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Opinion

What does 2019 hold for Canadian cities?

Published on 14/12/2018

Canadians have gotten used to seeing their cities rise in global rankings of best places to live. Earlier this year, in keeping with a ten-year trend, the Economist’s Global Liveability Index again awarded Calgary, Vancouver, and Toronto spots in the top ten best cities for overall quality of life, based on their performance in categories such as healthcare, infrastructure, and environment. With Montreal not far behind in 17th place, it means that much of our population – nearly 40% including the greater areas of each of those cities – resides in or near some of the world’s most desirable communities.

In 2019 we’ll likely see our big cities figure among the best once more. But with issues like rising income inequality (which in Canada is growing the most in our four largest cities), the affordable housing crisis, and critical transit gaps exerting unsustainable pressure on urban regions, this trend is unlikely to endure or at the very least accurately reflect the reality for an increasing number of residents.

So how do we ensure Canadian cities are positioned to overcome these complex challenges and deliver a high quality of life into the future?

It’s worth first noting that, so far, much of the success of our cities has not been achieved through deliberate attempts to make them great. As prominent city planner Joe Berridge argues in a recent lecture, the rise of Toronto in particular as a vibrant metropolis owes much more to accidents of history and a foundation of “peace, order and good government” than intentional urban policy or place-making.

However, given the growing scope of social and economic challenges concentrating in cities, 2018 might be the last year we coast by without deliberate ambition to strengthen our cities, home to the vast majority of people living in Canada.

Challenges like the disturbing spike in the rate of hospitalization for opioid poisoning (a 53 per cent increase over the past 10 years), the nearly one in five renter households that spend more than half their income on housing, or the fact that people in Canada’s biggest city spend more time commuting to work than anyone else in North America are just some of the wicked problems that require better targeted and bolder solutions.

Of course, Canada is far from alone in facing these challenges. One way peer economies like the UK, Korea, and Australia are working to bolster their cities is through national urban policies. Such policies take many forms, but share the common understanding that city performance correlates directly with economic progress, well-being, and environmental sustainability at the national level.

By comparison, Canada has carved out a more implicit approach at the national level. As a recent report by the IRPP explains, there is a “diffuse array of policies and programs that are not primarily geographically targeted, but nevertheless have their most significant impacts in cities.”

This implicit approach fits our decentralized and federalist reality, and one in which municipal affairs fall under the responsibility of the provincial government. But with cities struggling under the weight of rising demands for services and limited resources and powers to address a host of interrelated issues, “implicit” or “accidental” approaches cannot be expected to produce the transformative results we need.

Indeed, in 2019, Canadian cities deserve much more focused attention to become truly great communities of the future, capable of surmounting 21st century obstacles. And while we don’t necessarily need the federal government to articulate a “grand strategy” for cities, we do need both national and provincial decision makers to craft policies that effectively respond to the unique challenges and circumstances of our biggest cities.

This work shouldn’t be left to upper levels of government alone, as cities themselves are often best positioned to diagnose their issues and find appropriate solutions. Others, including civil society, academia and business, have important roles to play as well. That’s why in November of this year, Maytree and the Federation of Canadian Municipalities launched the Urban Project, a new platform for city leadership that brings together big city mayors, urban experts, and leaders from across sectors to co-create solutions and challenge the status quo of cities in our federation.

Following our launch event on the theme of “Innovative Economies” in Edmonton, we will continue to regularly convene city builders over the next three years in different Canadian cities to strengthen relationships between them and build an evidence base to surface and scale promising solutions to common problems they face. In 2019, the Urban Project will focus on tackling housing and transport, and we’ll look forward to collaborating across boundaries of all kinds to build more affordable, accessible, and resilient places for Canadians to call home.

As such, in 2019 expect Canadian cities to band together and take deliberate and coordinated action to shape and secure their future.

Summary

2018 might be the last year we coast by without deliberate ambitions to strengthen our cities.

Topic(s)

Cities and communities