51% of Vancouver voters support amalgamating all Metro Vancouver cities into one mega-city: survey

Jun 18 2022, 12:01 am

Metro Vancouver is Canada’s third-largest urban region in terms of population, just after the regions of Toronto and Montreal, but it is by far the smallest region geographically.

This region technically has a land area of about 2,900 sq km, but most of this accounts for the North Shore mountains, reservoir watershed areas, forests, parks, and the protected agricultural land reserve. Only about 850 sq km of the region’s land area can be used for any urban development, including residential, commercial, industrial, and institutional uses.

This means the entirety of Metro Vancouver’s urban area is comparable to the entirety of the City of Toronto’s total land area of 630 sq km, with Metro Toronto as a whole reaching 5,900 sq km.

The City of Vancouver on its own is only 115 sq km — under 20% the size of the City of Toronto.

But it was not too long ago that the City of Toronto was smaller than the City of Vancouver. In 1998, the Ontario provincial government forced an amalgamation of Toronto — then only 97 sq km in size — with a handful of other adjacent municipalities, such as York, North York, Etobicoke, and Scarborough to create the City of Toronto that we know today.

As of 2021, Vancouver’s population is just under 700,000 out of Metro Vancouver’s total population of about 2.6 million. In contrast, Toronto’s population is 2.8 million out of the regional 6.2 million.

There are 23 separate local and municipal governments packed into Metro Vancouver’s similarly small land area, along with two regional authorities that overlook shared services between these jurisdictions: Metro Vancouver Regional District for utilities like water, sewage, and sanitation, and TransLink for a cohesive regional public transit and major road systems.

The City of Toronto’s land area laid over the entirety of Metro Vancouver, the jurisdiction of TransLink. (TransLink)

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Metro Vancouver sub-region map: Yellow – North Shore; Red – Burrard Peninsula; Green – South of Fraser West; Blue – South of Fraser East; Purple – Tri-Cities; Orange – North East. (Metro Vancouver Regional District)

According to the findings of a survey by Research Co. conducted this month, 51% of likely voters within the City of Vancouver believe it would be worthwhile to explore the idea of amalgamating all of the municipalities in Metro Vancouver — just like in Toronto and Montreal.

Support for regional amalgamation into a single mega city is highest amongst those who voted for Kennedy Stewart for mayor in 2018 (67%), compared to just under half of those who voted for Ken Sim (49%) or Shauna Sylvester (43%).

And as it turns out, Stewart was once a supporter of amalgamation before his political career, when he was a political science professor at Simon Fraser University. His reasons were mainly economic, specifically with Metro Vancouver’s lack of competitiveness at the time in attracting investment and businesses — the result of the region’s lack of cohesion and a regional lens for policymaking. For example, larger cities like Calgary and Toronto have far larger budgets to support the work of their investment attraction agencies — their equivalent of the Vancouver Economic Commission.

Since then, the regional district has launched its own regional investment attraction agency, known as Invest Vancouver, but its budget is still dwarfed by single leviathan cities like Calgary and Toronto.

Amalgamation provides clear economic benefits as regions are a single economic area, and the imaginary borders of municipal governments are erased. But there are mixed results when it comes to the impact of amalgamation on effective and efficient city governance, especially in Toronto’s scenario.

A 2018 study by the Institute on Municipal Finance and Governance analyzed the impacts and tradeoffs of Toronto’s amalgamation 20 years later.

“During the late 1980s and early 1990s, there was a growing sense that local governance in Toronto had become ‘dysfunctional.’ First, Metro Toronto was incapable of addressing policy problems that extended beyond its boundaries,” reads the study, recalling the challenges that led to the movement to amalgamate and create a bigger Toronto.

“Second, the intensification of global trade increased economic competition. Companies wanted to (re)locate their operations in jurisdictions with lower taxes and fewer administrative agencies and rules. With two separate levels of government, Metro Toronto was often criticized for unnecessary policy overlap and gridlock.”

Supporters argued amalgamation would create a more cost-effective, transparent, and responsive local government, especially during the recession of the early 1990s. On the other hand, opponents asserted the elimination of smaller municipalities that make up Metro Toronto would diminish the quality of democratic representation.

“The Province believed that with fewer and larger municipalities, municipal governance could be streamlined, reducing duplication and overlap in service provision and thereby lowering local expenditures. Second, by streamlining the delivery of services and imposition of taxes, amalgamation could improve residents’ capacity to hold local elected officials to account,” continues the report.

rob ford toronto 2010 mayoal election results 1

2010 Mayoral Election Results – R. Ford and Smitherman. (Zack Taylor/IMFG Forum)

rob ford toronto 2010 mayoal election results 1

2010 Mayoral Election Results – R. Ford and Smitherman. (Zack Taylor/IMFG Forum)

Two decades later, the report found there is limited evidence that amalgamation led to major cost savings, and public consultation and engagement have deteriorated.

“Amalgamation has reduced opportunities for meaningful civic engagement. And divisions between the old City of Toronto and the surrounding suburbs have deepened. While opportunities for inclusive governance abound, bridging ever-widening divides between groups of Toronto residents presents a more daunting task,” reads the study.

“Recent electoral results and patterns of democratic engagement reveal a city that is socially, economically, and politically divided. Other cities looking to the Toronto experience should be mindful of the ways in which amalgamation has contributed to these divides. Restructuring the boundaries of local governance not only alters how services are delivered, but also can redefine how residents conceptualize their place within a political community.”

In the context of the City of Vancouver, however, it is clear that it disproportionately facest the highest burden of regional costs given that it is the core city of Metro Vancouver, but without a larger pie of the regional tax base to support and offset such costs due to its small jurisdictional boundaries relative to the rest of the region’s size.

With all that said, the amalgamation of a region into one mega-city is just one of many possible scenarios. Amalgamation refers to creating larger jurisdictional units, not necessarily a complete merger of a region.

For example, the City of Vancouver that exists today is the result of the amalgamation with Point Grey and South Vancouver in 1929.

Much more recently, in 2018, the District of North Vancouver surveyed residents in both its District jurisdiction and the City of North Vancouver. The statistically representative survey of residents in both jurisdictions found that 87% support the idea of exploring the reunification of both municipalities, which were separated in 1907. It is highly unusual for a municipal area’s downtown (City of North Vancouver) to be jurisdictionally separate from its suburban areas (District of North Vancouver).

The District of West Vancouver was also formed as the result of its separation from the District of North Vancouver in 1912.

But the concept of municipal amalgamation can also extend to specific municipal services, not just city governments.

Under the latest iteration of TransLink’s Mayors’ Council, regional cooperation on public transit investments has also improved, and the entity has shown a willingness to think regionally — compared to the dysfunctional old TransLink board of the early 2000s, comprised of select mayors and councillors of the region. Metro Vancouver also benefits from a single cohesive public transit system, unlike the broader areas of San Francisco, Seattle, and Toronto. In some cases, a region with multiple public transit systems may also have multiple incompatible fare systems.

As well, the BC provincial government’s April 2022 police reform report recommended the amalgamation of policy services on a regional basis “where there are opportunities to address fragmentation, ensure equitable access to policing and public safety, and improve efficiency and effectiveness.” The report specifically noted that Vancouver mayor Kennedy Stewart recommended creating a single Metro Vancouver police department “in recognition of the unique pressures and responsibilities of providing police services in the region.

 

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