Who do local leaders listen to?

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Note: it’s a big week for local government conferences. The Canadian Political Science Association (CPSA) Conference, part of the broader Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, is taking place at the University of Calgary, and the Federation of Canadian Municipalities Conference (FCM) conference will be in Winnipeg over the weekend. I’ll be sharing a few of key learnings related to mayors and local leadership over the coming week.

When we think about who makes decisions about cities, the mayor and council usually come to mind. But often it’s just as important to think about who the mayor and council listen to, and who or what influences those decisions.

University of Toronto historian Richard White presented a fascinating case study exploring this very idea at CPSA yesterday during a session on urban governance. White’s recent book, Planning Toronto: The Planners, The Plans, Their Legacies, examines all regional, city, and neighbourhood plans for the City of Toronto over a 40 year period, from 1940-1980. White pays close attention to which plans were implemented, which ones were not, and what influenced their success or failure. It’s a study of translating vision into reality, and the often tenuous journey between the two.

White spoke about a particular master plan from 1943 which, in his words, was “completely rejected, offering an ideal case study of demise.” The master plan was developed by a panel of external planning experts, engaged by the Board of Trade, who devised an ambitious city-wide plan reflecting leading planning principles of the day. The drawings were displayed at a major department store, attracting interest from tens of thousands of residents. Council was less enthusiastic about the plan, claiming it was too extravagant and sufficient resources were not available. The mayor of the day was quoted as stating that the plan would have been better had it been developed by city staff, as it would have been more modest. Ultimately, the plan was rejected, and its ideals were not reflected in Toronto’s next official plan.

White’s presentation raised critical questions about the role of expertise. In his words, “We’re really conflicted by expertise. We rely on it, more than we realize […] but at the same time, we’re cynical about it. We tend to see self interest in it.” He argued that the rejection of this plan reflected a broader undercurrent of disdain for educated experts among the general public, and of elected officials “not wanting to be told what to do.”

Although this case is almost 75 years old, it raises questions which remain pertinent today. What is the appropriate role of expertise in political decision making processes? How much weight should be given to the perspectives of subject matter experts? How do we define ‘expert’ and ‘expertise’, anyway?

White told a fascinating story about a specific case, but with insights extending far beyond its time and place. His book is well worth checking out for anyone interested in the development of cities, urban planning, and local governance.