Saturday, February 02, 2008

Avoiding the Bedroom

There was a time not so long ago when Highway 400 was exactly what's it's called - a highway. In those days, people would drive upwards of 100 km/h (or more!) to travel between Barrie - a medium-sized city - and Toronto* - a very big city.

*GTA is a more accurate name, but does anybody outside the GTA really know where Vaughn begins and ends? I thought not.

Nowadays, Barrie lives within the economic event-horizon of the GTA (see, I can do it!) and the 400 is just another commuter lane. For all intents and purposes, Barrie is now a bedroom community of Toronto - like Mississauga, Etobicoke, York, and the rest of the GTA gang. It's just another checkpoint in the mad rush to flee Toronto's environs. It's a chance to barter an extra-long commute and much less family time for affordable housing and a patch of green near the back door.

The results have been predictable, of course. Housing is no longer affordable. The population of Barrie falls and swells to the workaday rhythms of those glass-skirted skyscrapers to the south. And the 400, it's just another parking lot. For those wretched souls sitting inside their cars or their GO trains, madly mashing their thumbs into their Blackberries to send their assurances they'll make the second half of Junior's soccer game, this cannot be a life fully imagined.

So why do I care?

I care because London - our all-mixed-up, little-town-in-big-britches London - is slowly and almost inexorably headed for Toronto's bedroom. It's true that we have a little more geography between Us and Them, but it's mattering less.

Our own economic giants of yesterday are gone or disappearing. The examples - they're easy to find. Canada Trust is being held hostage somewhere near the Skydome while London Life is tethered to a post at Portage and Main. These institutions once gave us the economic clout to stand on our own and thrive. The echoes of what's left tell another story. While the buildings still stand, they are but branch plants serving masters beyond the farms and hills that have always provided a sort of common sense to the city as a whole. We all know there are other examples. The London Free Press, McCormick's, O-Pee-Chee - no longer master's of their own domains.

So where am I going with this?

It's all part of of an unhealthy trend - these worrisome clues:

City Hall, the Chamber of Commerce, and LHBA chant the mantra that 'Growth is good' - all the while having no real vision what we're supposed to be when we 'grow up'. Mississauga is offered as a model. Being small-townish is now provincial and to be avoided. Success is to be measured by size - big homes, big geography, big box.

Housing prices in London have risen sharply, and no one can really explain why. Housing starts are at all-time highs while our jobless rate stubbornly sticks to 6% year after year.

The city has spawned unimaginative tentacles of bland subdivisions into the countryside, using more bland big-box stores to serve as battlements against being a Livable City. In it's wake the core crumbles. And the final irony - big boxes abandon their boxes for bigger boxes a little closer to the edge of town. And we follow along.

Our local economy lurches toward the Scylla and Charybdis of a weak economic base - Call Centers and Auto Manufacturing. As both industries siphon themselves to places where the sun is warmer and wages are lower, we in London continue to celebrate and embrace them.

More and more, private sector, high-incomes earners live in London and work (at least part-time) somewhere else. Check the Via station or airport on a weekday morning, and you'll find Londoners (unhappily) doing their regular commute to Somewhere Else (Toronto and Winnipeg are regularly destinations). Some forward-thinking companies are even running their own daily bus shuttle between London and the GTA. London has become cheap office space, but we don't run our own show, it seems. Is this a life fully imagined?

In short, we are becoming our own Mississauga. No real focus or identity or personality of our own. No real control over our own lives. No longer author's of our own stories. A home-grown service industry susceptible to the economic whims of grey suits in other places.

This is not a screed against Toronto or growth or economic success. This is simply my small wake-up cry that we're no longer calling our own shots. And I fear it will get worse.

I have no answers, really. We need to keep focused on our strengths - medicine, education, a still-reasonable standard of living, culture, etc. But we need economic decision-makers in London. We need to be masters of our own domain once more. We need to support the notion of 'being local'.

So how about it you Londoners, you LEDCers, you City Hallers, you Ambassadors - how do we stay out of the bedroom?


Sonny Drysdale said...

But CL - if we don't become a sprawling mess of urban blight, our taxes will go up.

We need a bigger tax-base to support the life-style to which we have become accustomed. At least that's what Gordo Hume and Tom Gosnell tell us.

But here's a thought - if we don't build them a performance arts centre, they may not come.

Anonymous said...