The Windsor Research Project: Clogged Arteries

In a previous post on Sprawl I mentioned how what took 50+ years to build, couldn’t be undone easily or cheaply. So I figured that I would dive into that discussion a little bit. Which brings me back to a quote from 2016:

Forget about the fact the streets are all four lanes, they’re too wide and the cars are going too fast, that’s one thing,” James Howard Kunstler, author of Geography of Nowhere and The Long Emergency, told CBC News. “But the buildings themselves are so amazingly ugly, it’s like somebody came in and beat the city with an ugly stick.” CBC Windsor

Although I find much of the work of Kunstler extreme in its descriptions and consequences, the comments that he made about Windsor do hold some water. Windsor major arteries are ugly and a significant challenge to overcome from a safety, aesthetic and environmental standpoint. Arguably the city is defined by six major North-South (Huron Church, Ouellette/Dougall, Howard, Walker, Lauzon and Banwell) thoroughfares, three major East-West (Tecumseh, Wyandotte and Riverside) corridors and EC Row Expressway. You can argue that CR 42/Cabana Rd could also join this list but given the geographic location and that large areas are currently not developed it is one to watch for the future.

These are the arteries through which the lifeblood of the city flows. Although some would argue the purposes of these roads, what they should be for, for the most part these roads were built for the car and designed to satisfying a community and region built on sprawl. The only major artery that “fits” a “main-street design” would be sections of Wyandotte St. (in Walkerville and near the University) and it could be argued that elements are missing from those areas (protected/separated bike lanes as an example). The road diet on Riverside Dr. did offer what a temporary glimpse of what the streets could be but there is a bigger disconnect not only in the road designs themselves but in the building stock that sits next to them.

So what did I do? I counted buildings along Tecumseh Rd from Huron Church to Lauzon and Walker Rd from Provincial to Riverside Dr.  This evaluation of the building stock isn’t scientific but it does illustrate the nature of the problem. Buildings were classified in one of eight categories: residential (single and multi); commercial (single or multi business); mixed use (ground flood commercial with apartments above); institutional, parking/lots and abandon/vacant.



To try and transform these arteries into something other than race tracks the building stock must be changed. It is true that road diets, bike lanes, traffic calming would help, but without places to go, buildings that are adapted to roles other than servicing cars or people living on these roads, the purpose of these throughfares won’t change which reinforces the current status quo. Given that only about 16% of the buildings on Tecumseh Rd (2% on Walker Rd) feature some sort of mixed commercial/residential usage, the question becomes where are the people and places to slow down these street? This lack of mixed usage is compounded by vacant lots, car lots, standalone parking lots which contribute to 15% and 24% of respective “building spaces” on Tecumseh and Walker Rd. The bulk of establishments (greater than 55%) on both Tecumseh and Walker Roads are are non-mixed use commercial, the vast majority of those being single story construction.

Beyond Walker and Tecumseh Roads; almost every other major thoroughfare in the city all face similar stock challenges. With large stretches of poorly aligned building stock low density residential; overbuilt car centric commercial segregated by swaths of industrial properties both active and brownfield. Although not all portions of the major arteries in Windsor are designed to be dense mixed use construction, there is almost no evidence beyond a few condo developments on Wyandotte St. that redevelopment is a priority for developers. I would surmise that part of this lack of interest has to do with many of these arteries being lined with vacant commercial spaces and brownfields that are difficult and expensive to re-purpose.

Yes surrounding neighbourhoods have people, but if they aren’t going to places on these roads now and business aren’t utilizing the existing vacant land or commercial spaces, will just having more/different abilities to access these spaces transform these areas or is something more drastic in order? Arguably Wyandotte St. is the closest major thoroughfare to a “main street” with the BIA areas (plus Wyandotte West near the University) being the clusters of attraction and activity to emulate. These BIAs are built around mixed sub-communities along the artery and are currently missing some connective tissue to tie them together, separated bike lanes as an example.

I would argue that this is a model that could to be emulated on sections of other major thoroughfares and although not all of the roads are conducive to this change something probably needs to be done. What is needed is a building stock that is conducive to mixed activities and that is missing on most thoroughfares. Although I doubt the Costco plaza of South Windsor on Walker to be a main street, but why can’t the markets near Ottawa Street be connected to a future development at the GM site by one?

To bring a “main street” to these arteries is a monumental challenge that as long as the existing building stock is maintained, no amount of road diets, bike lanes or tree plantings will solve the underlying issues. As these roads are the skeleton that the rest of Windsor is built on, what needs to be done is a radical transformation of the housing and building stock in core areas of our community. Without change these roads are barriers to connectivity that segregate and isolate parts of our community from one another, the car will remain king, infill will remain illusive and sprawl will perpetuate.

The Windsor Research Project – Sprawling

The Trouble Defining Sprawl 

A fundamental issue with the debate around urban sprawl in our community  is that it emerges from the nebulous term of sprawl itself. When academics speak/write on the subject of urban sprawl are publishing definitions: “Sprawl means different things to different people” and accepting such vague terms as a basis for a position it causes significant challenges in having a rational debate. Beyond the vagaries of the particular definitions as the topic of urban sprawl intersects and is analyzed through numerous different lens: urban planning, social psychology, economics, public policy, finance to name a few; the quantification challenges are multiplied by different schools of thought applying their own lenses and language to the issue (Hayden, 2004). The results are that most generally accepted definitions of sprawl contain elements such as: uncontrolled greenfield development that results in lower density, car centric development at a greater geographic distance from a city centre that results in poorer health and environment and at a higher cost to society.

On the urban side, similar definitional challenges face defining “good urban” areas.  Walkable neighbourhoods, complete streets, a healthy environment, density of design although measurable using various quantifiable tools they tend to only provide a snapshot of a portion of what makes a community complete. Although there are many strong urban standards that can be pointed to that contribute to a “complete” or “walkable” community to find the exact point at which a community is complete is often found in the eyes of a beholder with individual preference and necessity trumping any quantifiable measure. Although there is research available that has attempted to quantify good urban areas (Knapp, Song, Nedovic-Budic) and general tools like “Walkscore” provide snapshots these efforts have been limited and face challenges.

The inability to define, measure and pinpoint tipping points in a manner that allows effectively communication in a transparent manner allows for nebulous grey areas that enables individual lens or ideologies to drive debates. Any number of debates ranging from “the war on the car”, density related NYIMBism, school closure to name a few are in many ways driven by a lack of understanding and measurement of where, why and how people live in a community.

This lack of understanding then amplifies the rhetoric with both sides seeing a particular decision through an increasingly polarized point of view. Much like the “willful ignorance” that suburbanites are so often accused of living, or the “moral superiority” projected by those choosing to live an urban lifestyle creates an ideological gulf in communities, as residents cannot understand why other who choose to live the way they do. What is a dense community of row houses to some, is an impractical place to live for a family with four children. What is historic and stately home in an established neighbourhood for a middle aged empty-nesters, is too burdensome for retirees. Or a comfortable neighbourhood of newly built ranch, perfect for aging Torontoian transplants is little better than blight to an urbanite due to its location at the fringe of a small city. So much of what determines where people live are those intangible items that cannot be easily measured.

Where someone chooses to settle is an inherently individual experience and the culmination of dozens of inputs, perceptions and compromises. It is this human element that unfortunately leads to polarization of debates around sprawl and urbanism. Each new project and decision regardless of impact (actual or perceived) are lensed through the personal point of view of individuals, forcing the dialogue within the community to greater and greater extremes. It is this tribalism, inherit between the different groups and ingrained in choice that then skews the use of data on this subjects (and so many others). If a clear and wide accepted definition of sprawl existed and this definition enabled a line to be drawn universally across all communities showing where sprawl begins and ends this discussion would be moot but as it doesn’t, if Windsor is to have any hope, compromise is required.

Windsor’s History of Sprawl 

Windsor (as with many cities) was born out of a history of sprawl. From the 1930s the “City of Windsor” amalgamated with surrounding towns and townships, steadily growing outwards as its population and importance within the region grew. Efforts by these surrounding communities to resist this outward expansion of Windsor proper were largely rebuffed with Walkerville taking its case to Great Britain’s highest Court in an effort to maintain its autonomy and resist a forced amalgamation by the Province (Stanton). This pattern of forced amalgamation has played out numerous times across the province as municipal governments exist largely at the whim of the province and if it weren’t for the practical necessity and conventions, they might not exist at all.

Beyond the original founding streets/neighbourhoods in each original community (Old Sandwich, Victoria Ave in Windsor, Old Walkerville, Old Riverside in East Windsor) the entire City of Windsor is the result of sprawl. The war-housing neighbourhoods that fill segments of south Walkerville ringing the Chrysler Assembly Plant, bordering Erie and street, the Marbourough, St James and Bridgeview neighbourhoods (where I live) in West Windsor, Ford City sandwiched between industrial complexes. It was in the 1960s in many cases when these neighbourhoods emerged as Windsor experienced a population boom like no other:

Year Windsor Population Percentage Change
1961 114,367
1971 209,300 83.00%
1981 192,083 −8.2%
1991 191,435 −0.3%
1996 197,694 3.30%
2001 208,402 5.40%
2006 216,473 3.90%
2011 210,891 −2.6%
2016 217,188 3.00%

NOTE: It was pointed out to me by Doug Schmidt that additional municipal amalgamations occurred between 1961 and 1971 that I missed. After digging I was unable to find a separate growth rate for the City of Windsor for that period (if someone finds one let me know). Overall amalgamation rather than a crazy growth rate makes more sense. I don’t feel that this amalgamation given when they occurred significantly changes my perspective. Thanks for the clarification Doug! 

From 1961-1971 censuses the population of the City of Windsor grew at a rate greater than 6% per year or by 83% over the decade! This decade was the tale end of the baby boom and influx newcomers with national population growing by 18% on top of the 30% growth that occurred from 1951-61. So it is no surprise that the regions’ housing stock looks like this:

Updating Housing Stock

For many Windsor’s growth and evolution was a relatively steady one when in fact it was driven by a surge of outward growth in the 1960s that distorted development patterns and closed the core off to broad-based redevelopment. This was followed up by the construction of social housing projects in the 1970s and 1980s which certainly added density but it also created pockets of socially isolated and marginalized peoples. This surging development pattern wrapped itself around industrial and commercial areas that in other times and cities would have remained isolated and properly transitioned.

It is from this core that the  were the first rings of “sprawl” emerged, filling gaps between the various neighbourhoods and beginning the outwards creep towards the county. Not only has housing crept outwards but the diversity of our community is helping perpetuate it.


The maps above show percentage of self identified immigrant populations in our region. Although it true that Windsor core has remained home to significant newcomer populations between 2001 and 2011 there has been a significant shift in where first generation Canadians live in our region. There has been a growing outward migration, to significant parts of South/Central Windsor, LaSalle, Tecumseh and Lakeshore have become homes to first generation Canadians. These areas are not low cost areas of our community nor are they home to significant urban density.  This shift has likely been driven by a few factors. The children of immigrants who came to Canada in the 1960-1990s and grew up in Windsor’s core are now at the stage where they can live the Canadian dream. Aspiration is a vitally important element that needs to be considered when looking at housing choice. With a home ownership rates that are nearing 70% buying a house remains a cornerstone of life in this county. Although that is becoming more and more difficult in some communities, in Windsor it remains a viable and attractive option.

These trends of aspiration hold true when compared to the US where African American populations are growing dramatically in the suburbs and other research has shown that immigrant suburban movement is actually breaking the cloistering effects that traditionally have been associated with suburban life. In a great paper on the “Canadian Dream” Jill Grant and Daniel Scott outline the steps in the home ownership ladder which you climb up and then down again in your lifetime. It firmly places a single detached home as a part of a life cycle of housing that a significant portion of the population still strives towards and lives through based on their aspirations and needs.

housing ladder.png

Unlike large urban centres where young families are priced out of the top rungs of the housing ladder that issue is a much smaller factor in Windsor-Essex,. The fact that there has been little new condo or apartment development in the City has been driven by and is a consequence of this low cost of living. Once a rent in a apartment hits a certain threshold it no longer makes financial sense to rent. As a result, young families move up the housing ladder and out to the suburbs.

What is “Sprawl” in Windsor?

This brings us back to the question of what is “sprawl” in Windsor? Compared to large urban centres, with 1 hour + commutes to call Windsor a sprawling city is laughable, particularly through the lens of just the City of Windsor. When a broader region is taken into account there is little question of outward growth. Although it can be argued it is urban sprawl as their is no regional measure for this growth or any inter-municipal cooperation, each municipality expansion can be seen and arguably is viewed by its own narrow evolutionary lens.

The question that needs to be tackled is when/if will sprawl in aggregate alter behaviour in our region? To a transplant from Toronto, a 20 minute jaunt to a store, doctors office or dinner is a cakewalk compared to battling the GTA traffic. To the nuclear family in LaSalle that commutes into the City on a daily basis there is little incentive to move back into the core given the housing stock, size of homes and property values (a topic of another blog post). To young people couple, assuming they stay in the community, why buy a fixer upper when you can buy new and still be downtown in about 20 minutes?

On the flip side is our downtown or core “urban”? Although dense compared to the rest of the region, Windsor downtown and core not only fail to meet a density standard of many truly urban cities and town but they lack services and amenities that bring many people to a thriving downtown. Go a few blocks off of these are thoroughfares you will find semi-suburban cloisters featuring two cars in a driveway. To some the sprawl debate is little more than an argument undertaken by those who are already affluent and have met their needs. There are many in Windsor’s core who would love the opportunity to own a home or car, send their kids to university or college, live the Canadian dream

There will always be people on both sides on this debate, the question that must be answered is where is the “centre” of the population. I would put forward that they arguably they don’t care as they experience only marginal negative impacts directly on their lives. The benefits that they would reap from a more urban community and lifestyle not resonating with the majority of the population.  Municipally, the competition between them is further encouraging this outward expansion. One of the best, lesser stated arguments for the development of the Sandwich South lands is that it is needed in order to keep Windsor competitive compared to the surrounding municipalities in the home construction market and attract retirees transplants from Toronto with high assessment valued new homes.

The biggest issue for opponents of sprawl in our region is that there is no easily implementable, politically viable solution to this issue. What took 50+ years to build cannot be undone without bulldozing of city blocks, reconstruction of neighbourhoods and redesigning the regions traffic network. The small wins of bike lanes here or basement secondary suites their are a drop in the bucket in comparison to the larger overall challenges. All of which leads back to an infamous quote from a City Councillor “Sprawl is the future“.



The Windsor Project – Mid-Sized Cities Gambling on the Future

As previously mentioned there is very little in-depth research on mid-sized communities in Canada (some emerging research here and a great blog here) or the challenges that they face. To small to receive the limelight, media attention and resources of large urban centres; yet they are too big to be highly nimble in a short period of time or able to be reliant on a sole sector . In many ways medium size cities are unique systems stuck in a socio-economic-demographic limbo, with some commentators going so far as to claim that they are doomed.

Windsor-Essex will always remain an “important” due to its geography and proximity to the United State but whether that means that our region will remain competitive or just a “drive through community” remains to be seen.

Gamblers Ruin

So why do mid-sized cities like Windsor struggle? A major missing component  is the lack of private capital, clustering and economies of scale. In 2008 Paul Krugman won the Nobel Prize in Economics for his work on the impacts of economies of scale and trade patterns. Although his work was developed around the modeling of trade flows in the 21st century. As the Nobel Prize committee outlined (underlying mine):

Traditional trade theory assumes that countries are different and explains why some countries export agricultural products whereas others export industrial goods. The new theory clarifies why worldwide trade is in fact dominated by countries which not only have similar conditions, but also trade in similar products – for instance, a country such as Sweden that both exports and imports cars. This kind of trade enables specialization and large-scale production, which result in lower prices and a greater diversity of commodities.

Economies of scale combined with reduced transport costs also help to explain why an increasingly larger share of the world population lives in cities and why similar economic activities are concentrated in the same locations. Lower transport costs can trigger a self-reinforcing process whereby a growing metropolitan population gives rise to increased large-scale production, higher real wages and a more diversified supply of goods. This, in turn, stimulates further migration to cities. Krugman’s theories have shown that the outcome of these processes can well be that regions become divided into a high-technology urbanized core and a less developed “periphery”.

Lets be clear, Windsor Essex as a mid-sized community is the periphery in this scenario and in many ways the self-reinforcing process of population, wage growth and economic diversification is struggling to occur here. Transportation costs that emerge from being close to markets are important but the elasticity of these costs are highly variable and those costs are shrinking. This means that as the word continues to get smaller, location, although still important, matters less and less.

Recently, Krugman applied some of his Noble winning theory to some of the challenges that small/medium sized cities face in a NYT op-ed by tying to the concept of Gambler’s Ruin. What is Gambler’s Ruin in the context of mid-sized cities? Imagine two players (two cities – small and large) at a card table with a dealer (global economy) playing to attract new business, investment and talent to their community by betting on the cards that they have been dealt. The large city due to its scale has more cards to play (no one said this game was fair) then the smaller one and every hand there is a cost to play.

For a small community the best play is to actually not to play every hand, all things being equal the smaller city is at a distinct disadvantage when compared to their larger counterparts. Yes there is a cost to be at the table but by sitting out most hands, it can rely its nimbleness or quaintness to exploit a niche to pick its hands to win.  When the perfect hand (opportunity) comes along, the small community faces a handful of possible outcome, it can go all in and potentially be outbid by the larger player and lose its cards, the dealer could win trumping all players with effort being wasted for no gain or it can win the hand (attracting a business/investment).

Unfortunately whether winning a hand or sitting out does come at a cost: the cost the attraction effort, the opportunity cost of other non-explored opportunities, the cost of maintaining a basic level of infrastructure (physical, social, capital) to keep playing the game. Due to the size of the resources available, based on the cost of the effort the return of one hand is almost never large enough to secure their long term future (winning HQ2 or a new OEM plant would be the exception) which is why many smaller communities don’t play this game.

For the large city, their additional cards create additional strategies. They can play many small hands and one by one gobble up small wins (attracting many smaller firms, entrepreneurs and talent due to economies of scale and competitive advantages) much as Krugman describes . Or they can go all in areas of advantage in ways that are beyond the capacity for smaller players to dream of competing (ex. Superclusters). Through their size they can leverage political, geographic and social scale to create future advantages in upcoming hands and to position themselves further ahead as economics centres of gravity, speeding up future amalgamation of resources.

The trap for mid-sized communities/regions is that they are too big to specialized in just one niche, but to small to bully and leverage their economies of scale compared to many rivals. They have to play the game, due to internal market pressures with the big boys, pay to compete with them but in many ways be outclassed. Although niches/competative advantages can be exploited to create a foundation, in the context of a rapidly changing global economy the question is whether or not a handful of niches is enough? Over the long term, the outcome is clear, unless the mid size community is able to create scale or specialization that allows them to compete with global leaders at some point mid-sized communities go bust because the house always wins. This is Gambler’s Ruin (stretched a little).

The Windsor Context

Of course economic development, economic clustering and competition between urban areas is far more complex then this analogy but it does help illustrate the game theory behind where and why businesses/people/investment settle. In the Windsor-Essex context there are a number of identified clusters in our region. To carry the analogy forward the question becomes how many cards does Windsor and Essex County have to play with within these sectors on any given hand? So much of competing in the global economic relies on factors beyond the control of our community. Federal and Provincial incentives/grants, quality of the talent pool and local skills, geographic advantages, quality of life etc many of which are shared with jurisdictions we compete with.

As a mid-sized region (that is decentralized without a regional government – further hindrance), our region doesn’t have enough cards to play every hand, and to be frank we will likely struggle to compete for “game changing” investments. I hope to be proven wrong, but out region has been bidding for the same kinds of investments for a long time and our hand hasn’t come up. On the other side, our chosen niche automotive that allowed our community to grow and prosper to its peak in the early 1990s, appears to be on the downward trend. Given the current climate one has to ask ourselves what does Windsor or even Canada look like without an auto sector? It happened to Australia, and dozens of  rust belt communities just across the border. Given that 20.2% of our local employment is tied to manufacturing, the risk is real and illustrates why mid-sized communities can’t rely only on one sector. Of course, our region has diversified beyond auto but the given the declines in median income, I question if those positions pay as well or employ as many people as our historical manufacturing base. So simply sitting out hands and hoping for the best isn’t an option. We need to play for something, the question is what?

If we are at the global economic card table and playing with limited number of cards, are we betting on the right things that will payoff for the next 20+ years? Are we betting on ensuring that we have a foundation that can keep this region competitive so it can effectively pivot to our future state economy? Are we playing the hands that win us long term social and political capital instead of chasing the short term quick wins? One thing is certain, when you gamble, you eventually go bust. So what we need to ask ourselves is, as a mid-size city do we have the capital (social, economic, political) in the bank the cover the next bust when it comes?



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.

The Windsor Research Project – Forward

The Windsor Research Project


What began as a essay on urban sprawl and some of the challenges faced by Windsor and broader Essex County has evolved into a much more. As 2018 progresses, Windsor-Essex County is in many ways at an inflection point, with the coming years charting the course of this region for the next generation and beyond. Although some might call this alarmist, the interaction of the various socio-economic ecosystems will see of our region fixed in a manner that will then curb the behaviour of various institutions and sectors creating a rigidity that can only be reversed through traumatic shock or a systematic deconstruction.

Despite the name related to this project, I will be looking at all of Essex County. The nature of broader Windsor and Essex County makes these challenges even more pronounced and makes tackling some of the issues that our region faces even more challenging. That being said, as the dominant socio-economic presence in the region Windsor will be the focus of many of the posts.

As a mid-size community there is very little in depth research on issues conducted in our community. This results in a pattern of big announcement being made, excitement and media coverage occurring and then nothing, at least until something unforeseen emerges. As a result, what is needed is some digging. Our region faces a number of significant challenges. Issues of housing stock quality; an expanding opioid crisis, a lack of economic diversification; a weak activist class; increasing political polarization; crumbling infrastructure; high rates of poverty; increasingly harmful urban sprawl; growing inequality; a degrading environment; poor educational attainment; issues of revitalization and/or gentrification; are a sample of some of the perceived/identified challenges. To list these challenges is not to be a naysayer or to speak down about our region. Not only is there data that fundamentally supports the existence of the issues listed above but in many cases they are impacting mid-sized cities across North America. It is by unpacking some of these challenges and the data that outlines them a rational policy discussion can occur. This is what this project is about, an attempt at a data driven analysis and commentary on the challenges that our region faces.

Fundamentally our region faces an existential threat not only from the challenges outlined above but the global pace of change, economic forces beyond our control and a growing internal division. The tragedy is that in many ways the City of Windsor can’t solve these problems alone and the only way to solve them is for our region to do something it doesn’t do very often, compromise. This outcome is not easy or even likely but what the subsequent posts in this series will explore the underlying data that justifies that shifts in thinking are required and I offer up my “informed?” opinions on some of these issue.

Although the exact order and topics of the posts are to be determined, the initial posts will form a foundation for subsequent posts by providing context and framework that illustrates my perspective on issues and some underlying macro level factors that shape the region as a whole.  Hopefully this will tie together into a cohesive narrative.

Hollowing of the Middle

I previously shared a map  twitter (see below) 2006 AT Household MEdian income comparision

What this map shows is the ratio of the After Tax Median Household Income of each Dissemination Area as a ratio to the same measure in Essex County. For clarity, it was $62,122 which means ares showing up in black have a median income 0-30% of the overall regional median income, the pale yellow 170%-247% the median income (white has no data).

A decade and a recession later the map looks different.

[Note the map looks physically different as Statistics Canada changed their default projection shape file for Canada between 2006 and 2011, I couldn’t track down a conversation file]

2016 AT Household MEdian income comparision

So what has changed? Well the median income of the region actually marginally declined to $62,075 while across Canada the median household income rose by nearly 10%.

Comparing the two maps you can see a significant change. Much of Windsor situated north of EC Row, areas of fuschia and light purple have been replaced by swaths of dark purple. The exception to this is Old Riverside (Ward 6) where pockets of orange of solidified. These mappings align with same areas that showed high rates of low income and lower rates of educational attainment in many of these same areas. .

The other big change is the growth in the pale/bright yellow in Lasalle, Lakeshore and South Windsor. Although the top of that rate has lowered from 247% to 217% of the median there are greater concentrations of these pockets in certain area.

Number of Census DA in Middle Median Income Ratios -Essex County
2006 2016
90%-110% 155 114
60%-140% 548 471

The middle class has geographically shrunk in Essex County with the number of neighbourhoods that you can define as middle class (from a statistical standpoint) have clearly declining. Although these neighbourhood do include people of higher (and lower) incomes, the medians illustrate exactly where the middle family is. Across Essex County, what has become clear is that wealth has become more centralized in certain neighbourhoods and for many the opportunity to be successful is dictated by where they live.

Windsor’s Unemployment Rate is SOFT

Back in Feb. I was interviewed by Dave Battegello of the Windsor Star on the City’s unemployment rate. At the time our City’s unemployment had fallen from 6% in December to 4.6% in January.

In the interview although I agreed that the drop in unemployment was good news, I cast some healthy skepticism on the data:

Frazier Fathers, manager of community impact for the local United Way, said the last month’s jobless number for Windsor may be good news, but whether it’s really reflective of the employment sector locally remains to be seen.

“Statistics Canada’s survey is a relatively small sample,” he said. “Sometimes month to month it may be higher or lower. What you really want to look at is the trend. If the number remains the same next month and the month after, that would be really good sign.”

Poverty does remain high in Windsor and the job participation rate — those in the community actively working or seeking a job — is about five per cent lower in Windsor than the provincial average, Fathers said.

“You have fewer in our economy who are working. We have lost a lot of good-paying jobs and some jobs have been replaced with lower paying jobs,” Fathers said. “Seeing the low unemployment number is good news, but whether the number is real remains to be seen.”

This opinion wasn’t that popular in some circles.

For those that don’t know, the unemployment rate is calculated through a monthly survey across the country, the Labour Force Survey (full guide and details of the survey can be found here). In summary, Statistics Canada surveys a rolling sample of people in our region (and in regions across the country) on a monthly basis with approximately 1/6 of the sample turning over each month, with people dropping off and being added in. A selected person would cycle through the labour force survey in 6 months. It is from that sample that the local employment, unemployment, participation, and other rates are calculated.

So give the design of the survey a month to month decline of a significant nature is a rare event. The rate drop from December to January was triggered by 3,700 people in the Windsor CMA finding work that month, a significant change given the lack (from my recollection) of significant hiring announcements. Given this along with the fact that this change represented only the 3rd time in a 15 months the participation rate rose above 61% it told me that this number was soft. By soft I mean that it was more of a statistical vagabond rather than a true indicator of the local economy.

Now, 3 months later I am ready to say I was right, that number was Soft! Although I would agree that January was a good month for the Windsor CMA from an employment standpoint, despite the fanfare awarded to the sudden drop in unemployment those gains have slowly been given back. Although total employment is actually up since January that is only true if the CMAs population grew by 1,600 people as the participation rate has dropped back to 60.5% (it has averaged 60.3% since Dec 2016). The actual labour force size has only changed by 100 people between December and April’s employment numbers with the exact same employment rate (57.1%).

The fact that the unemployment number has subsequently inched back up by equal intervals (0.3%) hints at a over representative sample being added in January. As the chart below illustrates there is a steady uptick month after month in the data.

Unemployment no error

Beyond this slow but steady up tick in the intervening months the other factor that I want to touch on is the margin of error for our local labour force data. Each month there is 0.8% standard error on the reported value. Almost a full percent in variation! The graph below shows the same rates with their confidence range:


Given that we are adding almost a full percentage (or subtracting) the question is why are celebrating this number every month? This is why economists call the Labour Force Survey as a “random number generator” and actually have turned the data release into a bit of a guessing game each month on twitter #LFSGuesses