There are a few places in Brighton that are distinctively Brighton, as if they’re somehow more Brighton than anywhere else. Main Street, with its historic buildings, monuments, and concerts in the park; Presqu’ile, the provincial park that we call our own, with its iconic marshes and tasty snack stop; and King Edward Park, the hub of all things play. You may have your own favourite spots that stand out as holding the essence of Brighton, maybe Proctor Park and the Brighton Barn Theatre, or Gosport’s waterfront, or Harbour Street. Many businesses have a special place in our hearts too, our favourite places to eat or shop.
But today is Sunday, and I think I can speak for just about all of us when I say that, at least on Sundays, the heart of Brighton is in Codrington.
It’s no one thing that makes this place feel so vibrant and warm. It’s the people, all of us bringing our unique personalities and perspectives to a common place with shared values, hopes, and desires. Codrington Market is where I see folks I don’t often see downtown — but it’s also where I see my neighbours, colleagues, and friends. It’s where I meet new vendors from nearby towns, who bring their handmade and unique items to add to the variety and beauty of our market. Without question, Codrington Market is quintessential Brighton, a definitive hub of rural and urban Brightonians along with our near neighbours.
But this morning, the first person who spoke to me was a Codrington resident who had concerns. This year there are concerns about a specific development, but every election year I hear from people from rural Brighton who are concerned about whether or not they are well represented on Council. This shows up most often in discussions about the state of the roads in rural Brighton.
The state of the roads is the perennial topic in municipal politics: we all have our favourite pothole, that reminds us daily of the backlog of road maintenance in our community. (For context, this is true just about everywhere: “pothole politics” is the subject of academic study, popular podcasts, and endless blogs. It’s a thing!) But road maintenance in Brighton is a primary factor that divides urban and rural Brightonians. Rural folks feel like they’re less important than urban folks, based on how we assign funds for road maintenance.
Let’s set aside the actual numbers for now, and just talk about how we value our community. If Codrington is the heart of Brighton (at least on Sundays), do we put our treasure where our hearts are? Do we recognize what it takes to make the market happen?
- The Codrington Community Centre is run by a dedicated group of volunteers who put countless hours into keeping it running, planning events, and doing extensive fundraising. How much are they responsible for, and how much should the rest of us support them?
- The community of rural Brighton and the surrounding areas are the source of the goods we find at market each week. Are our farmers and artisans well supported? How can we support and maintain the economic development of our rural areas, aside from shopping at the market?
- And yes, roads. How many rural roads are paved, and in need of maintenance? How many rural roads are unpaved, and could benefit from upgrades?
ALL of Brighton
Codrington isn’t the only enclave of rural Brightonians. All of the hamlets have their own unique flavour and needs, and to some extent or another they also have their own self-organization. The Presqu’ile Point Property Owner’s Association pools the voices of residents there, and I’ve already had a brief talk with their current President about their concerns, mostly about lowering the speed limit on Bayshore. Smithfield, Hilton, Orland, Spring Valley, and Cankerville all have common interests and assets unique to their areas, and I’m sure that even if they don’t have official Associations, they talk to each other about their needs. Some more urban neighbourhoods do too: Gosport has a proud and independent community, and Brighton by the Bay, Orchard Gate, and Forest Drive all have a history of collective advocacy.
It’s healthy for each neighbourhood to be self-organized. There is no government replacement for knowing your neighbours and standing together in mutual support, and I think that often we err on the side of looking to the municipality for all of our needs rather than looking to each other. In that respect I’m really glad that the Codrington Community Centre has its own programming and fundraising that goes beyond municipal supports, to create something that is truly theirs. The question is, how much do Brightonians in general owe to Codrington, or Smithfield, or Presqu’ile Point?
Municipal supports are for the things that neighbourhoods can’t do on their own. We as a broader community have a baseline of what is considered acceptable for basic infrastructure, like roads; but we rarely travel rural roads, and many of us might be surprised to learn that not all roads have the same standard. Road maintenance is regulated in Ontario based on the volume and speed of traffic, with lower standards for roads that have less usage: the potholes can get bigger, and be filled less frequently, on small rural roads. The question is, do we think that’s acceptable? Are we okay with having different standards for different parts of Brighton?
Ultimately, we need some formula for determining how to spend municipal infrastructure funds. Following the formulas of the Municipal Act will always lead to more maintenance being done in urban areas, perpetuating the notion that urban areas have higher standards. There’s a logic to that: more people, more usage, more required upkeep – and if that leads to better overall services in the urban areas, well, that’s the benefit of density. We can’t expect remote farms to have the same level of service as folks on Main Street, any more than we can expect to have the same level of services anywhere in Brighton as they do in downtown Toronto or Vancouver. Density brings extensive benefits (and I’ll write a blog post about that soon!).
But the formula in the Municipal Act, like all legislation, provides a minimum standard, not a maximum. There’s nothing in the Municipal Act (to my knowledge) that prevents us from going above and beyond, and deciding that as a community we want to set a higher standard for rural roads, or provide additional support for the Codrington Community Centre. We can do that — we can do just about anything! — we just need to pay for it. And that means raising property taxes.
Like so many political issues, this is a matter of fairness: should we have to pay for things that we don’t use? The likelihood of a rural Brightonian using an urban road is high: at some point on their way to get groceries each week, just about everyone will cross Main or Elizabeth Street. Meanwhile, the likelihood of someone who lives on Harbour Street using Sumach or Seckar Lane is very, very low. But the reality is that while we all use Main and Elizabeth and Prince Edward and Ontario, rural folks aren’t using Division Street or Addison or Mill Pond Court. It’s not as simple as rural residents paying for urban streets or urban residents paying for rural roads.
A Way Forward
The assumption is that nobody wants to raise property taxes. I hear all the time about how high our taxes are (never mind that we actually have one of the lowest tax rates around!), and typically politicians only raise taxes as a last resort, and lose the next election because of it. But communities that have used Participatory Budgeting have often surprised politicians by choosing much different financial priorities than the Councils that they elect. Studies have found that the financial decisions made through this process are also very often more economically sustainable: informed residents are often more prepared to make long-term financial investments than Councillors, because they don’t face the pressure of re-election. That forward thinking often results in better financial outcomes in the long term, even if they come with more costs up front. Residents in Japan who went through a Citizens’ Assembly that included a Futures Thinking process ultimately voted to raise their utility rates for the sake of future generations – something few politicians would ever do on their own.
Part of the bargain of living in community is paying for things that we don’t use. Most residents of Brighton don’t have kids in school here, but we all pay for it because we recognize that others also pay for the things that we use, and because we value having educated neighbours. We invest in each other, and recognize that it has benefits to us when we do. The same is true for our urban and rural divide.
On that basis, I would support implementing Participatory Budgeting in Brighton, starting with infrastructure issues. They are constant, controversial, and consequential for our future; residents deserve direct engagement, and I’m confident that having their participation would change the nature of the debate away from being a matter of fairness and meeting the bare minimum, and toward an approach of collectively determining the best path for our future. Maybe residents in a Participatory Budgeting process would affirm our existing formulas; at the very least, the process can get more residents involved and informed, and lower the temperature of the debate a little bit, even if it doesn’t change the formula. But the conversation about what we owe to each other, and how much ownership we take over the things that help our neighbours to thrive, is always worth having.