Canada’s Cities are a Model for the World

This article appeared as an OpEd in the Ottawa Citizen entitled City-building as a Canadian export on May 25, 2014.

More than half the global population lives in cities and this number climbs by 60 million people a year. It may seem that as we become an urban world, the places we live, work and play will inevitably become beacons of innovation, prosperity, sustainability, and civility. Cities, after all, represent progress. The urbanization of our world is a sign of our evolution as a species.

There are some places in the world where our cities – mostly – work. These cities are resilient during economic downturns; they facilitate local economic development, entrepreneurialism, access to education and cultural institutions, and they value access to clean land, air and water. They are places where it is possible to arrive as a newcomer and comfortably transition, in just one generation, into the middle class. They are a point of pride for their nations and drive foreign investment and prosperity.

However, these cities are rare. Most cities need to be fixed rather than emulated. Many are characterized by high unemployment, environmental decline and substandard housing. They are hindered by poor city design resulting in long commutes, lost productivity, and limited access to the natural systems that sustain human life, such as food and water. Alarmingly, the world’s poorest, most vulnerable, and least resilient cities are also the fastest growing. Much of the political instability we see in the world today is the result of these urban conditions.

How we approach our final, global migration from rural societies to urban places, will define the future of our species.

While not without their challenges, Canada’s largest cities consistently rank near the top of studies benchmarking best practices in urban livability, resilience, and economic growth. Our liveability, combined with the relative ease of doing business, drives the success of Canadian cities in attracting jobs, talent, and foreign investment.

An international strategy for Canada must position our prominence and growing expertise in city-building as an export that embodies our most cherished Canadian values, and allows us to facilitate social justice on a global scale. The extent to which we live side by side in diverse communities, respecting and celebrating interculturalism, is distinct to Canadian cities. The provision of basic infrastructure and services that provide opportunity and access to full participation in Canadian society is an outcome of the way we organize our cities. And importantly, the civility with which we recognize our differences and negotiate our values through local democracy is entirely contingent on the access to participation provided in cities.

To lead on a global scale we need to refine our own urban agenda by recognizing in federal policy our national shared interest in great city-building. Such an agenda must be pervasive, seeking to reorient the ways in which we view, understand, plan for, fund, and administer our cities.

Our cities are thriving today as a result of infrastructure built by past generations. But currently, the infrastructure deficit of Canadian cities stands at $171 billion, or $12,800 for every household.

Infusing all aspects of federal governance with an urban agenda, as a fundamental lens through which to extrapolate Canadian values, would both ensure progressive city building and gain us international exposure and help strengthen our presence globally.

This urban agenda should focus on the core elements that support livability: housing, transit, the environment, long-term infrastructure, and incubating innovation. Supporting cities is an international interest and a national imperative.