Public policy is a growing personal interest, building on my background in engineering, my morbid fixation with local, provincial and federal politics, and a view for leadership.
This term I have a fascinating graduate course in Engineering & Public Policy at the University of Toronto. While much of the material would likely cause the reader's eyes to glaze over, I hope to write about some situations that motivate the use of policy.
My mother grew up in what was essentially farmland in Aurora, Ontario in the 1950s and '60s. School always involved a long bus ride; the nearest neighbours were miles away. Her love of the outdoors led our family to own a ski chalet on 8 acres of land in upstate New York in the '90s, and for decades she has enjoyed an annual, week-long canoe trip with several women her age to one of Ontario's many parks. The works of the Group of Seven are among her favourite art.
I, on the other hand, have resolved never to own a car, which mostly confines my working life to urban areas. I am still interested in living in a Japanese-style one-bedroom apartment, the sort that tend to be too small for even a shower (a nearby bathhouse substitutes). Bicycle activism interests me, and recently I use 'driver' as an ephithet more often that not. Despite these contrasts I find that I share a high valuation of nature, of open spaces away from civilization, of the pristine. I cycle, ski, run and dragon boat because I love being outdoors. Nature's majesty has an unrivalled capacity to awe me.
Whereas earlier generations, especially in North America, had a concept of nature as bountiful and boundless, we are aware today of the limits of our planet. Conventional wisdom has it that a person is entitled to his own homestead, his plot of land, or at least his suburban home on a large lot. When space is plentiful, this is excellent—if each child had his own patch of woods to tromp through, we would surely have better mental health overall.
In Mississauga, where I grew up, there is no longer empty land; every hectare within the city limits has been zoned, and much of it for housing. The consequence is sprawl; youth who feel disconnected from communities they cannot traverse without a license and a vehicle; poor public transit in areas with density too low to support frequent service. Development, far from ceasing, continues in Brampton and other municipalities further from downtown Toronto.
I don't think this should be interpreted to mean that we no longer value nature. Imagery of the Great White North is central to our national identity and we are loath to abandon it. Nor are the developers and new homeowners inherently evil. Instead, I feel, our behaviour has been slow to change and no longer suits our values.
The course has confirmed my distaste for the varieties of conservatism that favour small government and markets. In the Greater Toronto Area, the de facto policy of letting the housing market alone has only allowed the efficient paving of large areas of green land. Yet the market provides no incentive to use instruments of collective benefit (parks, transit and multiple dwellings) over those of individual benefit (backyards, cars and individual homes). Thus the need for progressive policy. Looking to Western Europe and East Asia we can see myriad examples of both success and failure in this policy space, and we have the luxury of adapting the former to our own cities.
Thus also I can reconcile my 'city mouse' predilections with my 'country mouse' values. When wilderness and nature—the urban park, the lakeshore, the ski slopes and national parks a few hours away—are within easy reach, urban living need not feel confined or artificial.