Urban reform refers to a loosely knit set of municipal government and citizen group initiatives, from the late 1890s to the end of the First World War and from the late 1960s to the mid-1970s, aimed at improving city life. The first reforms showed a political emphasis that favoured vesting authority in the hands of supposedly apolitical experts. A distrust of local democracy, a feeling that government had to be made secure for people of proven talent, underlay structural reform in local government.
Occasionally, preference for rule by "the best men" led to new local government bodies of appointed, rather than elected, members. Reformers equated proven ability with business success or - as professions such as urban planning, accounting and public health expanded - with appropriate training.
New municipal government bodies seldom usurped the mayor and council, but a modest tampering with the tradition of civic government by council and its standing committees came with the 1896 introduction of the Toronto Board of Control. It was eventually elected by a city-wide vote, thereby evading ward politics, and had special authority in fiscal matters. Among the cities adopting it were Winnipeg (1906), Ottawa (1907), Montréal (1909), Hamilton (1910) and London (1914). A more extreme change teamed a city manager with a mayor at the head of municipal administration. In 1904 Edmonton hired a "city commissioner," the equivalent of a city manager. Similar arrangements were made in Saint John, NB (1908), and Regina, Saskatoon and Prince Albert, Sask (1911-12). Long after the reform period, the city manager scheme was adopted in many Québec municipalities, and in Halifax and Victoria.
The real devolution of power by elected representatives to civic bureaucrats occurred in the administration of new civic services, as increased public ownership led to the management of transit systems and electric-power distribution by appointed commissions; other commissions were established for parks and urban planning. Municipal ownership was not a novel concept. From the 1850s to the 1870s, Canadian cities had either sponsored publicly owned waterworks or assumed control from private companies. Streetcar lines in the 1870s and 1880s and electric-generating and distributing firms in the 1890s had entered into franchise contracts with cities to operate on municipal rights-of-way. But the reputation of this private franchise approach was tarnished by consumer grievances about fares, rates and levels of service. In many Prairie cities municipal ownership accompanied booster campaigns. By 1914 Edmonton's progressive image was enhanced by municipal ownership of a full range of urban services: electricity, streetcars and telephones. In Montréal local businessmen ran private utilities that withstood reform criticism; in Vancouver the streetcars and power network of the British Columbia Electric Railway were British owned. Although municipal ownership was a reform cause across Canada, its outcome confirmed the nation's regional identities.
Public health concerns before the early reform period had taken the form of ad hoc reactions to sporadic epidemics. The advance of the germ theory of disease in the 1880s, and the concurrent growth of government collection of vital statistics, helped foster vigorous public-health campaigns. Most cities relied upon voluntary agencies and a modest public-health budget until the late 1920s. In some communities medical health officers asserted the considerable authority placed in their hands by provincial health Acts and city bylaws passed between 1900 and 1920, working to eliminate outdoor privies, overcrowded dwellings, adulterated food and contaminated water supplies. Other reformers were keenly patriotic and religiously inspired to do good works (see Social Gospel); playground movements arose to instil British character, virtue and cleanliness among foreign children. Settlement houses run by pioneering social workers (including Winnipeg's All People's Mission, run for a time by J.S. Woodsworth) similarly sought to "improve" immigrants. If such social programs were condescending, they nevertheless served practical ends: a playground was safer than a street, and the settlement houses held classes in conversational English.
Owing to the great population growth of urban Canada from 1900 to 1920, housing became a reform concern. Recognizing a need to remedy inadequate housing, many groups discussed the feasibility of forming philanthropic housing companies. Most plans were shelved in the 1913 depression, and the frail philanthropic impulse was swept aside in WWI.
Urban planning also began in the first era of urban reform, originating from a concern about shabby streets and a lack of civic grandeur. City governments or citizens' groups commissioned planners to draft sketches of a City Beautiful, with neoclassical civic buildings, park boulevards, broad avenues and realigned railways. But the war dampened optimism; transition towards an interest in health, housing and the efficient layout of services occurred toward the end of the reform era. Thomas Adams, hired in 1914 as planning adviser to the Commission of Conservation (1909), campaigned for provincial planning Acts to bolster the authority of municipal planning agencies; he also supervised reconstruction after the 1917 Halifax Explosion.
Political changes during this complex reform era increased the authority of civic experts, but it is doubtful whether this upgraded civic affairs; politicians and administrators clashed and citizens became confused by the array of agencies. Despite improvements effected by health officers, urban planners and social workers, these challenges to neighbourhood or ward-level political decisions did not entirely extirpate old practices. Moreover, although many successful ideas from the United States and England influenced Canadian action, Canada experienced modest reform achievements.
The second reform period had a similarly international dimension, in this instance the widespread reaction in Western democracies against centralized and bureaucratic authority, and rejection of the tenet that "bigger is better." In Canadian cities, neighbourhood groups mobilized to halt expressways, demolition and renewal projects, and high-rise invasions of the urban core. City Magazine was a major voice of the movement in the 1970s. Political style was another feature. Toronto Mayor John Sewell (1978-80) had all the elements of a reformer: identification with community activism and a distrust of nonelected agents of civic authority. There were crusades to save neighbourhoods and defeat drastic land-use changes; some utilized self-interest for a defence of property values. In many cities, action came too late to save remarkable older structures or venerable residential areas. Nevertheless the second and short-lived reform movement affected the way politicians, planners and the middle class perceived the city. Restoration rather than demolition became fashionable; the domination of urban planning by the requirements of the automobile was challenged. See also Heritage Canada Foundation; historic site; urban and regional planning.