a detached home in the suburbs was the preferred residence for 65% of Toronto inhabitants. Only 16% wanted to live in a high-rise. And 80% thought that downtown Toronto was already too crowded.

The steep density targets will also result in living spaces that are far less egalitarian, in keeping with our feudal theme. Australian New Urbanism critic and academic Patrick Troy (who coined the term New Feudalism in 1992) has argued convincingly that putting limits on suburban growth and creating higher-density downtowns will create greater income stratification in housing.

The notion of an independent landowner as the locus for egalitarian political power is the premise of Jeffersonian democracy. The yeoman farmer may be a lost concept today, but the suburbs partially filled that space in the post-war period. Expansive housing tracts provide almost any family with the opportunity to buy their own bit of land with a garden out back and a driveway in front.

In contrast, the Ontario government’s new plans will make a suburban home far more expensive and less attainable. Many more lower- and middle-class families will be forced to settle for high-density downtown dwellings. Upper-income folks, on the other hand, will retain their ability to play with their children in their backyard. The result will be castles and hovels rather than split-level ranches for all. And keep in mind that the easiest way for municipalities to achieve their high-density downtown housing targets will be to encourage the return of urban slums.

At some point you have to ask yourself the big question: Why? Author Robert Bruegmann argues that the war against the suburbs is driven by an intellectual elite who believe they must protect commoners from their own crude desires. No doubt there is ample truth in that. It certainly fits into the feudal framework. But Caplan also mustered a few coherent arguments that had nothing to do with his role as a member of the ruling class. He argued his New Feudalism would protect the environment and encourage a “culture of conservation.”

It is generally accepted without question that high-density housing is better for the environment because it stacks people one on top of the other. The higher you can stack the families, the greater the environmental benefits. But Troy, professor emeritus at the prestigious Australian National University, has carefully studied the complete energy impact of construction techniques and come to the conclusion that total energy consumption is actually greater for residents of high-occupancy buildings.

High-density housing requires far more metal, concrete and effort to build than traditional two-storey wood-frame homes. Even taking into consideration the extra road infrastructure and vehicle requirements of suburban living, the average embodied energy required to build an apartment in downtown Adelaide, in South Australia, is 786 gigajoules per capita, according to Troy. For the sprawling 1960s-era suburb of Brahma Lodge, 17 kilometres to the north, housing burns up only 474 gigajoules per capita. Annual operational energy use is nearly identical in the two areas. Downtown residents tend to make greater use of air conditioners and elevators, whereas suburban residents can dry their clothes on a line, although they do drive their cars more. Per capita water usage is the same between suburbs and downtown.

All of which suggests that New Feudalism is living up to its name. It is undemocratic, arbitrary and unfair to average families. It is socially divisive and it relies on unscientific folk tales for its support. Certainly the Middle Ages were a lot of fun for those in charge. The rest of us can only hope for an eventual emancipation.

© National Post 2006