UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

The evolution of urban and regional planning in Canada: 1900-1960 Gunton, Thomas I.


Urban and regional planning is now accepted as a legitimate function of government. But the evolution of Canadian planning from its inception at the turn of.the century to its new-found status as an objective technical exercise has been a profoundly complex process involving questions about the very nature of society. This thesis is an attempt to trace the development of the theory and practice of planning from its controversial beginnings at the turn of the century to its final acceptance as a necessary and desirable function of the state. At the beginning of the century it became clear that the rapid pace of urbanization and the capitalist institutions of private property and unregulated private markets were in serious conflict. The new urban, industrial order that accompanied capital accumulation was plagued by interdependences and interactions which made the unrestricted use of property an antiquated and dangerous illusion threatening the physical health of the population, the efficiency of the urban system, and the social stability of the entire society. Canadians responded to this conflict in three distinct and somewhat contradictory ways. One approach which was advocated by agrarian radicals was to implement reforms in Canadian society in order to revitalize rural life and reverse the undesirable trend of urbanization. The second approach, which was advocated by urban liberals, was to accept urbanization as both desirable and inexorable and to accommodate it by initiating limited reforms while still preserving the basic features of capitalism. The third response, advocated by urban radicals, was to accept urbanization as inexorable and to restructure capitalist institutions which were inimical to the sorts of government planning they thought was necessary to manage the new urban order. Urban and regional planning was considered as essential by all these groups. After going through several initial stages of development, a comprehensive body of planning theory which appealed to all three groups was formulated by leading Canadian planners such as Adams. This theory integrated the aesthetic concerns of city beautiful planning, the efficiency concerns of American city planning, and the equity concerns of British town planning. The theory envisaged a strong role for the state in controlling property and providing housing. By the twenties, the consensus that had formed around this theory of planning collapsed due to a gradual amelioration of urban problems and an overt confrontation between liberals and urban and agrarian radicals. During the twenties a new, more conservative theory of planning developed which emphasized the protection of private property and the provision of public infrastructure to accommodate private accumulation. Planners became allied with real estate interests who were eager to use zoning and other powers of the state to their advantage. With the collapse of the economy in the thirties, the latent ideological conflicts which had been submerged in the twenties reappeared with renewed vitality. The urban and agrarian radicals joined forces to form a socialist party dedicated to eradicating capitalism and replacing it with a planned economy. Liberals were forced to formulate a new system of both managing the crisis and preserving capitalism. Gradually they developed a new consensus that was based on the three principles of Keynesian stabilization policies, social welfare and sectoral planning for those areas of the economy plagued by market failures. Housing and land were defined as one of the sectors of the economy affected by market failures. Major government reports defined a new postwar system of urban and regional planning to mitigate these failures in land and housing markets. The reports were highly critical of the type of planning existing in the twenties, and proposed a new more comprehensive system of planning and of controls over property. The urban liberals, however, who were the dominant group, were apprehensive about the increased role of the state envisaged in these reports. Consequently, they only partially implemented the recommended reforms. Urban and regional planning, although strengthened, was ultimately subordinated to the interests of private markets and property. It again became a passive system of regulation providing necessary services to accommodate private expansion and regulations to enhance property rights. Nonetheless, its strengthened position ensured that the worst features of development were eliminated. The tendency of liberal planning to shift back and forth between more aggressive intervention during times of crisis and very passive intervention during times of stability has meant that, because of the long lag times between the emergence of crisis and the creation of plans and institutions capable of managing the crisis, Canadian planning has been strongest after the crisis has already subsided or when it has changed form. Consequently, the ability to plan has been highest when the need to plan has been lowest. One question raised by the thesis is why the more passive liberal approach to planning emerged as the dominant one.. It is argued that this is due, in large part, to Canada's unique character of economic development and class structure. Unlike countries such as Britain which developed more socialist modes of planning, urbanization in Canada was accompanied by a rapid expansion in agriculture and staple industries. Consequently, the Canadian response to development was logically divided between urban and rural concerns. Canada's industrial capitalist class and working class which were both promoting more aggressive urban planning were too weak to have much influence. The more powerful agrarian radicals and mercantile capitalists were able to direct attention away from the emerging urban problems to rural and resource issues which directly affected them. In the end, the urban liberals were successful in resolving the conflict between urbanization and capitalist institutions. Limited acceptance of urban and regional planning allowed for the successful management of urban problems within the framework of capitalist institutions. Whether it will continue to be successful in doing this only time will tell.

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