Jane Jacobs Subsidiarity

By Bruce Firestone | Uncategorized

Dec 15

In the early 2000s, the province of Ontario amalgamated dozens of regions to reduce the number of administrative districts (municipalities, townships and counties) and improve overall efficiency of local government. Did it work?

Noted urbanist Jane Jacobs would have predicted the answer would be “no” at least based on her notion of “subsidiarity”:

Subsidiarity is the principle that government works best, most responsibly and responsively when it is closest to the people it serves and the needs it addresses. Fiscal accountability is the principle that institutions collecting and disbursing taxes work most responsibly when they are transparent to those providing the money.

Simply put Jane believed that smaller administrative districts are closer to the people they serve and perform better in terms of efficiency, effectiveness and transparency, ie, they provide honest good government.

As an example, the province of Ontario amalgamated 11 municipalities and one regional government in 2001 into what is now a vast geographical unit, the city of Ottawa, which despite its ginormous area holds just 900,000 souls.

The citizenry were promised a more effective form of local government–one with fewer layers (a single tier administration instead of double) to obstruct progress and obfuscate the planning and development process. They were also promised a rationalized civil service–one that would fall from 12,500 FTEs (full time equivalents/jobs) to 8,500 saving ratepayers $400,000,000 annually.

What happened instead was that the city of Ottawa’s civil service saw a huge explosion in numbers–increasing to more than 16,500, which has now resulted in higher residential tax rates in that city than much bigger in terms of population Toronto.

Subsidiarity would tell you that, naturally, Toronto would be less governable than smaller Ottawa and costs per capita would be lower. In this case, those would be wrong assumptions.

One of Ottawa’s great advantages before amalgamation was that a resident could choose to live in French (in Vanier or Gatineau), in an urban environment (downtown Ottawa), in bucolic rural areas (West Carleton, Rideau, Goulbourn or Cumberland), in outer suburbia (Kanata, Barrhaven and Orleans) and so forth. Each of the 11 municipalities had their own governments, their own styles, their own advantages, peculiarities, quirks and disadvantages. 

With monolithic one tier government these differences are eaten away by harmonized policy wonks sitting in a downtown city hall making pronouncements about and decisions for jurisdictions they may never have visited and would have trouble finding on a map. I know because I have asked many city planners in that city over the years, “Did you visit the site?” before they write a negative planning report recommending a project not be permitted by city council to proceed. The answer has invariably been an embarrassed, “No”.  

Ottawa city planners introduced, first, a moratorium on new rural subdivision applications then they replaced it with a permanent ban. They have also severely limited the number and type of severances a farmer or rural landowner can get. The idea, I suppose, is that they believe everyone wants to live in a condo tower above a pub, downtown. Not so.

Modern economies don’t work that way–they function best when they provide differentiated value–ie, choices and options. 

It seems that every day the number and types of choices residents in Ottawa have are dwindling.

If I could vote over again, I would oppose amalgamation.

@ profbruce @ quantum_entity

Spread The Word

About the Author

Bruce is an entrepreneur/real estate broker/developer/coach/urban guru/keynote speaker/Sens founder/novelist/columnist/peerless husband/dad.