Time to Think Locally in London

I wrote this from a chair at the Morrissey yesterday– one of my favourite local businesses in London, Ontario. There’s a few reasons I love the Mo’. One – it’s owned and operated by my good and long-time friend Mark Serre (and perhaps some silent investors.) Two – the beer menu always features local craft beers – or at least as local as Muskoka and Barrie, though often more local than that. The food menu – The Mo’ sources as much of its food locally as possible. I therefore believe, notwithstanding that I’m taking a rare turn and drinking a Rolling Rock, that I am keeping to my values of shopping locally.

A very recent discussion, about a downtown Grocery store, and the stated need for a downtown grocery store, has inspired me to write again about London’s approach to economic development and the constant desire to find a magic pill to ease all our troubles, rather than pursue a plan of day-to-day actions taken to ensure a vibrant local economy. Many people will blame these failures on City Hall. Having worked in politics though, and knowing how much politicians do to please constituents, even in the face of wrongful assumptions about City growth and human behaviour, I can tell you the blame does not lie solely with our local government, though certainly a great deal does lie there.

Rather, there is a complex system that is at fault for the way our City has grown and multiple reasons for the way London has developed. First, we’re all guilty to some degree, through our investments in banks, RRSPs, and retirement plans, of putting money into the world of Real Estate development. Certainly we don’t have a lot of control – all of the major Banks invest in Real Estate as do most Credit Unions. Only the pursuit of the alternative of a local banking system, with input from investors, and ethical rules of investment, could begin to lay the groundwork for any kind of development that doesn’t simply pursue proven, sole-use developments. Investors traditionally have shied away from risky investments, a category which sadly includes Rental Housing. A better, (ie safer) investment is 250 units of Single-Family Housing in a Single-Family neighbourhood built in a greenfield. Redevelopment of heritage or brownfields requires much more risk and mixed-use developments create a need for complex financial arrangements that may or may not ensure a Return on Investment. But so long as these investments compete with, say, Greek short-term Bonds, it is difficult for developers to secure financing.

Much like the dilemma of Detroit Automaker, who both form and respond to consumer demand, the question is, did the market create the housing, or did the housing offered create the market. Perhaps we’ll never know the answer to this question but younger people are quickly making clear they don’t desire the same kind of lifestyle that our Post-War, Baby Boomer parents did. City of London Urban Designer Sean Galloway said to me recently that CMHC statistics showed that sales of pre-built housing was outpacing new construction. While I have some reservations about those statistics (the housing bust has led to collapse of new construction while house purchases are still a part of our economy and therefore, increased purchases of re-sold properties are a natural result – see the Tweet below ) it does suggest that more young people are looking for more traditional neighbourhoods.

@LFPress London Free Press
BREAKING: Housing starts tumble in London CMA – 145 homes in May 2011 compared to 534 in May 2010.

To get back to my original point though, we need to encourage London residents to think about the results of their everyday decisions. All Canadians should. It’s easy (and convenient) to buy the cheapest product, in the biggest Box Store but the long-term consequences of these decisions produce the result of reduced local business opportunities, reduced benefits from employment, reduced opportunities to substitute for imported goods and ultimately, in an economic health situation that is largely beyond our control. If everyone shops at The Home Depot, how long can Copps Buildall continue to operate in downtown London – which incidentally is a source of economic diversity and cross-use of districts. The pressure created by massive buildings like the Renaissance don’t help either – Mr. Copps is sitting on perhaps a $10 Million development site as a result of the heights and built-form density or FSI (amount of the area covered by building) given to the project. While stagnation is not healthy, neither are massive jolts of economic stimulus through one or two building sites or buildings that stand-alone architecturally from everything that surrounds them. The result is similar to the leap-frogging that occurred in Scarborough in the 1960’s that led to significant changes in their Official Plans due to the wasted land that was left in-between these massive ‘Garden City’ developments.

Neighbourhoods are a sum of their parts. Their strength comes from the variation in the strong buildings – not from one or two projects that act as a draw, or a major player in any neighbourhood. Projects of this nature tend to kill their surroundings, like One London Place killed commercial demand in the downtown London core, resulting in an increase in the number of surface parking lots and spaces. London’s plethora of downtown parking acts as a canary in a coalmine for economic failure. When the parking spaces outnumber the interesting places to go, to shop, to work and to live; you’ve failed.

Again, I digress.

London’s economy is a result of these decisions – our daily decisions about life and work. When an employer chooses low taxes over ease of transportation access for her workers, she creates further need for parking, for roads, for tax revenues to provide for those and by using a site by herself, reduces diversity of use and the economic efficiency that Cities are supposed to offer. The result, over the long-haul is to make her business less attractive to employees, less innovative, less supportive of a tax base that helps create the economy in which she’ll thrive – we’re paving roads instead of building Convergence Centres, Performing Arts Centres or affordable housing.

So we end-up getting only businesses that are part of a chain with proven results and a proven business concept and ultimately, through zoning, disallow all but a scarce few locally-owned businesses to pursue similar commercial opportunities. A local business is required by the City to meet the exact same zoning requirements as a non-local, chain or multi-national that can often afford to provide these as a tiny part of a larger corporate plan. Parking costs can much more easily be subsidized through the chain restaurant than by the local business person. A local business also relies on walk-up and casual customers and generally thrive in places where word-of-mouth can flourish. Old South and Old East are great examples of neighbourhoods that have these businesses. The Westmount area is a great example of a pre-planned neighbourhood that lacks all but large, generic commercial opportunities. By reducing commercial opportunities to those zones exclusively demarcated for such activity, through supply/demand, price and regulation, local opportunities are zoned out.

It’s a big circular negative feedback system. The less we shop locally, the more we increase the demand for more Box Stores. The more we drive, the more we demand roads, the more demand for parking, which favours big businesses and harms those who can’t afford cars. It’s inequitable, it’s unfair and it doesn’t do anything to advance our economic goals of lifting people from poverty to the middle class through opportunity.

So please. The next time you’re thinking about going shopping, consider what you’re purchasing and whether there is any local or small-business alternative. Not all goods can be provided as an alternative – those are the best of which to minimize our use. However, those that can be provided by local business ultimately contribute much more to our economy than the few cents we save on the price of the purchase. Local business also provides many more benefits that aren’t found in price – better customer service, recognized loyalty, connection-making and greater circulation of money in the local economy are just a few.

This is why I say, think Locally in London. We need a campaign that reminds people that every single dollar they spend goes somewhere and carries with it a signal. That signal either says, “I love homogeneous environments where little happens out of the ordinary” or it says “I prefer vibrant, walkable neighbourhoods that create multiple economic opportunities and unique places.” Then, perhaps the Methadone Clinics wouldn’t stand out like a sore thumb in a barely-filled punch-bowl.

Once we realize this, there will be little need for London Free Press articles begging the question: “Who are we?” It will be everywhere, in front of us.


4 Responses to “Time to Think Locally in London”

  1. June 8, 2011 at 12:58 pm

    I have been enjoying your tweets today and this article is also well appreciated. I wish I had some comments to add to inspire dialogue. Maybe it’s the heat, maybe the political climate, maybe just life itself but I have little energy these past few days. Lacking the drive to express myself, it is great to be able to read thoughts similar to my own. Thanks.

  2. June 8, 2011 at 1:03 pm

    I’m glad someone’s listening, and even moreso, enjoying my random vague chatter. lol Thanks!

  3. June 8, 2011 at 1:16 pm

    Bravo! As a longtime (almost lifetime) downtown London resident I am often driven by these exact thoughts when making purchases and glad to hear that other are doing the same. CHEERS!

  4. June 8, 2011 at 1:24 pm

    Thanks Lincoln! You’d probably also enjoy the book “The Smallmart Revolution” by Michael Shuman, an American economist. I borrow liberally from his ideas, combine w/ Jacobs, Florida and the like and apply to London. That book talks a lot about how local economies depend on local spending and local business. In London, something like %93 of firms are Small to Medium-sized, 10 employees or less being the highest portion of that. These are most often local businesses. Where it’s been studied, dollars spent at local businesses get re-circulated at a rate about 5-times that of money spent at chain stores. We rob from our neighbours when we shop at Big Boxes.

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