Should you bother voting? This question comes up often. Some people are disenfranchised by politics or unsure of who to vote for, so they don’t bother voting. We see that play out in elections. In 2018, a paltry 43 per cent of Ottawa’s population bothered to vote with similar numbers in last June’s provincial election.
But it is essential that people exercise their democratic choice. Municipal politics has the biggest and most direct impact on our daily lives, from transit, to garbage collection, parks, roads and emergency services. What should you pay attention to? And why should you listen to an architect? Why does an architect care about municipal politics? Because architecture is inherently a political act. Let’s take a range of issues and understand that architectural-political connection.
It’s important to remember that politicians often make decisions based on staff input. However, that input may be directed by council. Regardless of how the information lands at the council table, the final decision rests with elected officials who must be held accountable.
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Taxes: Cities have limited abilities to raise revenue, largely as a result of the structure of our government. Cities, as creatures of the provinces, can only really raise funds through property taxes and user fees. These must pay for, to a large extent, everything we need and want out of our city. About half our revenue comes from property taxes, while less than 20 per cent comes from the province and a fractional two per cent from the federal government. We know that, in Ottawa, it costs the city about $500 per year per household to provide services to suburban homes versus urban infill, which generates over $600 per year more than the cost of servicing. Property taxes fund infrastructure renewal (roads, bridges, sidewalks, pipes delivering water and taking away sewage); they fund libraries, fire stations, community centres and other city services; they fund public transit, park maintenance and snow plowing. We can’t maintain or lower property taxes if we keep on subsidizing suburban expansion and building ever more roads, subdivisions and far-flung communities.
Transportation: Politicians make decisions on where our LRT will run, how it will be designed and built (and by whom) and how to set the fares. Political decisions, tied to where suburbs grow (and who builds them), will affect where we spend money on roads. Approving new shopping complexes can mean city investment in wider roads, turning lanes or dedicated transit service.
Housing: Understanding the political impact on housing is equally complex and should be looked at through two perspectives: affordable housing and housing affordability. On affordable housing (subsidized or other forms of below-market housing such as shelters or transitional housing), politicians set city budgets that determine how many homes we build for those in need. Related, politicians set budgets for supportive housing and related services in mental health, social services and other supports that help the most marginalized. When it comes to housing affordability, likewise, politicians set policy around planning approval, density and allowable built form that directly impacts how much it costs to build homes. Since 2013, we’ve known that planning approval, something politicians like to have a say in, affects housing affordability; every month of delay adds $20,000 per home per month to the total economic impact of a project, with one-third of that being direct construction cost.
On these three items alone, your voice matters. Who you choose to send to sit at the council table, or in the mayor’s seat, will impact how your city is governed over the next four years. It will also set a path for the future, showing how our city chooses to move to resolve critical issues around accessibility, equity and inclusion (snow clearing as a gender equity issue); climate change (cities are home to 80 per cent of Canadians; buildings and transportation affect 75 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions).
Choosing who makes these decisions and understanding their impact on you, your children and grandchildren is essential if you want to create a city we can all aspire to: one where people feel welcome; where festivals and attractions bring tourists and provide a vibrant social culture for residents; where transit is reliable, affordable and takes you where you want to go; where parks, public washrooms and sustainable buildings create a positive quality of life for everyone.
Beyond these basic practical issues, architecture remains political in and of itself.
Politicians make decisions about grand (and not so grand) monuments. From central libraries to major transit systems, decisions made by politicians create our cities and leave lasting legacies. We might not think about it too often, but structures like the Eiffel Tower, the Parthenon or the Colosseum are great works of architecture that are also examples of political decisions.
Contemporary decision-making is no different. Consider how Expo 86 shaped downtown Vancouver, bringing in the SkyTrain, BC Place Dome and redevelopment of the False Creek area, setting the stage for the Vancouver Olympics a generation later. Ottawa, always a political creature, has been similarly shaped. The Greber Commission shaped our city, set up the destruction of LeBreton Flats, paved the way (literally) for the growth of suburbs and car dependency. The creation of the National Gallery, Museum of History and others were political decisions made by a federal government playing a direct role in city building.
We can be the city we want to be. A place where people feel welcome, where small businesses can thrive and where homes exist for those who want one. We can be a sustainable capital city, showing the world what a G7 capital city can be. But we can’t get there if we don’t vote. The time is now. Vote.
Toon Dreessen is the president of Architects DCA, an Ottawa-based architecture practice, and past president of the Ontario Association of Architects.