Megacity not in the cards for Lower Mainland
Local politicians say changing the regional government’s name from Greater Vancouver Regional District to Metro Vancouver doesn’t mean a megacity like Toronto is the next move.
This region now has a spiffy new name – Metro Vancouver – replacing the clunky old Greater Vancouver Regional District.
Could the name change approved this summer be just the first step towards a mass merger of the 21 member municipalities into one giant megacity like Toronto or Montreal?
Not likely, according to a sampling of politicians and experts.
They offer an avalanche of reasons why it will never happen, even though a single urban entity for 2.2 million residents might look more appealing on a map or bring greater clout on the national stage.
The case for going big is usually rooted in the premise taxpayers will save money by slashing away redundant civic bureaucrats, politicians and buildings around the region.
It sounds plausible, but observers say the megacity experience has been a financial disaster in eastern Canada.
Both Toronto and Montreal saw total spending rise around 15% after amalgamation, instead of going down.
“The promise of savings haven’t materialized,” said Gordon Price, director of SFU’s City Program. “Toronto wouldn’t do it again. And Montreal has reversed it to some degree.”
Indeed, half of the 28 cities that merged to form the new Montreal in 2002 have since been allowed to opt out.
And Toronto has no fewer than 45 council members.
Why did costs go up and not down?
Price said managers and especially unionized workers tended to end up with the most generous pay and contract provisions found around the region.
And residents demanded more decentralized services and representation close to their neighbourhoods than expected.
It would likewise be impossible here to expect Maple Ridge or Surrey residents to go to Vancouver to get a building permit, or to have a single councillor serve all of the North Shore.
Then there are the intangibles.
Citizens overwhelmingly demand local control and would also fight tooth and nail to retain the character of their cities, said Richmond Mayor Malcolm Brodie.
“An amalgamated city would lose that individuality or identity,” he said, predicting his voters would never agree to it.
“To put everybody into one city just wouldn’t work,” adds Surrey Coun. Marvin Hunt. “I don’t think anybody is going to argue that the residents of Vancouver think the same as the residents of Surrey.”
Delta Mayor Lois Jackson, who chairs the regional board, insists the renaming of the GVRD is strictly about re-branding the organization, and not a preliminary move toward a megacity.
If locals have no appetite for a voluntary amalgamation into a super city, it could only happen if the provincial government forced it upon them.
And Price calls that extremely unlikely.
For one thing, a megacity would mean creating a regional mayor that would be a political rival to the premier.
Forced amalgamation would also stir up such a hornet’s nest with local voters that the government of the day could expect to get badly punished in the next provincial election.
“I can’t imagine a Liberal MLA on the North Shore surviving amalgamation,” he said. “There’s just no political advantage to it.”
Price said there’s perhaps more justification for limited amalgamations of selected areas – the North Shore, perhaps White Rock and South Surrey.
But on the whole, he doesn’t see small as bad.
In fact, Price says Metro Vancouver’s smaller members – Port Moody, White Rock, North Vancouver City and Langley City – often overcome their size disadvantage by generating some of the region’s best ideas.
“When I look around the region for urban innovation, that’s where I tend to see it.”
Regional leaders also agree the GVRD – now Metro Vancouver – has done a good job of forging regional consensus where possible.
It’s held up as a successful model for regional governance that’s studied with envy by other major cities around the world.
While local cities handle most of the closer-to-home development and planning issues, the regional board oversees a regional growth strategy that’s now being redrawn.
It’s also in charge of the main sewer treatment plants, water reservoirs, recycling and waste management, regional parks and air quality – areas generally where it makes sense for cities to work together rather than going it alone.
Some expansion of those regional roles is possible.
Metro Vancouver is taking on a greater responsibility for disaster preparation and response co-ordination.
It’s also trying to take the lead in finding solutions to the high cost of housing and homelessness.
Price sees potential for an eventual move to a single regional police force and a co-ordinated approach to developing and running cultural and sports venues.
To this point, he said, regionally significant museums, galleries, theatres and stadiums tend to get hosted by Vancouver, when it would often make more sense to spread more of them around the region, along with the costs.
Instead, outer cities tend to have much smaller cultural and sport venues.
Plans for a new National Maritime Centre in North Vancouver, rather than Vancouver, is an example of what Price thinks should happen more often.
Major new stadiums could be located anywhere on the rapid transit system, he argues, rather than just downtown.
Hunt says the concept makes some sense if it were pursued rationally.
“I would be all for it if logic ever prevailed,” he said.
But he suspects Vancouver’s main aim would be to offload costs on its neighbours.
And he said major sports team owners insist on building venues like GM Place and now a new waterfront soccer stadium downtown despite the availability of cheaper land elsewhere.
Hunt said they invariably choose downtown because that’s where the offices of corporate sponsors and season ticket-buying executives are based, even though most fans live elsewhere.
“So we have SkyTrain absolutely plugged going in and plugged going out and all the main streets plugged anytime the Canucks have a game,” he said.
Hunt predicts a single regional police force won’t happen, in part because local cities like to have some influence in setting policing priorities.
“If we had one regional police force, most of the resources would end up in the downtown area of Vancouver,” he said.
Much as the regional district already delivers most services that make sense for regional provision, Hunt said RCMP and municipal police forces across the Lower Mainland already work together through a series of integrated enforcement teams and other initiatives on fronts where regional co-operation is logical.