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Why Canada needs a true urban agenda

It should start from the premise that the fundamental underpinning of the Canadian economy to have prosperity is dependent on the success of the cities, because 80 per cent of Canadians live in cities.
-Toronto mayor John Tory

This week the leaders of Canada’s 22 largest municipalities are gathering in Toronto to figure out how to put urban issues on our national agenda. This is a topic I’ve touched upon many times before on Architect This City, but I continue to believe that it’s one of our most pressing issues.

We know that the vast majority of Canadians live in cities (see above quote) and we know that the vast majority of our economic output is concentrated in cities. In fact, roughly half of Canada’s GDP is produced in our 6 biggest cities alone – Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, and Ottawa-Gatineau.

But despite this concentration of wealth and economic activity, our governance structures do not reflect this reality. They’re outdated. They were built for a Canada that has passed. And so in my view, there’s a significant amount of untapped potential lying dormant in our cities if only we could get around to properly empowering them. There’s a “stimulus package” waiting to be unleashed.

In anticipation of this week’s leadership meeting, the Globe and Mail published an article called, Canada’s big city mayors ready to push urban agenda. And in it they included a number of interviews with Canadian mayors. It’s fairly long, but definitely worth a read. Here are a few relevant sound bites…

Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson

We have an archaic system. Cities aren’t recognized in our constitution. It’s unbelievable. But Big City Mayors have set aside those important gaps because the needs are now so urgent on housing and transit, we can’t afford to spend a couple years debating structural change. For the time being, the focus is just on ensuring there’s more federal capital provided for transit and other urban infrastructure.

Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi (on municipal funding sources)

I would prefer to levy myself, so that I’m ultimately accountable to my citizens and, if they don’t like it, they can get rid of me. Allowing others to levy the tools takes away predictability and stability, as well. That said, we’re starving here, and any improvement to the system that leads to those predictable, stable cash flows is a good thing.

Winnipeg mayor Brian Bowman (on the most pressing issue facing Canadian cities)

I’d say without question infrastructure and new funding models to modernize the ways that cities fund themselves. That’s something I’ve started discussions on already with some of my counterparts, Mayor [Naheed] Nenshi in Calgary, Mayor [Don] Iveson in Edmonton as well as Gregor Robertson in Vancouver. We’ve talked about a number of topics including the missing and murdered indigenous women and girls issue, public transit and rapid transit development. But the one consistent theme is that the way cities are funded is outdated.

Toronto mayor John Tory

I start from this premise: Are people paying enough taxes? In many cases, you could argue, not only are they paying enough taxes, they can’t afford to pay any more. We should be looking at the total amounts paid to all three levels of government and how that is being allocated. Do we believe that, in the case of Toronto, the federal and provincial governments are making adequate investments in transit, given the amount of money they take out of this area in taxation? I would say the answer is: not yet. [But] they have been doing better.

Montreal mayor Denis Coderre

We are negotiating a new pact between the province and Montreal, and it’s all about municipal autonomy. We need tools so we’re not always waiting in the hallway at the end of legislative sessions looking for amendments to make the city work better. Since 85 per cent of immigration in Quebec is going to Montreal, we need more control over tools of integration, like job creation and housing. Montreal needs financial leverage…

Image: Vancouver via Flickr

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