Why More is Better: Doug Saunders on ‘Maximum Canada’

January 31st, 2018

Congestion and expensive housing signal Canadian cities are full. In his new book, Maximum Canada, Doug Saunders argues they’re not full enough. 

Doug Saunders wants more people in Canada, but the raw number isn’t as important as how they’re packed in. Preferably tightly.

Underpopulation in Canada is a legacy of attempts to spread people across the land rather than to develop communities, he explains in Maximum Canada: Why 35 Million Canadians Are Not Enough (Knopf Canada, 2017). Early governments deliberately stymied entrepreneurship and urban residence. As a result, for decades until the Second World War, more people left the country than arrived. Cities grew from the outside in rather than deliberately around clusters of skills and businesses.

The fallout of these policies is most visible in the ribbons of highways that pump people in and out of downtown jobs, and the single-family brick houses that sell for well over $1 million in city centres. Saunders argues that low density is driving down quality of life in Canadian cities especially for poorer and immigrant residents. Easing these problems requires more people, not less.

“When you’re stuck on the highway in a traffic jam in Calgary or Toronto or Vancouver, that’s not because there’s too many people. That’s because there’s too low density,” he said. “You can’t put a subway station in a place that is all single family homes with big yards around them.”

Canada got city planning wrong over the last century as its population tripled to 35 million. Getting it right as Canada triples again, which economists and activists have called for by 2100, requires planning with the needs of those residents in mind – and possibly their rights. Picture what planning for future residents of a community would mean. A controversial zoning decision to split a detached house into six units, for example, might weigh the voices of neighbours equally with the voices of whoever could move in.

The practice and politics of high-density growth aren’t easy. Dana Wagner talks to Doug Saunders about implementing Maximum Canada.

How do we fix low density?

Doug Saunders: We need to think as if we’re going to triple the population over the next 80 years even if we don’t. All of the things that need to be done for a tripling of the population need to be done even if our population doesn’t grow, because our children and grandchildren are going to be facing the housing supply shortage, the changing supply of the labour market, and the infrastructure shortfall. We need to act as if 100 million is going to happen because even if it doesn’t we need to do the things for ourselves that need to be done for that eventuality. And the odds are that we will have 100 million people in Canada, maybe not by 2100, but by not long after that.

Increasing the population and density in Canadian cities isn’t an impulse shared by everyone. For whom is this argument a tough sell?

Doug Saunders: One group is people who see population in Canada as being an ecological drain. Canada’s ecological and climate commitment limitations, and our inability to make the transition to a carbon neutral economy, are not products of overpopulation but of low population density. Canada cannot transform its economy and way of life to a carbon neutral one with the current low population density.

Doug Saunders: The second group is people who think this is all about immigration and worry about mass immigration and open borders. I looked at what it would entail to triple the Canadian population again. Which is not mass immigration, it’s not open borders. Nobody’s proposing mass immigration at this point in history, and it would be a bad idea. Even the most radical proposal to triple the population by the year 2100 calls for something in the low 400,000s – slightly more than we have now. So mass immigration is not part of it, open borders is not part of it, very controlled immigration would always be the reality in Canada.

What’s the role of cities in planning for a tripled population?

Doug Saunders: The municipal level is where population growth manifests itself. The municipal governments and the regional governments of the big metropolises of Canada all have very sophisticated population growth models going many decades in the future. And they’ve planned for that. So city planners know about what needs to be done. There’s a very strong consensus among municipal governments in Canada that urban sprawl cannot be the form of growth – it cannot be allowed as a form of growth in the future.

Do cities have the power they need to shift their growth away from sprawl?

Doug Saunders: Municipal governments are stuck in many ways because they cannot create density in the places where they want to because the building approval authority is often with provincial bodies. And it’s too easy to appeal decisions on building new housing. A significant percentage of every neighbourhood that has single family houses should be six-apartment units, with a combination of owned properties and rented properties. That should be the transition. Every city government wants to create that mix of density and tenure. But current building approval processes make it too easy for residents of existing neighbourhoods to appeal and stop developments. We need to change the mentality of building approval in Canada so that the voices of future and potential residents of a neighbourhood are incorporated, and not just the voices of legacy and existing residents of a neighbourhood.

As Canada grows, could it have a sudden political shift to a government that wants limited immigration?

Doug Saunders: Yes we could. We could have a period where some political party opposed to growth and immigration is in power. But I suspect that while they may be elected, that would not be sustainable politically and economically. As soon as anybody comes into government the realities of underpopulation are there. I did not write Maximum Canada because I came up with some obscure theory. When you’re a journalist in Canada talking to people in different areas in government and the economy you quickly realize that low population density is a day-to-day problem: for people trying to create the next Blackberry, for people in cultural and media industries, for municipal authorities trying to plan transit, for people working in ecological areas trying to make climate transitions happen. Canadians trying to make quality of life improve are running headlong against the problems of limited population.

Do policies like Quebec’s niqab ban impact the consensus around population growth?

Doug Saunders: There’s a danger in them because voters get distracted by symbolic issues that can hurt the consensus around population. There’s a risk that policies like Quebec’s create the idea that the typical new Canadian is an extremely Conservative person wearing a niqab. Whereas something like a couple dozen women in all of Quebec have ever worn a full face covering of any sort.

I think that in the long run, the Canadian public opinion will not be shifted by policies like this partly because the lived experience of Canadians is always a generation ahead of the policy experience of governments. Our economy demands people, and it gets people. Our families tend to reunite even when it’s difficult to. We tend to take refugees because the Canadian public demands them. So yes, we’re dealing with debates about niqabs in Quebec, but I suspect that most of the Quebec public and particularly those who live in cities, their lived experience is ahead of that.

 Interview conducted by Dana Wagner

Dana Wagner is the Canada advisor with Talent Beyond Boundaries, a non-profit that connects refugees to international job opportunities in an effort to open skilled immigration as a complementary solution to traditional refugee resettlement. She is a Fellow of the Young Policy Network on Migration of the Swiss Forum for Migration Studies and the German Marshall Fund.

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