In January of this year I embarked on a research-study to complete the thesis requirement for a Master of Urban Studies degree from SFU. The title of my research study is ‘Democracy in Metro Vancouver: Decision-Making and the Regional Growth Strategy’. I will publish summary results from the study on this blog once it is complete. What follows is a brief outline of the study, and my motivation for taking on this convoluted and ambitious project.
The central question of the study is whether the Metro Vancouver approach to the problem of city-region governance enables civic groups and government authorities the opportunity to collaborate, deliberate and influence decision-making on a regional scale. In the 2011 Census, Statistics Canada reports that more than 70% of the Canadian population resides in Census Metropolitan Areas (CMAs). A minimum population of 100,000 people is required to qualify as a CMA , of whom 50,000 (at least) must reside within a central urban core. The portion of Canada’s population living in metropolitan agglomerations has been rising over time, and will continue to do so. The same trend can be seen around the world. In fact, some regions have populations that rival those of entire countries. The rising portion of the world’s population, and the increasing interconnections and interdependencies within city-regions, necessitates an increase in coordination, collaboration, and decision-making on a regional scale (described generally in a previous blog post here).
However, the government or decision-making framework for metropolitan regions is fragmented. In the United States there are some metropolitan areas with as many as 100 local governments. In Metro Vancouver there are 24. A whole range of new approaches to city-region governance have been proposed and tried over the last 50-60 years to try and bridge the disconnect between fragmented political systems and the need to engage in regional collaboration. These range across a spectrum; at one extreme is the ‘status quo’ approach whereby the fragmented political system is retained and all decision-making remains at the local level. The other end of the spectrum entails complete governmental change; the creation of a centralized government authority to manage city-regions, or the amalgamation of formerly independent municipalities. Toronto and Montreal are examples in Canada of the amalgamation approach to the problem of regional governance. I’ll save my comments on how well this approach has fared for the Toronto and Montreal CMA’s for another post…
The Metro Vancouver approach to the problem of regional governance is often typified as a hybrid between the two extremes mentioned above; though Metro Vancouver has undisputed decision-making power over waste, water and sewerage, the Metro Vancouver organization serves primarily as a ‘forum’ in all other areas for the existing municipalities to coordinate and collaborate with one another. The structure entails decision-making at the regional scale, but retains a considerable degree of autonomy and decision-making at the municipal level. Because Metro Vancouver is a forum for the existing governments to come together, it is not meant as an additional level of government.
In literature pertaining to metropolitan governance there is a suggestion that this hybrid governance approach characteristic of Metro Vancouver could potentially: 1) empower civic groups and associations from throughout the region to participate in discussions pertaining to regional issues and 2) enable member municipalities to collaborate, learn, and negotiate with one another as equals. The Regional Growth Strategy (RGS) is a regional land-use plan that was ratified in 2011 by all 24 local government authorities in Metro Vancouver. My research is intended to highlight whether, and to what extent, the process to create the RGS empowered civic groups and enabled for collaboration and learning between and amongst municipalities in the region. This will not answer the question of whether democratic decision-making takes place in Metro Vancouver, but rather, whether the Metro Vancouver approach to the question of regional governance can provide a collaborative and deliberative forum for decision-making between municipalities and civic groups.
No two metropolitan regions in the world are governed the same. The study is unlikely to change that, but at least will offer some insight into the benefits and pitfalls of a hybrid approach from the standpoint of democracy.