CIP Niagara Conference – Planning in a Recession
This untraditional session tackles the current economic downturn, crisis, meltdown, recession, depression – however you conceive of it. Its title is “What Planners can Bring to the Table in a Recession,” aptly subtitled “Planners’ Improv”. Panelists are:
- Rino Mostacci from the Town of Fort Erie, Ontario
- Ron Marini, City of Hamilton, Ontario
- Paul Smithson, City of Burlington, Ontario
- Ann McAfee, City of Vancouver,BC (retired), consultant, City Choice
Today’s discussion took the form of a brainstorming session between the audience and an expert panel about how planners can best do their work in the context of economic collapse. Highlights are summarized below, at some length. The conversation was rich and spirited – the topic and seem to have hit a nerve!
A planner from the Maritimes opened the dialogue by sharing his long experience working in places where economic hardship is no stranger. When the cod fishery shut down in the 1990s, planners in the struggling town of Paradise, Newfoundland, changed zoning codes to permit home-based businesses. This helped to kick-start local innovations (such as a cloth diaper service) and set the tone for diversification of the local economy. (In Paradise, the opening of offshore oil development in the late 90’s finally brought robust economic growth in 1997.)
Ann McAfee seconded the importance of “economic gardening” – policies that nurture local businesses incubating in basements and garages rather than replying on attracting high tech or other industries from elsewhere. Further developing the “economic gardening” metaphor, Akin Ogunkeye, a community planner from the City of Welland, ON, urged governments to offer incentives that ease the transplantation of growing businesses from being startups to being places of employment “without injuring their stems and branches.”
Ann pointed out the critical role of planners in shaping municipal budgets to reflect priorities that community members express through engagement. Ron Marini, a planner from the City of Hamilton, agrees that we need to challenge the assumption that public works departments, not planners, necessarily control municipalities’ capital budgets. Works are built to achieve multiple objectives; roads are not just transportation but also public space. A Niagara planner added that recognizing multiple objectives may enable planners to draw funding from many sources, giving the example of the city’s trail system, which functions as greenways and transportation, promoting environmental conservation and active living.
Rino warned against complacency in the face of the current apparent economic improvements, which could be temporary responses to stimulus money. Planning for growth could be dangerous in this context. (On the other hand, as Bev Nicolson, a planner from the Town of Georgian Bluffs, countered, failing to be optimistic and not planning for growth could stifle possible employment generators.)
Paul Smithson made the difficult and wise point that many Canadian municipalities like his home of Burlington, Ontario, are approaching a “mature state”, with no greenfields left to be developed. Growth needs to come from infill and intensification, which involve much more work to build and plan than greenfield developments. As planners, we must advise decision-makers to resist seeking quick fixes. This calls for systems change. Are society’s values definitively shifting away from demanding unsustainable land-gobbling suburban growth?
A surprising and eager discussion ensued about whether values professed by many young Canadians (like urban living and transit orientation) represent real generational change (as Rino argued hopefully) or whether (as Ann despaired) they are simply the perpetual and temporary attitudes of youth who have yet to face the dream-crushing realities of working and raising families. Monica, a planner from the County of Huron, reminded us that the special role of planners, unlike other professions, is to consider the long term. It is critical for planners to use their skills to engage young people, and to incorporate their values into policy.
A critical decision that planners must make is whether it is wise to respond to recessionary conditions with government incentives that, in turn, create future economic burdens. Bev Nicolson pointed out that the current downturn can be viewed as an opportunity for planners and policymakers to pause, reflect and change policy directions. She urged the OPPI to facilitate the restructuring of planning departments to address the present compartmentalization of planners into very specific roles that make it difficult to think and act holistically.
Rico’s closing summary of this event touched on planners’ far-sightedness, skills and diverse experiences as important assets in facing economic crisis. He sited general agreement that policy recommendations should support local economic diversity and livability and pedestrian-friendliness in urban neighbourhoods. The panelists intend to prepare a publication further developing points raised in today’s discussion (perhaps for the Ontario Planning Journal). We hope to be able to direct you to this upcoming exploration of planning in a recession once it is published!