Urban Political Authority: Regulating the Urban Environment

Cattle drive down Main Street, Barkerville, 1898. Source: City of Vancouver Archives.

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Tuesday, May 31, 2016
Time: 10:15am to 12pm
Location: Sciences Theatres 61

On Tuesday, May 31, 2016, I will be on a joint panel of the annual meetings of the Canadian Historical Association and the Canadian Political Science Association. The title of our panel is “Urban Political Authority: Regulating the Urban Environment.” This is part of a multi-panel workshop on urban political authority that is paired with a second panel called, “Urban Political Authority: Governance, Public Policy, and Expertise.”

Our panel focuses on the regulation of urban environments in Canada and includes papers by me, Mark Sholdice, James Hull, and Jamie Benidickson. The topics include hydro-electricity, urban livestock, municipal expertise, and sewage. This should be a lively session and a great opportunity to discuss key issues in the urban environmental history of Canada. To get a sense of what will be discussed, here is a brief description of each paper:

Mark Sholdice, “Ontario’s Hydro in Municipal Provincial Politics, 1906-1939”

This paper will investigate the role of the Hydro-Electric Power Commission of Ontario (“the Hydro”) in municipal politics. Initially conceived of as a distributor of privately produced power, Hydro Chairman Sir Adam Beck quickly reoriented the Hydro towards a monopoly on production and transmission, with distribution to a network of allied municipal utilities. Beck’s empire-building began a new phase in 1914 with his plan to create an electric railway network to connect the major centres of Southwestern Ontario. This increased activity, along with various expansion plans, led to conflicts with the City of Toronto, other municipalities, and the provincial cabinet. This paper will evaluate the municipal political activities of the Hydro, outlining the commission’s role in directing and funding its own pressure groups and its influence on municipal partisanship, particularly in Toronto. The Hydro helped to recast political alliances on municipal councils, with the rise of pro-commission factions in many areas. Overall, the Hydro developed policy in a relatively independent manner throughout the era, mixing Progressive Era reformism with power politics.

Sean Kheraj, “Governing Urban Livestock in Nineteenth-Century Canada”

In the nineteenth century, municipal governments in Canada spent a lot of time thinking about animals. Some of the earliest municipal by-laws were concerned with the management of domestic livestock in cities. Domestic animals were a part of everyday life in nineteenth-century Canadian cities, critical sources of labour and food that supported the development and growth of large urban centres. As the human population of cities grew, the use of such animals became more complicated, requiring municipal governments to develop and amend regulations to facilitate continued exploitation of domestic animals while mitigating any adverse effects.

Using Montreal, Toronto, and Winnipeg as case studies, this paper will examine the development of municipal regulations concerning domestic animals in the nineteenth century. It will show that these regulations were intended to manage an asymmetrical symbiotic relationship between people and livestock that allowed for the development of these cities. A set of common characteristics and concerns influenced the governance of animals in nineteenth-century Canadian cities, including ideas of private property, public health, and the behaviours and biology of specific species of domestic animals. As North American urban chicken advocates struggle to convince city councils to permit small-scale livestock husbandry in the twenty-first century, this paper illustrates the regulatory complexities involved in the management of domestic animals in cities.

James Hull, “Expertise and Municipal Governance: The Case of Toronto, 1891-1914”

Contentions surrounding reform of municipal governance in Toronto involved, in part, the increasing involved of scientific and engineering expertise to address problems of the urban built and natural environment. While elected officials retained decision-making authority, both hired its own expert personnel – medical officers of health, city engineers, city architects and the like – as well as extra-mural “experts” became a part of the making and the administering of those decisions. Through both classes of expert ideas which were common currency among professionalized sanitarians, engineers and the like found specific application. In the case of Toronto two factors which particularly informed the manner in which such expertise was acquired and applied were a) the city’s status as a junior level of government in a federal state and b) the presence of a major university in the city.

Jamie Benidickson, “Urban Governance Meets Global Change: Perspectives on the Sewage-Society Relationship, 1850-2015”

In the same way that mid-19th century advances in epidemiology and public health ushered out privy pits and cesspools to bring wastewater infrastructure to growing urban centres, new engineering opportunities in the 21st century offer the possibility of transforming waste streams to sources of energy, nutrients and indeed renewed water supply.

Will this happen?

This paper considers the changing story of urban wastewater – 1850 to 2015 – from the perspective of local governance, initially transformed by a public health agenda and now under pressure from the global challenges of climate change.

The epidemiological analysis of devastating cholera epidemics in London in the 1850s set in motion local government changes ranging from inspection powers, through borrowing and taxation authority to inter-governmental financial arrangements, among other governance innovations designed to safeguard public health. The water and wastewater revolution thus set in motion continued for over a century and a half and has been echoed in Millennium Development Goals for global implementation.

Today, with climate change mitigation and adaptation prominent on the public agenda, the urban agenda increasingly includes a new round of innovation to recover energy and nutrients from wastewater and to re-charge water supplies and aquifers. As these measures are contemplated, cities will once again be central institutions in a possible social transformation that will call in question municipal autonomy, fiscal capacity, civic capacity for collective action and so on, in much the same way that 19th century municipal governments experienced a new story line.

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Sean Kheraj is an associate professor in the Department of History at York University. He researches and teaches in the areas of environmental and Canadian history. In addition to being a co-editor of niche-canada.org, he is also the host and producer of Nature's Past, NiCHE's audio podcast series and he blogs at http://seankheraj.com.

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