In the United States, interest in consolidation of urban governments is cyclical. Many of the existing city-county consolidations occurred in the 1950's and 1960's. Recently, the successful city- government consolidations in Kansas City-Wyandotte County, Kansas in 1997 and Louisville-Jefferson County, Kentucky in 2000 renewed interest among urban reformers and academics. In most major U.S. metropolitan areas, a combination of suburban activism and central city minority political control makes metropolitan government a non-starter. The literature in recent years (e.g., Rusk 1999 and Stephens and Wikstrom 2000) emphasizes "governance" rather than "government." Nelson Wikstrom, a leading academic expert writes that "given the rise, recognition and institutionalization of regional governance, the concept of one comprehensive metropolitan government has become a somewhat archaic intellectual relic, identified with the past century" (Wikstrom, 2002). It is fair to say that no existing city-county consolidation, on either side of the border, can really be called a comprehensive metropolitan government.
Despite these recent differences, we think that a U.S.-Canadian contrast is very important, feasible and useful, for at lease two reasons. First, these are strong local government similarities. City governments in both countries exist in the context of federal systems. Local governments are legal creatures of the state (or province) in both countries. Municipal governments share a common heritage based upon the English system (even in Quebec). Many of the reforms associated with the Progressive Era in the early 20th century United States crossed the border. These include the city-manager system, and the practice of nonpartisan local elections. Both countries lack strong socialist parties, especially at the local level. In recent years, both countries have devolved and downloaded governmental functions to the local level. Both countries have shown evidence of an active neighborhood movement. Some experiments in U. S. local democracy, such as Chicago's Local School Councils and Alternative Policing Strategy (Fung, 2004) can be viewed as parallels to developments in Canadian cities, such as the Montreal borough system.
Second, many of our academic colleagues have made such comparisons previously. The most explicit comparison appears in Rothblatt and Sancton's (1998) edited volume on metropolitan governance. In this rich, detailed work, a Canadian metropolitan area (i.e., Montreal) is implicitly paired with a single U.S. metropolitan area (i.e., Boston). Laura Reese's (1997) study of local economic development policy compares cities in Michigan and Ontario. A recent volume on city-county consolidation (Carr and Feiock, 2004) includes a chapter on the Ottawa amalgamation. Donald Phares's recently edited volume (2004) on metropolitan governance presents an overview chapter on the U.S. and Canada, as well as a case study of the Vancouver region. Interestingly, this book also includes a case study of Mexico City, and a survey chapter on Europe.
Overall, this literature concludes that Canadian cities have more highly developed metropolitan planning and government systems than their U.S. counterparts. Rothblatt and Sancton (1998) consider the differences and similarities in terms of political culture influences, policymaking influences, and the global social and economic situation. The political culture argument, in brief, is that the U.S. is more individualistic and privatistic than Canada. Thus, Canadian metropolitan areas have a political and social climate more sympathetic to metropolitan government. The lengthy, tragic history of U.S. racism also comes into play. Policymaking influences include the interplay of these levels of government; we will have more to say about this below. The global forces argument is that jobs and people have decentralized, and that a common competitiveness is important to any metropolitan area today. …