A modest proposal for a walkable city tax, Paris edition

It is universally acknowledged in real estate circles that walkable neighbourhoods are worth more than the same houses in unwalkable neighbourhoods. Pity the poor folks in unwalkable neighbourhoods. Many no doubt wanted to live in Westboro or the Glebe, but due to scarcity, were priced out. The cheaper neighbourhoods, alas, are usually not walkable.

And just who designs those unwalkable neighbourhoods? Why people in older city neighbourhoods, of course. After all, people lived in the walkable areas when the unwalkable ones were just cows in a field. So the walkable privileged (or is it privileged walkables?) imposed the new pattern on the suburbs. We forced them to live in separated land use areas rather than mixed use. We insisted that within those separated land use buildings, each one had to be surrounded by the amount of parking required for the annual peak parking day. We forbade traditional main streets. We positioned large super-schools to have catchment areas that were unwalkable by their inmates. We required 20′ setbacks from the curb to their lot lines just so we cheaply dump winter snow on their lawns, and we forced suburbanites to buy multiple cars. And once they had those, we forbade putting groups of kids in one car by requiring big clumsy car seats and individual seat belts, forcing people to invent and suffer through minivans. And don’t forget the greenbelt, forcing people to live miles beyond the real city, increasing their commute. And with Smart Growth, we further limited the amount of land available, forcing people to move to Arnprior and Kemptville and turning those places in unwalkable sprawls too.

And don’t forget bus service. In the old city, bus rides are pleasant 10-20 minute affairs. From Kanata or Barrhaven, a 40-90 minute commute, and then we had the nerve to charge them a premium fare!

How can we fix this?

We need a Walkable Accord.

I think the answer is obvious. We need to put a tax on properties within the walkable neighbourhoods. Say, 10% of your house value, annually (this is the amount recommended by the great popular leftist economist Piketty). And we should raise the urban bus fare to a minimum of $10 and make it free in the suburbs.  After all, people in walkable neighbourhoods have had decades of privileged access over the rest of the citizenry. It’s time to give others a fare shake. (And if people stop using the bus in the city, we should use their historic ridership data and charge some other sort of levy to raise the same funds. It is no good trying to escape the guilty consequences of being walkable.)

All the funds raised on the complacent walkables would be given to the suburbanites in the unwalkable areas. Maybe allocated a certain amount to housing from the 50’s, a bit more for 60’s, more yet for the 70’s subdivisions, raising to the highest amounts transferred to the 2000’s and let’s not forget a huge transfer to those who live in rural areas in “estate lots” who simply cannot walk anywhere at all.

What will they do with this windfall of money?

Well, that’s up to them alone to decide. We mustn’t impose our privileged walkable views onto the recipients. Instead, we might invite them every five years to hold a conference to describe their evolution. No measures, no penalties, no preconditions. All voluntary; no need to verify. If they use it to build more roads, well, that’s just their adjustment to their unfortunate condition we imposed on them by our privilege and monopoly of the walkable areas in the first place. Maybe they need another century of land use segregation and automania before they can get walkable.

The reward for signing the Walkable Accord.

Why would politicians sign such a accord? Wouldn’t the residents of the walkable city object? Well, not if we gussy it up in fine words like complete streets, and walkable neighbourhoods, saving the world, and hide the fine print. And don’t forget bribes. Invite all those politicians and their hangers on to a giant signing ceremony, with thousands of suburbanites flown in to witness making the walkables pay for their original sin, for hoarding the walkable neighbourhoods. A nice location, say Paris, Fr. would do nicely. I’m sure spouses would love to go too.

And someone take the photographers. And the main stream media. They’d love Paris too.

Who could possibly object to such a modest proposal for a walkable world?



about the picture heading the story, we will call it “The Expulsion of the Poor and Migrants to the Unwalkable Wilderness”, c1959 edition:

That’s old Wellington St in the picture, with Hintonburg and St Francois church in the upper left. The upper right ring of smokestacks is the CPR Roundhouse, now site of Tom Brown Arena. The line of wooden poles on the left of the road is still there, now it is right on the edge of City Centre’s upramp. The old wooden viaduct, alas, was demolished in 1969. Here’s approximately the same view from Google:

Of course, unseen to the right is the four to six lane replacement road required to handle the driving unwalkables, plus the transitway / $2billion LRT to further expell the unwalkables further out of the more privileged walkable city.


12 thoughts on “A modest proposal for a walkable city tax, Paris edition

  1. Eric, many thanks for pointing out that is has been city and provincial planners (and developers) who encouraged development of the unwalkable bedroom communities with distinct areas reserved for residential, retail, institutional and industrial uses in essence forcing residents to own cars to get from where they live to where they work, where they play and where they shop.

    You are abosolutely correct that this happened by POLICY and by DESIGN.

    The carrot was so-called “affordable” housing on the fringe of the city as it continued to expand outward. But “affordable” meant the “purchase price” rather than the ongong sustainability price on residents.

    While your tongue-in-cheek proposal gets people to think about the issue a bit more clearly, the solution for me seems to lie in changing the zoning rules to encourage rather than discourage mix used development to bring residential, retail, institutional and industrial mixed use zoning into each new community as a fundamental requirement for walkability, sustainable and liveable communities.

    After all, the carbon belching coal based industries are no more. Let’s get planning into the 21st clean energy world!

  2. I would argue that there already is a “Walkable Tax” and people who have bought their houses in walkable neighbourhoods in the past 30 years have been paying it. You say yourself that “walkable neighbourhoods are worth more than the same houses in unwalkable neighbourhoods”.

    That increased cost is borne through higher property taxes. Even though I live on a tiny fully serviced lot that costs the city far less in maintenance costs than a lot in a new subdivision in Kanata, my property taxes are at least double what the equivalent lot size in Kanata would be. What is this, if it’s not a walkable tax?

    These costs are already factored in, but the city needs to use the money it collects from these taxes in ways that expand the “walkable neighbourhood” footprint in the city, so that more people can derive the benefits, not spend it building 6 lane freeways so that people in Kanata can get to their federal government jobs with less hassle.

    As a kicker, my neighborhood is not actually that walkable. The nearest schools are unwalkable because the streets are designed badly, like the aforementioned 6 lane freeway that they are building at the end of my block. The nearest grocery store is 1.7km away, not exactly a walkable distance with a load of groceries for a family for a week.

    We don’t need a “walkable neighbourhood tax” we need the city to spend the money we already pay for living in walkable neighbourhoods more wisely.

  3. Eric, I think some of your ideas about Barrhaven and Kanata are a bit out of date. There’s a lot of recent development that is infill, transit focused, with smaller lots (no 20′ setbacks) and medium density.

    Take a trip on the 95 out to Longfields station. 30 mins to downtown by bus for commuting w/ 2 min frequency at rush hour, 5 mins to groceries by bike (mostly on a MUP), lots of kids walking to (overcrowded) schools nearby, tons of parks nearby, even mixed use commercial/residential buildings.

    Of course decades of mistakes are still the rule on the ground, but there’s a lot of interesting developments happening in what would once be nothing but single family homes with 2 to 3 cars off dragstrip stroads (like most of Nepean).

  4. There are ways to deal with taxes. But you have some mixed up ideas here. First, the “urban design” of the suburbs wasn’t imposed on them by nasty city people with a plan that in 90-120 years that form of organization wouldn’t work well (i.e., such designs come out of the c. 1890 book _Garden Cities of Tomorrow_ and 1920s ideas from the U of Chicago urban sociologists). It was based on the idea that people wanted and needed fresh air, green places, big blocks, etc., and was also designed to favor automobility, which the pre-1940s city urban morphology did not do.

    In fact many academics in the US argue that city revenue streams were captured by political and economic forces to build and fund the suburbs anyway. Now you are proposing another tax on cities to fix the suburbs.

    In any case, I do think we need more refined methods of taxation to better fund placemaking and other city services at the sub-district level. You already have that in places like Montreal, with the boroughs, which is another level of government and policy and service vis a vis the big city.

    Or there is the BID model, extended to include residential interests. We have various such forms in the U.S. (Neighborhood Benefits District and Green Benefits District in SF; Community Benefits District in Baltimore, various forms of public improvement districts).

    It happens I am about to publish a piece laying this out for Silver Spring, Maryland, an unincorporated conurbation in Montgomery County, on the DC-Maryland line.

    FWIW, how the f* do you think a 10% annual tax is even reasonable–for our “modest house” (probably smaller than yours based on that blog entry about your ongoing renovation) on the outskirts of but within DC that would be at least $55,000/year. That is double the outlandish taxes in NJ and NY State, which are super high to pay for very small school districts.

    In any event (1) no average household could afford that (2) the suburbs need to pay for their own fixing, and not expect city residents to do it (3) we need better “place management” and tax assessment practices to facilitate placemaking and improved quality of life in both the city and the suburb.

    P.S. Based on the cost, there is nothing “modest” about your proposal.

  5. Oh Dear, I think some readers are taking this “modest proposal” a bit too straight.

    a modest proposal — jonathan swift

    picketty tax – yup, parisian picketty, best seller amongst the progressives and harvard IYI’s, advocates a 10% per year tax on your house value, and yes, this means you would pay 100% of your house cost to the state every decade, plus income tax on the income earned to do so…

    universally acknowledged … opening line of another best seller, made into movies every decade or so

    paris edition – paris accord — see global climate agreement, and Trump, Donald

    the entire piece is a parody of the paris global climate agreement, with walkable cities substituted for climate change and fossil fuels. Recall the USA was to pay billions to others who were not reducing their carbon footprint and weren’t obliged to show any progress at all. Being successful must be punished at all cost.

    And no, the Monday house renovation story is not my house at all. It is a friend’s.

    Note: only a few carbon molecules were injured in the creation of this story

    1. Oops. I will admit to not reading Piketty, although I agree that as a rule, returns on capital “as a class” (because the individual venture can always go broke) are superior to labor. But there is a difference between a single house owning capitalist and Andrew Carnegie. Taxing the capital assets of Andrew Carnegie and you or me the same way makes little sense.

  6. Richard – not reading Piketty — you are in good company. I gather it is unreadable. Even Harvard economics students taking a whole seminar course on him couldn’t read it, and it wasn’t because they objected to his ideas.

  7. ‘Garden Cities’ was first published in 1898, titled ‘To-morrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform’, (Ebenezer Howard) and reprinted in 1902 as ‘Garden Cities of To-Morrow’. It is a classic read for urban planners (of which I am one) and certainly NOT a model of what followed in North America (example: Levittown [worst] but compare to Reston, Virginia [best]). Howard’s Garden City was based on self-contained units (call them neighborhoods if you wish), that showed the cultural and social activities within walking distance and which could be grouped into units (Howard chose the hexagonal format on a flat plane, while our geography will modify this by our rivers and provincial boundaries). We should not put E. Howard and his Garden City in the same boat with the self-serving developer plans we have seen in North America. Remember also that Howard recommended considerable communal land ownership, which evidently allows tighter planning control.
    And what about the Streetcar oriented town plans of the 20’s and 30’s. Did they not have a human scale? Remnants are visible both here in Ottawa West and in Montreal in older South Shore developments (e.g. St. Lambert). The 20’s and 30’s were not all bad. The worst excesses started in the 50’s. There is so much more to urban design than the mere layout and lot sizes, as I am sure you know. Creating a visible structure for people to relate to in scale is fundamental. It is missing in most suburbs. Absent a pleasant physical environment, the sense of place and wellbeing will not flourish.
    Our failures may come from the abdication of city planning for accessible layouts and facilities AND a failure to rally different developers to coordinate a successful urban design. But as a Barrhaven resident points out, all is not lost. Visionary planners and architects, given half a chance, can still correct even these mistakes with clever infill and facilities locations. Going forward we must change. How do we get these ideas to our city council?

    1. One of the reasons we have urban sprawl is that our current property tax system encourages the inefficient use of land. Rather than tax walk able neigbourhoods, a Land Value Tax (LVT) system could be used. Such a system was proposed by the 19th century economist Henry George ( 1837 – 1897) in which land value was taxed rather than buildings. The tax encourages landowners to develop vacant/underused land or to sell it. The LVT deters speculative land holding, dilapidated inner city areas return to productive use, reducing the pressure to build on undeveloped sites and so reducing urban sprawl.

      See the following URL for a fuller discussion


    2. Never been to Ottawa, but you mention streetcar suburbs. The further development of the type pretty much ended in the U.S. with the Great Depression (e.g. see the story of the Van Sweringens of Cleveland). But since you mention it and you are Canadian, don’t know if you know Prof. Patrick Condon of UBC, who wrote a book about “sustainable cities”, including one chapter on streetcar land use morphology:

      Seven Rules for Sustainable Communities: Design Strategies for the Post Carbon World.

      It was excerpted in the Tyee, one of the alternative weeklies serving Vancouver:


  8. I must confess I did a double-take to see if the date on this post was Apr. 1!

    It has become the truth that central cities – from 1945-1970s mainly the preserve of the young, the less affluent, new Canadians, etc – have more recently been gentrified by professionals, then super-gentrified by the truly affluent.

    So, younger and less affluent people who might want a walkable lifestyle are priced out of the original walkable neighbourhoods, and there are limited options elsewhere.

    And the effect of market value assessment had been to amplify the economic filtering in central cities, as people of more modest means already living in the centre, especially older people, are taxed out of their homes and neighbourhoods.

    This view recognizes only the value of housing as a speculative commodity, ignoring that the increases in housing value over time can only be reaped by selling up and moving somewhere else. Hardly the way to encourage stable communities.

  9. I am not an urban geographer or an academic in the planning discipline as the esteem bloggers before me. I have only had a light indoctrination in urban planning back in the day but I do remember some of the theories mentioned in the string above. I find what is missing in the discussions is how planning theories have been slow to respond to societal changes, talking about streetcars, garden cities, neighbourhood unit theory do not reflect our contemporary reality and future aspirations for a Sustainable, Net Zero, Carbon Neutral city where virtual interactivity will sadly out number face to face human contact. What kind of city are we striving for in our plural society that will satisfy the traditionalists and the futurists, where are our visionaries and who gets to decide what is good for the collective?

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