The Windsor Research Project – Comparative Challenges

Comparative Challenges 

Given the context of the “post-fact world”, the challenges of presenting data on the challenges that Windsor and Essex County face become clear. Finding comparable and appropriate data is vitally important to not only compare apples to apples but to also set appropriate contexts for discussions in subsequent posts.

For many people, the simple fact that a particular policy, action or activity has been “done over there” is justification and reasoning for it to happen (or not happen) in Windsor or Essex County. This does not mean that inspiration can’t come from other communities or countries successes but context and comparability matter. You can’t just look at X and expect it to happen here,  as there are dozen of reasons why such a policy or action has been successful in other communities and may not be as successful. This post will attempt to establish foundation for providing context to the Windsor-Essex region.

A 2010 thesis from the University of Waterloo highlighted many of the challenges that are faced by mid-sized cities that are looking to revitialize. Although this thesis covered the topic of downtown renewal, it identifies as significant gap in scholarly research looking at mid-size communities and urban renewal in Canada (more or this in another post). The fact that this gap exists doesn’t dissuade some as comparable North American research are often used substitute. It is this comparability when localizing to the Windsor/Essex region that posses a significant challenge when modelling local renewal strategies on other communities.

Starting at a high level of population within our region we can see how different other countries can be. Despite being the largest community in our region, in a broader context Windsor is not that large when compared to comparably ranked communities from around the world

                                             16th Largest City-Region in Each Country*
Location Population Year Measured
Wenzhou, China 9,122,102 2016
Thane, India 1,818,872 2011
Fort Worth Texas 833,312 2015 (est)
Bournemouth/Poole Built-up area (UK) 466,266 2015 (est)
Bouchum, Germany 364,742 2015 (est)
Windsor CMA 329,144 2016
Grenoble France 158,346 2012
Toowoomba Queensland (Aus) 114,622 2015

*taken from appropriate national census databases.

The selection of cities above illustrates the different scale that can be found in the 16th largest city-region in a given country [Note: some of the Cities above are not regional as the country/state does not have regional units of measurement]. If you just examine the City of Windsor, we rank as the 23nd largest community in Canada and comparative communities are Washington DC; Stoke-on-Trent UK or Gelsenkirchen Germany all of which have larger populations and other localized features that provide them competitive advantages and disadvantages. Adding in broader Essex County brings our population 398,953 people which clearly ranks our region as a mid-sized entity but complicates the comparative process.

When we look at the US (as we tend to do) you find dramatic differences in how communities are governed and the specific powers they possess. In Canada municipalities exist at the whim of the Province; in America, Home Rule gives administrative divisions of states the same or similar powers as a state. This means that not only do communities in the US have far greater power to tax, spend and regulate but their rule and authority is grounded in constitutional law, unlike Canadian municipalities (Stanton Chapter 3).

These powers to tax, regulate and even default, means that US governments have far greater abilities to reshape their communities in a rapid manner. The example of Detroit illustrates this, as the city’s bankruptcy saw $7 Billion owed to bondholders, pension plans and creditors written off, freeing massive interest obligations to be redeployed on public works and services. At the same time, billions of dollars of private capital from both for profit and not-for-profit sources poured into the city. These are scales of dollars and financial tools that Canadian municipal politicians even in the largest cities can only dream about. For their part Canadian cities can’t declare bankruptcy in a formal sense, as entities of the Province the buck would be passed up to the next level of government, and to the provincial tax base. In the 1920s and 30s  with 11 percent of Ontario and Quebec municipalities defaulted leading to a series of amalgamations and municipal restructuring across provinces. Ironically this risk of default was a catalyst for the forming or the City of Windsor as we know it today, through an imposed municipal amalgamation by the Province that brought together many of the core neighbourhoods (Walkerville, Ford City, Sandwich Town etc) into Windsor proper.

In a modern context, a municipal bankruptcy would likely result in a provincial takeover of the municipality; vast service and spending cuts as well as increased property taxes. Provinces across Canada also place limits (in many cases) on the levels of debt that a municipality can hold (for more info on municipal debt conditions see here) and due to the lack of other financial tools and a reliance on provincial transfers, the ability for Canadian municipalities (particularly medium sized ones) to finance a transformative process is highly constrained.

Looking beyond North America, Europe is home to many of the pinnacles of walkable and urban communities. Yet they have access wide range of financial tools and measure that are not available in North America. Massive EU transfers for infrastructure and environmental projects have enabled local governments to finance infrastructure and economic development on the backs of taxpayers in other countries.

Many of these same cities (video) were laid down 1500+ years ago and the fastest vehicle on the road was a horse drawn wagon. Rome had a population of 400,000 people in 100 BC, this is a number the City of Windsor likely won’t pass this century and our county only now hovers around. The only way to live and do business was to be close to the location that socio-economic activity occurred which created a historical advantage for density. As a Country that has a history only a fraction of that length and a city that was born out of the age of steam 125 years ago, Windsor and Canada never shared those same formative roots and as a result developed differently.

Famed European public transit systems are built off a rail network that is unparalleled in its size and complexity compared to North America. These lines emerged during the industrial revolution when mechanized warfare ravaged the European continent. In the post-Napoleonic era, it was the railway lines that connected supplies to armies, brought troops forward and was the backbone for offensive operations for every European war after 1812. These same rail lines are now the skeleton of both intra/intercity mass transit (video on US rail networks which is pretty applicable to Canada, watch this). Due to the size, disperse populations and industries and a mismatch of timing and industrial progress Canada did not justify a rail network like Europe’s. Modern inter-modal cargo rail is only more efficient at moving goods than truck at distances exceeding 800 km, unfortunately the geographic and industrial densities of Canada did not justify a short distance rail networks thus eliminating the opportunity for regional commuter service outside of Canada’s largest urban centres which in turn created car dependency.

Looking at municipal political structure in Europe, party politics and proportional representation dominate local/regional governments.  This drastically different system has enabled “radical” parties like: Greens, Pirates, Communists and Nationalists to exercise institutional influences on councils and policies that impact cities and regions. Even if not elected, the fact that they exist and compete for elected office forces reactionary governing from the other major parties as they attempt to co-opt policy alternatives. Canada (US has Democrats and Republicans municipally who tend to behave in similar manners as the State and National counterparts) has only a few examples of political parties (Montreal and Vancouver) and none of them are elected proportionately. As a result, policy at a municipal level is formed in dramatically different manners in Canada compared to the US and Europe. The diverse and complex make up of municipal councils in Canada is a subject of an entire chapter of Stanton’s book on local government. The wide range of campaign financing mechanism, size and scope of councils, whether or not councilors are full or part-time and the underlying electoral makeup of a community (to name a few factors) all influence how communities are governed and in many cases make each community in Canada a unique political entity.

Drilling down to institutional level again context matters. Although many call for compact and urban institutional development in our community point to places like Detroit and Buffalo as examples of where institutional practice done right, again comparisons matter. The US health care system for example which allows charging patients for services puts non-profit institutions in a predicament of generating vast sums of revenue and needing to spend it. The Henry Ford Health Care system in 2015 generated $5.1 Billion in revenue and invested $459 million as community benefits in 1 year! In Buffalo, the hospital complex that is the key anchor of the revitalization initiative the Cancer centre alone turned a $50 million profit in 2017.

These institutions have the ability to city build in a way that Canadian counter parts with the largest of foundations can only dream of. The same argument can be made for US colleges and universities with sport revenues from College Football and Basketball and multi-billion dollar endowments. In Canada, these cash strapped institutions development occurs on the backs of provincial grant approvals based on lowest cost principles or fees for users.

What the above illustrates is that at the most basic level context matters. There are reasons why Windsor/Essex County has been built the way it has and why other communities have developed in their own pattern. Those same contextual challenges also hamper how this region can evolve. Beyond being inspired, to look to other communities for cut and paste solutions to perceived local challenges is folly and will not result in a community/region that is measurably better off. In fact in some cases by simply projecting solutions it creates expectations that are not realistic leading to dissatisfaction. By making uninformed comparisons between Windsor/Essex and other communities it in turn fuel divisive debates (particularly on Social Media). This drives polarization of political discourse and the narratives of change in our community. So much oxygen is consumed on these issues that numerous small issues fly under the radar that cumulatively will have greater consequences on our region’s future.

3 thoughts on “The Windsor Research Project – Comparative Challenges

  1. I’ve noticed that people have been deriding ideas, precisely because of how it’s “made in Windsor”, and not taken from somewhere else. How would you respond to that?

    • Ideas can come from somewhere else, inspiration for example but the implementation must be tied to local context and expectations set accordingly. Just because X happened overnight somewhere it can happen overnight here are setting themselves up to be disappointed.

  2. For public transport and healthcare there are number of issues in canada.
    (a) Public Transport should not be treated as profit center or cost neutral service. It creates a spiral of failure from day one. Public transport is for green, reducing requirements for roads as one bus transports 40 -60 people, reduce oil needs – so keep gas prices low. Also it increases productivity of people as they can do some work while travelling in bus/train. but the mentality of cost neutral service starts a downward spiral. Look in windsor one way ticket costs 3 dollars. To go to toronto – it costs $70 to $100 – who would take bus if they have car. Price of Public transport ticket should be so low that it should make no sense in traveling in car even if person has a car. Nobody is thinking about out of box solution for public transport where the cost of bus/train infrastructure is very low. Things are changing – with private sector like Google, GM, Uber and other are getting involved self driving vehicles.
    (b) Healthcare in Ontario especially the non-profit hospitals are not run efficiently. If we look out how low is the legal liability is there in Canada compared to US – it makes no sense why hospitals are so expensive in Canada -.

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