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Revitalizing preemptive power by investigating the housing policies and the development dynamics of Toronto and Ottawa-Gatineau

Revitalizing preemptive power by investigating the housing policies and the development dynamics of Toronto and Ottawa-Gatineau

Sébastien Lambelet has joined the Faculty of Environmental & Urban Change (EUC) and The CITY Institute as a postdoctoral fellow since February 2024, under the supervision of Prof. Roger Keil. Before that, he was a lecturer in the Department of Political Science and International Relations of the University of Geneva (Switzerland) where he also obtained his PhD in Political Science in late 2019. Sébastien’s research focuses on urban and metropolitan governance, policy studies, cross-border metropolitan areas, land-use planning and land policies (especially in relation to the recent emergence of net land neutrality objectives). He has received a Postdoc Mobility Scholarship from the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) to come to York University where he will stay until January 2026. Do not hesitate to contact him if you have anything to share about the governance dynamics of Toronto and Ottawa-Gatineau since he aims to investigate these two cities during his Canadian stay to draw a comparison with the Swiss cities of Zurich and Geneva he investigated throughout his PhD journey.

A longstanding passion for investigating power relations

As a political scientist, Sébastien Lambelet has always been fascinated (certainly a bit obsessively) with the identification, analysis and evolution of power relations at various institutional scales. Who governs the city? Who governs the metropolis? Who controls the resources which are necessary for the adequate implementation of public policies? And how are these resources put together or exchanged by public and private stakeholders within multi-level institutional settings? All these questions are far from being new. Some date back to the community power debate of the post-war economic boom (Hunter, 1953; Dahl, 1961; Bachrach & Baratz, 1970; Yates, 1977) while others relate to the perennial debate opposing the bottom-up and the top-down approaches which have structured policy implementation studies since the 1970s (Pressman & Wildavsky, 1973; Goggin et al., 1990; Matland, 1995; Sager et al., 2024).

Most people seeing this picture concentrate on the sunset over Toronto’s downtown. However, the SNSF project also aims to investigate the gray areas of Toronto’s development dynamics. Credits: S. Lambelet (taken on March 24th, 2024).

The common thread of Sébastien’s research is nonetheless structured around the idea that it is worth reconsidering these fundamental questions in the contemporary urban world which has been largely transformed by neoliberalism and globalism (e.g. Sassen, 1991; Brenner, 2004; Keil, 2009). These transformations have increased socio-territorial inequalities in an unprecedented way and have concentrated them within urban and suburban areas in a juxtaposed and haphazard manner (e.g. Massey, 2005; Sassen, 2014; Debrunner et al., 2024). In this context, contemporary urban dynamics are far away from the horizontal and diffused power-structure promised by urban governance scholars (Le Galès, 1995; Rhodes, 1997; Pierre & Peters, 2000; Pierre, 2014), not to mention The Just City desired by Fainstein (2011).

Toronto’s housing policy provides a striking illustration of this problematic. Its housing market produces thousands of condominium apartments every year, but most of them are too small to accommodate families, which struggle to get the necessary funding to buy a larger unit[i]. This is because Toronto’s housing policy is now driven by the exchange value of housing units rather than by the use value, which benefits occupants no matter if they own or rent their homes (see Logan & Molotch, 1987). This problematic is again not new (e.g. Hulchanski, 2007; Lehrer & Wieditz, 2009), but has increased tremendously in recent years under the leitmotiv of building more homes, more rapidly, to meet the housing market’s demand. Sébastien’s research project thus aims to investigate how and why such a policy which reproduces socio-spatial inequalities can continue to be implemented within the Greater Toronto Area a) with the support of the authorities at the three levels of Canadian federalism[ii], and b) without the emergence of a citywide social movement opposing the construction of condominium towers[iii].

Preemptive power: An old-fashioned concept which is worth revitalizing

“The One” at Bloor/Yonge, commonly referred to as “The Center of Canada”. Initiated in August 2017, the construction of this supertall skyscraper aiming to become Canada’s tallest building has been suspended for several months due to overcost, delays and a change of lead developer. Would Toronto’s neoliberal growth machine be jammed? Credits: S. Lambelet (taken on May 4th, 2024).

In this context, the main hypothesis of the SNSF project is that perpetuating an inegalitarian housing policy which does not meet the interests of the average middle-class voter is only possible if few key stakeholders are able to govern the city by exercising preemptive power. Preemptive power is a highly sophisticated form of power that has been theorized by Clarence Stone (1988, 1989), drawing on decades of research about community power and urban regimes. Within Western democratic societies, preemptive power is necessarily jointly exercised by a public-private coalition composed of at least the city government and the executives of the major businesses which are active within the city or the city region.

The coalition exercising preemptive power benefits from two capacities. On the one hand, “the capacity to act”, i.e. it can formulate and implement public policies according to its interests. On the other hand, “the capacity to ignore”, i.e. it can neglect the socio-spatial consequences generated by its political agenda. The research project aims to investigate in greater detail this second face of preemptive power because it reveals important power imbalances as well as profound socio-economic and territorial divisions that have been recently overlooked in the fields of urban politics and policy studies.

Indeed, major companies influencing the contemporary fabric of the city now change more rapidly than during the post-war era in which public-private coalitions remained similar for decades (see Stone, 1989). However, thanks to the globalization and the digitalization of finance and real estate markets, major companies can now be active simultaneously at various scales and in various locations which also gives them great influence. As a result, identifying and analyzing power relations is now more complex because the local dependence on businesses stressed by Cox and Mair (1988) no longer exists and the City Limits underlined by Peterson (1981) also apply to nation states (see Brenner, 2004).

Beyond Toronto: Studying cross-border city regions, especially Ottawa-Gatineau

The four cities investigated by the SNSF project: Toronto, Zurich, Ottawa and Geneva.

The empirical scope of the SNSF project is however larger than studying the case of Toronto. In Canada, field research will also be conducted in Ottawa-Gatineau. Besides that, the Swiss cities of Zurich and Geneva, on which Sébastien has worked since the start of his PhD thesis are also included within the project. Its final aim is to create a 2x2 empirical matrix to draw comparisons between a) the two global cities of Toronto and Zurich, b) the two cross-border cities of Ottawa-Gatineau and Geneva, and more generally c) across the four case studies.

Choosing Ottawa-Gatineau as another Canadian case study relates to another important topic of Sébastien’s research, namely the growth dynamics of cross-border city regions. He has long been interested in this peculiar research object since he has grown up in Geneva, which shares 95% of its cantonal boundary with France, and whose local economy heavily depends on cross-border workers (one third of the cantonal workforce lives in neighboring France). In the case of Ottawa-Gatineau, the boundary is provincial instead of national, but previous studies conducted on this case have highlighted territorial interdependences which are similarly complex than those observed in national cross-border regions (Roy-Baillargeon & Gauthier, 2012; Mévellec et al., 2018). Therefore, in both Geneva and Ottawa-Gatineau, it is expected that metropolitan growth dynamics will reveal an increasing “frontier effect” with high-value-added activities being concentrated in the city center, while less attractive territorial functions (e.g. social housing, heavy industry) will expand primarily within cross-border suburban areas.

Finally, investigating cross-border city regions also relates to other works Sébastien is conducting at the moment around the emergence of net land neutrality policy objectives set out by nation states. This net land neutrality principle has flourished in recent years, especially in European countries[iv]. Its introduction is mostly justified by the necessity to tackle climate change and urban sprawl in a more restrictive way. However, net land neutrality objectives have now to be implemented at regional and local levels. This process promises to be especially complex because national governments have chosen to tackle this issue using an accounting approach, while voluntarily remaining vague on several implementing aspects. This is even more true within cross-border city regions which may be confronted with contradictory policy objectives on both sides of the border.

Yet, the net land neutrality principle also opens an opportunity to reconsider the growth dynamics of cross-border city regions and move towards a more egalitarian development model in which cross-border suburban areas become less dependent on the economic dynamic of the core city. An article defending this perspective based on a case study conducted in Geneva will be published this fall in Espaces & Sociétés (Lambelet & Languillon-Aussel, 2024) and a special issue of the Swiss Political Science Review dealing with land net neutrality within cross-border regions is foreseen in 2025. It will include case studies conducted by various scholars in Geneva, Basel, Regio Insubrica (Swiss-Italian border), Lille and Ottawa-Gatineau.


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Notes :

[i] Here are two recent articles of the Toronto Star dealing this topic: “The condo market right now is a ghost town” (June 14th, 2024);
The condo market is tanking in Toronto and no one can find anywhere to live” (July 2nd, 2024).

[ii] Trudeau’s Federal Government launched the « Housing Accelerator Fund » in March 2023 with special measures dedicated to Toronto announced in December 2023, while Ford’s Government of Ontario promised to build 1,5 million new homes within the province by 2031 during the campaign of the 2022 provincial elections. Finally, since they are responsible for zoning and for delivering building permits, Toronto’s municipal authorities are also contributing to the perpetuation of socio-territorial inequalities which are inherent to Toronto’s neoliberal growth machine.

[iii] Some social movements have been particularly active in recent times and have organized rent strikes in various parts of the city. Let us mention for instance some tenants in Thorncliffe Park which are on rent strike since April 2023 or the York South-Weston Tenant Union in North York which is on strike since October 2023. However, these rent strikes are very locally organized and are therefore struggling to influence citywide housing dynamics.

[iv] For instance, Germany introduced a “30-Hektar Ziel” policy in 2016, Belgium a “Betonstop” policy in 2018 (Flanders), respectively a “Stop Béton” policy (Wallonia) in 2019. Later in 2021, France introduced its “Zéro Artificialisation Nette – ZAN” policy and Italy its “Strategia per la Biodiversità”.