Doughnut Politics Reasserts Itself

(Published on November 22, 2003, in The Hamilton Spectator (external link opens in new window).)

In this week’s municipal election in Hamilton, Ontario, doughnut politics reasserted itself. No, I don't mean Hamilton’s love of the fried, maple-dipped roll. I’m referring to population dynamics that have been in motion for decades. For better or worse, the election was a de facto referendum on the Red Hill Expressway project, a plan to build a highway through the beautiful Red Hill Valley.

Supporters claim that the highway is necessary for the city to grow and represents “progress”. Opponents decry the 44,000 trees that will be chopped down, the 7.5 kilometres of diverted creekbed, and the potentially disastrous impacts to local wildlife and migratory birds - not to mention the crushingly expensive price tag.

On Monday, Steeltown elected expressway supporters for City Council and the Mayoralty by a clear majority. Barring a miracle, the expressway will be built, and the kind of “progress” that has held sway for the past six decades will continue.

This is a story of Hamilton, but it’s also a story of every major city in North America.

In the postwar era, the modern city embraced what has come to be known as a “doughnut” model of development. Residents were encouraged to move into large, sprawling suburbs that surrounded the city in a ring, and the downtown core was transformed into a commercial/business district. Commuters traveled from their homes in the suburbs to their jobs in the city, using the network of expressways that linked the two.

It seemed like a great idea at the time. Residents lived in spacious, single-family dwellings on quiet streets, benefiting from lower land prices. Retail businesses were grouped together conveniently in plazas and covered malls with giant parking lots and free parking.

To top it off, commuters could jump on the highway and be at work in twenty minutes.

So what happened?

Instead of a panacea, the suburbs turned into a kind of quagmire. The commuters’ much-vaunted mobility was hampered by perennial gridlock. Efforts to expand highways turned into painfully expensive exercises in futility. As fast as construction crews poured more lanes, more cars rushed to clog them, and the goal of sufficient highway capacity receded like a will o’ the wisp.

The growth of the suburbs simultaneously reflected and encouraged an extreme dependence on cars to get anywhere. Inside the sprawling subdivisions, homeowners had no choice but to drive if they wanted to go anywhere or do anything.

Suburbanites demanded that their environment be more car-friendly. That meant more plazas, wider streets with more lanes, more traffic controls, more parking lots, and an even faster consumption of undeveloped land.

This, in turn, made it even more essential to have a car (or two, or three) per family in order to enjoy any degree of mobility. Of course, this put even more pressure on city planners to maintain a car-friendly infrastructure.

The effects of auto-centricity were complex and self-perpetuating. Air quality suffered, particularly around the highways. Woodlands that could have absorbed some of the additional car emissions were chopped down so the suburbs could continue to expand. Driving everywhere meant people had less exercise. This showed up in disease patterns, including a dramatic increase in type II or “adult onset” diabetes among children.

The problems multiplied. Whereas a vibrant, healthy city could provide an exciting living environment, a dreary ennui hung over the suburbs. Children grew up listless and bored, or else restless, driven frenetically from one social event to the next in the family minivan (more recently, the family SUV).

Those who stayed in the city didn’t fare any better.

Downtown suffered in its transformation away from a complex, mixed-use environment. Many vendors followed their customers into the periphery. Small businesses couldn’t compete with the new super-stores that exploited cheap land to achieve economies of scale.

People who couldn’t or wouldn’t leave found themselves marginalized. Suddenly there were no finances to maintain aging urban infrastructure. Politically, it was easier to sink money into large capital projects that produced visible results. Highways and construction projects became identified with “progress”, whereas replacing old sewers in run-down neighbourhoods looked like throwing good money after bad.

Even worse, the suburbs were a drain for city accountants, as tax receipts didn’t cover the higher cost of providing roads and sewers to low density, far-flung properties. Even as the suburbs strained to expand, each new development actually sank the city further into debt, since the shortfall to provide new services came out of budgets to maintain existing services.

City finances inevitably fell into disarray. Libraries had no money for books, let alone repairs. Decades-old sewer pipes burst in cold weather. Old municipal trees fell and weren’t replaced.

Disillusioned, city dwellers who could afford it continued to “escape” the hollow centre of the doughnut. This further entrenched the distorted spending patterns that created the hole in the first place.

This week’s election was a crossroads. Does the city yield to demographics and allow the self-defeating logic of doughnut politics to carry it further down the same road? Or does the city make the painful but ultimately beneficial decision to start creating a sustainable future, complete with affordable population density, walkable mixed-use zoning, and smart transportation?

In the end, it boiled down to a numbers game. Citizens committed to the suburbs demanded a city that allows them to continue driving everywhere. That means more expressways, more lanes, and more sprawl. Red Hill was just the most visible symbol of this larger conflict.

In the meantime, the hole in the doughnut keeps getting bigger.

Ryan McGreal
November 13, 2003

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