We are living in an era of deregulation, and we are now suffering its consequences

Urban planning is all about imposing regulations. That’s why it took so long for urban planning to be accepted throughout North America. Back in the 50s it was considered to be communism. Urban planning is all about imposing regulations so that property values can be protected. A common problem that exists today concerns owners who neglect their property, are not doing maintenance or even abandon them altogether. Causes can be social or economic such as poverty, an aging population, an aging housing stock, feeling threatened etc. That can negatively affect the value of neighbouring properties. Similarly, developers have perfected the process of buying up housing that is somewhat in disrepair but still viable, allowing it to deteriorate further with the intention of eventually demolishing and rebuilding at a higher density or totally renovating thereby displacing existing tenants and upgrading to more lucrative accommodation. Regulations can be imposed which are totally unfair and undemocratic creating gated communities that are allowed to flourish even though they represent obvious prejudices and the antithesis of what good urban planning is supposed to be about. Regulations in themselves, innovative urban planning, cannot in itself solve social or economic problems.

As an architect and urban planner who began his professional practice in the 60s, I always considered the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] in the US as the greatest accomplishment – dedicated to achieving clean air and clean water through the imposition of regulations. It is unbelievable that the EPA was started by Richard Nixon, a Republican president. Then came the Republican Ronald Reagan, a champion of free trade, who promoted the concept of deregulation as a way of achieving lots of new jobs, but at a much lower pay, some at the minimum wage level. He started his presidency by firing 3000 air traffic controllers who were on strike for better pay. Is there anyone more vital to consumer protection/safety matters then an air traffic controller? The 60s produced such champions of consumer protection as Ralph Nader [Ref. “Unsafe at any Speed”] who fought for regulations regarding car safety. He is an icon, and we should always be deeply grateful to him because he has to be credited with bringing in safety belt regulations for cars. He has earned his place in history and should be forgiven for his running for presidency thereby splitting the Democratic vote so that Bush, a Republican, was able to get elected

More recently we had four years of the Trump presidency. He was determined to dismantle the EPA and has certainly managed to emasculate it. That was a terrible mistake, and no self-respecting architect or urban planner should ever forgive him for doing it. His admirers point out that a breakthrough of sorts was accomplished in the Middle East in regard to Israel. But they never aknowledge the harm he has done to the EPA or the fact that he pulled out of the Paris Accord and ignored global warming and climate change. We are now in the midst of suffering the consequences of that neglect; of Trump’s promoting deregulation to the extreme and of his distrust of expertise

As a born and bred Quebecer, I always found it remarkable that whatever happens in the States eventually comes to Quebec. There is tremendous admiration and an affinity of Quebecers to the “american way”. Deregulation was embraced in Québec in 1994 with the issuing of its new Civil Code. It deregulated building inspections saying that a prepurchase inspection could be done even by the buyer, that there was no need of expert assistance [those exact words], and the only requirement is whoever does it has to be prudent and diligent. Now, 25 years later, experts are not doing prepurchase building inspections. They are being done by all kinds of retired tradesmen or low paid technologists. Most belong to self-regulated associations under the influence of the real estate industry where real estate agents refer to them as “certified inspectors”. It is similar to what is happening in the States where there are inspection franchises that are bought and sold like any other business. The same franchises also operate in Quebec. The basis of it all is a classic example of a conflict of interest – inspectors are chosen or recommended by real estate agents. Ironically, the resulting low-cost superficial inspection reports are replete with referrals to experts whenever a defect of a serious nature is discovered. The architects and engineers who should be doing inspections, have been priced out of the market.

Architects and engineers can now operate in a deregulated manner, one involving laissez-faire and self-policing. Although the code of ethics of architects and engineers hasn’t changed [tell the truth, protect the public], it hardly applies because architects and urban planners seem to be more involved in aesthetics and preservation matters rather than in consumer protection. We now have design/build contracts consisting of companies providing services which combines the work of contractors and architects under one roof. They prepare the plans, choose the engineers to act as their consultants, and supervise the construction work – a package deal where they are policing themselves. Even the engineers get to police themselves and the architects don’t interfere with their work although they have been engaged by the architect who should be capable of verifying that their work is correct. The definition of an expert as defined by the Courts is someone who must be independent, objective and impartial. There has to be checks and balances by independent experts if the public is to be protected. In the end, buildings have to be healthy and safe, and the best way to accomplish that is when there is some independent oversight.

Urban planning as a profession has also become mostly deregulated because politicians like to act as if they are urban planners. Those same politicians will ignore their own urban planning departments when it suits them and pursue their own agendas. Moreover, many civil servants working in urban planning departments, don’t have any academic background in the profession. They have worked their way up through the ranks because they are good administrators possibly with a financial or accounting background and have become directors of the department proving the Peter principle “people in a hierarchy tend to rise to the maximum level of incompetence”.

All the examples I’ve given so far concern the macro environment. I would like to give an example of deregulation in a microenvironment, one that most users of urban parks can identify with. My kids [now adults] used to spend an inordinate amount of time in Westmount Park located in the municipality of Westmount, part of greater Montreal, because I live near the park. Ice cream vendors in the summer were usually students doing a summer job and there were regulations against them entering the park itself. They had to ply their “goodies” from the city sidewalks at the perimeter of the park, depending on a bicycle bell to attract attention. They wore white uniforms and many of them were just adolescents. The other day, I was with my 4-year-old grandson who also lives in Westmount close to the same park. We were in the play area and the ice cream vendor, a middle-aged man not in uniform and looking very comfortable, was sitting on a park bench within the children’s play area, and his bicycle cart of goodies was close by. I watched how kids began nagging their mothers to buy them one of the goodies, as kids are apt to do. At some point, naturally, they would go into a tantrum and the parent would cave in, just to put a stop to that kind of behaviour. My grandson was no different and my daughter, his mother, succumbed to his nagging. She bought a five colour popsicle stick [his choice]. It was about 6 inches tall. It cost 4-dollars. After about 15 minutes he tired of the popsicle, there was sticky stuff all over his hands and face, and he wanted to get back to playing and running around. My job was to hold onto the popsicle, but It’s not something you can hold onto in warm weather. I took it upon myself to dispose of it. After 15 minutes of play my grandson asked for his popsicle back. When he found out that I threw it out, he started howling for his popsicle and throwing another tantrum. The vendor was still present surrounded by lots of nagging kids. My daughter decided to buy another 4-dollar popsicle. It was clear to me that the “ice cream man” should not be allowed in the park, let alone the children’s play area. There used to be regulations against it, and they should now be reimposed and implemented. Also, if anyone chooses to taste what the popsicle is like, as I did, you can appreciate that there should be regulations against selling that kind of product to kids. It tasted very sugary, and I got the impression that it had not been made out of fruit juices. My daughter does make them at home on occasion using fruit juices so I know what that tastes like. The ice cream man’s popsicle tasted differently, like artificial flavouring and I suspect the five colours represent artificial colouring.

The city of Westmount is now in the process of considering the redesign of parts of Westmount Park. They have hired a very reputable design firm to come up with a design which is now being evaluated by a citizen’s survey. I can’t help but think of the old adage – the best type of renewal starts with maintenance. The feedback from many citizens, which is now being expressed in letters to the editor in the local newspaper, has come up with the old adage – “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. The park is very popular and extensively used. If anything, it is overcrowded. Maintenance has been cut back due to the pandemic and because some city councilors believe that it would be worthwhile to consider a redesign. This whole notion of having consultations before a new project is implemented sounds very democratic but often only the participation of a limited number of people and special-interest groups. You can’t solve problems of overcrowding or abusive behaviour such as that of the ice cream vendor or, bicyclists choosing to ride their bikes through the park’s walkways, through design upgrades. Regulations are needed and they have to be enforced to resolve those kinds of problems. Good maintenance should precede redesign, a design which has already proven itself.

Some of the best urban planning and architecture has come from a closer examination of what has already been built which includes things that were achieved without regulations [anonymous indigenous architecture]. Architects and urban planners can learn a lot from doing building inspections of existing buildings. No extension should ever be considered without a thorough inspection of existing conditions. A good inspection looks at the way buildings are used, includes interviewing the occupants, finding out what the problems are, whether or not a healthy and safe environment has been created. As someone who has made a career of that kind of activity, I have a great admiration for journalists who seem to be following the code of ethics of architects and engineers – tell the truth, protect the public. Many of them are doing the work that urban planners should be doing, and they are paying the price for their integrity. Throughout history the solution that has been chosen where choices were available, was to “shoot the messenger” so as to avoid criticism. We have to do better than that. Deregulation represents a step backward.

#deregulation #urbanplanning #architecture #consumerprotection #urbandesign #globalwarmingclimatechange #creatinghealthyenvironments #buildinginspection #prepurchaseinspections

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