“Do I really need a multinational to have a cup of coffee in my neighbourhood?”
That question, posed by sociologist, author and urbanist Saskia Sassen, in Fredrik Gertten’s new documentary, Push, has never been timelier. Though the film focuses the effects of the corporatization of housing, Sassen makes it clear the issue goes far beyond the residential.
The multinational to which Sassen referred was, of course, Starbucks, the global network of coffee houses that has more than 25,000 outlets in neighbourhoods around the world. But other players — Brazilian-owned Tim Hortons and America’s McDonald’s — are equally ubiquitous. And let’s not forget Ikea, Home Depot and countless other international corporations that send profits made locally back to corporate headquarters.
As Sassen also explains, “When you have a Starbucks in the neighbourhood, it means that some of the consumption capacity of the neighbourhood goes away to the corporation.”
In other words, franchises such as Starbucks stifle a local economy’s ability to provide the same products. “Today,” Sassen argues, “the corporatizing of more and more consumer sectors is a real problem for cities … We must re-localize whatever we can re-localize. This will inevitably be a partial project as many of our more complex needs can only be met via complex knowledge systems (a hospital, for example). But we must maximize the replacement of franchises by work done in our or other neighbourhoods in our cities and towns.”
In her 1969 book The Economy of Cities, Jane Jacobs wrote extensively about the phenomenon she called “import replacement.” It is, she claimed, “the root of all economic expansion.” Her idea was not simply that are cities are the main generators of wealth, but that they create wealth by providing goods and services that were previously imported.
Jacobs, who died in 2006, did not live to see the full flowering of the digital economy. Though Google, Amazon and Facebook have altered the role of cities, they remain crucial. The demand for coffee shops, for example, has moved well beyond urban boundaries, but the very notion of the café is an invention of the city.
Another factor Jacobs largely ignored was the power of advertising to shape the emotional and economic landscape we inhabit, whether urban, suburban or rural. A typical food court at 9 a.m. provides a convincing demonstration of the influence of marketing: while there will be lineups at Tim Hortons and McDonald’s, other counters are mostly empty. The difference is neither the quality of the food nor the price, but the time and money spent on ads.
Yet according to the TimeOut Toronto website, eight of the top 11 coffee shops in Toronto are one-offs. The remaining three are “mini-chains.” If nothing else, this shows customers are open to more than corporate options. Given the lifestyle component of café culture, it’s not surprising hyper-locality can be a major advantage. The best that can be said of coffee chains is they’re always the same; as the old Holiday Inn ad put it, the best surprise is no surprise.
Indeed, the appeal of multinationals lies in their sameness and, perhaps, convenience. It’s sometimes easier to find a Starbucks or Tim Hortons than a neighbourhood café with better coffee and more character. This desire for the convenience of familiarity can quickly morph into laziness and apathy.
In a suburban context, sameness is built into the fabric of the community. But the whole point of the city is diversity of uses as well as proximity, access and choice. Ironically, as corporate franchisors increasingly turn to cities to continue their expansion, they’re forced to become more hyper-localized than ever. In Toronto’s saturated market, they’re now setting up in individual buildings as well as neighbourhoods. Sometimes, both franchises can be found in a single office tower.
But re-localizing the city won’t be easy, especially when conservative governments like that of Ontario Premier Doug Ford are aggressively courting corporate interests by reducing public control over some of the most fundamental civic functions, including city planning.
Bill 108, the Tories’ omnibus package of anti-urban measures, would weaken Toronto’s ability to demand growth that fits into its larger city-building agenda. Instead, Ford wants new rules that will mean each project is approved without serious regard to context. It will also relieve developers of responsibility to help maintain the quality of life that enables the enormous profits they’ve come to expect. Some would call that killing the goose that lays the golden egg.
Christopher Hume is a former Star reporter who is a current freelance columnist based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @HumeChristopher
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