by Clive Doucet
New Society (2007), 251 pp.
When Clive Doucet won a seat on Ottawa’s city council in 1997, he was a poet with no experience as an elected official. In Urban Meltdown: Cities, Climate Change and Politics as Usual, he brings to bear on the problem of global city development a sharp outsider’s perspective and the gift for expression that endeared him to voters. Following from his basic premise that the modern world is predominantly an urban one, Doucet argues that our gravest problems — including global warming and social disenfranchisement — are predominantly city problems.
Throughout the book, he takes Ottawa, with its clogged roads, suburban sprawl, and air quality warnings, as emblematic of urban mismanagement. His most forceful claim is that by ignoring cities’ needs and not properly distributing tax dollars to them, federal governments must share the blame for city problems. He cites New Orleans as the most obvious example of this disconnect: the US government ignored clear warnings about the city’s aging levees while spending billions on homeland security.
Doucet has spent the past ten years making this argument and fighting for sustainable development in Ottawa, with some tangible results. And while the tone of his book is bleak, it does offer suggestions for action, ranging from the grassroots (supporting electric public transit) to the national (abolishing corporate funding for electoral campaigns).
The book’s main weakness is that it tends to get lost in trails of blame. Doucet points the finger at the war on drugs and the oppression of native groups, omitting some more salient urban issues. For example, he fails to address the world’s growing slums, described in apocalyptic terms in Mike Davis’s Planet of Slums.
Nevertheless, Urban Meltdown is an important, if frightening, read. When Doucet speaks from the firm ground of experience as city councillor, his sharply logical solutions to municipal problems seem both hopeful and achievable.