Sunday, October 18, 2009

Oshawa and Whitby Part 2 - the Jekyll and Hyde story

Downtown Oshawa at Night

Oshawa and Whitby are by no means the only twin cities with Jekyll and Hyde personalities. Examples abound. The question is why?

Though the same police agency patrols both cities, they seem to have very different downtown crime profiles. Policing, though important, does not determine safety or crime. Same thing with population size - both cities have similar populations (though not demographics). Perhaps economics or jobs tells the story? After all, Whitby is just east of a burgeoning Metro Toronto and surely draws more commuters. Oshawa hosts a large GM plant and a blue collar workforce. Yet a countervailing example is found on Toronto's western boundary where a city of similar size, Oakville, also hosts a large automotive plant, yet looks nothing like Oshawa.

The deck of causation cards

Criminologists play with such theories like they are shuffling a deck of causation cards. Police tactics here, economics there. Urbanization here, population density there.

As Jane Jacobs told us, you don't really get a clear picture until you get out of theory-land and get onto the street for a closer look. That's where you begin to see how planning and development decisions make a big difference.

Look at social assistance facilities, or more importantly the density of those facilities in the downtown of both places. You'll see a difference right away. Ask a few land use questions and you'll see the picture come more into focus: What is the population diversity in each downtown? Can people of different incomes live comfortably downtown? What services are available for residents, for example can you buy milk? Where is the bakery? Is there a Laundromat? Are there coffee-shops, bookstores?

Here is what I saw: Little population diversity, no middle income residences, pawn shops and check cashing stores, vacant storefronts, no convenience stores or shops for locals, and a number of social assistance facilities. Guess which downtown I am describing?

Don't misunderstand - social assistance facilities like drug and alcohol rehab, welfare assistance, and halfway houses serve a vital role. Some locate downtown due to access to public transit. Others cluster downtown due to NIBMYism from ostrich suburbs.

Bad decisions = bad results

Whatever the case, bad decisions trigger bad results, like decisions in land use, planning and development. These decisions (and these decision-makers) bear the greatest culpability for the Hyde’s or praise for the Jekyll’s. Next time you see a Jekyll and Hyde story in your city, ask who makes these decisions:

* Decisions to help (or not) floundering downtown business.
* Decisions to build mixed use zoning with residential above storefront commercial.
* Decisions to give tax breaks and renovation stimulus funds to places that build community not tear it down.
* Decisions to help turn vacant buildings into artist’s lofts and historic properties into landmarks.
* Decisions to hold absentee landlords and slumlords accountable for their properties.

No doubt government programs, quality policing (or lack thereof) and big-E economics play a role. But don't look for Big Gov or Big Corps to turn communities around. We've done that far too long and look where it got us. The spark for positive change rests elsewhere.