INRS Professor Mario Polèse publishes new book: The Wealth and Poverty of Cities

October 7, 2019

Mise à jour : October 13, 2020

A conversation with Mario Polèse, professor emeritus at Institut national de la recherche scientifique (INRS) and author of the book The Wealth and Poverty of Cities: Why Nations Matter, recently published by Oxford University Press. 

Tell us about your new book The Wealth and Poverty of Cities. What new light does it shed on this topic? 
Mario Polèse: There is a vast body of literature on cities from an urban economics and sociology perspective.  My book isn’t particularly new in that sense. What distinguishes it from other publications is its subtitle: Why Nations Matter, which adds a different perspective. 
Generally, when we talk about cities, we explain their successes and failures by how they’re managed and by their local attributes.  But in my book, I take a different direction. If I were to sum up, I’d say that cities mirror the societies that built them.  
The way cities are governed, designed, and organized depends a great deal on national legislation, norms, and values. If French and American cities are different, it’s not because of their mayors, but because of the laws and values of each nation. 
That is the basic message of my book. From New York, Port-au-Prince, and Montreal to Toronto, Paris, and Buenos Aires, I explain how each city reflects national institutions and norms.   
Canadian and American reader will be particularly interested in understanding why Canadian cities (on this Quebec is similar to the rest of Canada) are different from American cities. 
Why is there no Detroit in Canada? Why doesn’t Montreal have an inner city or American-style ghettos? 
I’ve tried to explain why, despite apparent similarities, Canadian and American political cultures are very different when it comes to managing cities. 
Could you please give us an example of the difference between American and Canadian cities? 
M.P.: Let’s take funding for primary schools. In the U.S., primary schools are generally funded through local property taxes. Imagine that the wealthy municipality of Westmount in Montreal directly funded its primary schools. Teachers would receive more money per pupil than Montreal North, for example, accentuating social disparities. This is one of the reasons behind the White Flight phenomenon in the U.S. during the fifties, seventies, middle-class whites moving from the downtown core to areas with better primary schools.  
This creates a vicious tax circle: as middle-class residents desert city centers, the tax base dwindles, eroding the quality of schools, then causing even more people to leave. The result:  American cities are not only racially, but also socially more segregated than ours. 
This is just one example of how national or provincial norms help explain why cities differ from one state or province to another. Local factors have much less impact than we tend to think.
In your book, you analyze various cities around the world, some of which have been more successful than others. Can you give us an example of a failure and a model for success? 
M.P.: I used Buffalo in western New York State as an archetypical example of an American city in decline that still hasn’t gotten back on its feet. It’s distressing that cities like Buffalo continue to stagnate economically and socially in a country as prosperous as the United States. And it’s not an isolated case. I could have taken Cleveland, Milwaukee, or Saint Louis as examples, all three of which are in the Rust Belt. 
Sometimes success stories are accidents of history, due to factors, such as geography and politics. Vienna is an interesting case. It has been ranked by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) as the world’s most livable city for the last two years. 
From an economic standpoint, Vienna does very well, with an income level on par with New York’s—an extraordinary achievement for a city whose metropolitan population is half that of Montreal. How did Vienna do it?  Its success is all the more surprising in that it lost two of the pillars that drive urban success. 
Here’s what happened. 
Up until the First World War, Vienna was the capital and flagship city of the Austro Hungarian Empire, which had 50 million inhabitants at the time. Vienna and Paris were Europe’s intellectual capitals, dominating the fields of medicine, the arts, fashion, and so on. After the war, Vienna found itself in a puny republic with a population of only six million.  Following that, during the dark days of the Nazi occupation, most of its Jewish population was exterminated, losing much of its intellectual elite, when Austria was annexed by Germany in 1938. 
How did Vienna bounce back? I’m not going to tell you! To find out, you’ll have to read my book.
You devote an entire chapter to Montreal and Toronto, which have been long-time rivals.  Do you think one has been more successful than the other? 
M.P.: I often compare Montreal to Vienna. Like Vienna, Montreal lost its empire, although under much less dramatic circumstances. Up until the fifties and sixties, Montreal was the economic capital of Canada and its biggest city, Canada’s New York, the business world largely dominated by Anglophones. In the fifties, there were no major companies run by Francophones.  
But in the seventies, the Parti Québécois’s plans for Quebec independence and French language charter sparked a mass exodus: 200,000 members of the Anglophone elite left for Toronto—taking their money with them. Montreal never regained its status as a financial center. 
Montreal went through twenty years of hard times (1975 to 1995), with an unemployment rate often above 10%, nearly double that of Toronto.  Montreal’s pain was Toronto’s gain. 
Montreal had to reinvent itself. Fortunately, Quebec invested massively in education. In the wake of the Quiet Revolution, a francophone business class emerged and occupied the niche left vacant by Anglophone companies. Multinationals like Bombardier, Transat, Cascades, and SNC-Lavalin were launched, achieving considerable success.  
Beginning in the mid-nineties, Montreal increasingly specialized in new economic sectors such as pharmaceuticals and aeronautics, and more recently in the booming IT and artificial intelligence industries.  
Montreal remains a very livable city, with a lower cost of living and less social inequality than Toronto.  
How do you see this book in terms of your career? 
M.P.: I won’t deny that the success of my last book The Wealth and Poverty of Regions, published by the University of Chicago Press, encouraged me to repeat the exercise. But this book is different. I would say that it’s one of the most personal books I’ve ever written where I express my opinions more freely. It’s a less neutral book, the kind you can allow yourself late in your career.  
I owe particular thanks the Oxford University Press and its editor David Pervin, who backed this project from the beginning. 
Would you like to add anything more about the book? 
M.P.: If you want to understand what makes Canadian cities different, read this book! ♦
About Professor Mario Polèse
A founding member of the Association des économistes québécois, Professor Mario Polèse is one of the creators of the INRS-UQAM joint doctoral program in urban studies, one of the first of its kind in Quebec and Canada. He has held positions at UNESCO, the World Bank and the OECD, and as a visiting professor abroad. Professor Polèse has published close to a hundred articles in renowned scientific journals and nearly twenty books. He is also a Senior Adjunct Professor at the McGill University’s School of Urban Planning.