Charles Abrams, legendary urbanist and creator of the New York City Housing Authority, once noted, “a city is the pulsating product of the human hand and mind, reflecting man’s history, his struggle for freedom, creativity, genius and his selfishness and errors.”
From the ancient city of Ur in Mesopotamia (now Southern Iraq) in the 21st century BC to Julius Caesar’s Rome to today’s 21st century megalopolis regions such as Mexico City, Sao Paulo, Istanbul, Tokyo, Mumbai, Beijing and Lagos, Abrams’ description is haunting and eternal.
In a similar vein, respected publications such as Foreign Policy magazine and Lapham’s Quarterly have recently devoted editions to one of the most vexing yet utterly fascinating public policy questions of the 21st century: how will society sustain and finance its cities as the world enters an unprecedented era of urban expansion?
With a heightened pop-culture and policy focus on the modern city, it is profoundly disappointing that #elxn41 (to use the Twitter hashtag) has failed to foster and inspire a national debate on the future of Canada’s cities. This failure is even more perplexing given the resources that major political parties devoted to electoral efforts in vote-rich regions like the GTA, greater Montreal and Metro Vancouver.
This absence of political attention, coupled with lacklustre corporate engagement on urban issues, notwithstanding welcome but temporary city-centric infusions of investment in the post-2008 global recession response by governments, is a source of festering frustration for this author.
It would be easy to blame this situation on a lack of political will and leadership, but such a response is a facile exercise in convenient catharsis which lacks substance to remedy the situation. Instead, we must look at what key stakeholders need to do differently to return the urban agenda, and our increasingly urban future, to the forefront of national attention and debate to, in turn, generate a resolve to implement innovative solutions.
This past January I was privileged to speak on several panels at the inaugural National Infrastructure Summit. The conference was well attended with mayors from Regina, Calgary, St. John’s, Montreal and Mississauga networking with over 300 international delegates including financiers, academics and infrastructure contractors.
While the conference provided an excellent summation of the present state of the infrastructure challenges and funding obstacles faced by Canadian cities, it fell short on new advocacy language, strategies or policy solutions to catapult the urban agenda back into the national spotlight. Moreover, it was sparsely attended by senior provincial and federal officials (elected and public servants), which was axiomatically problematic.
To start, urban leaders – elected, business and in civil society – need to change the lexicon of this debate. In politics words are weapons and the overused mantra of the so-called “infrastructure deficit” is not only tired, it is devoid of any suasion.
In the parlance and mindset of the senior orders of government, deficits are fiscal issues to be tamed and/or eradicated. Incessant harping about the infrastructure deficit over the past 15 years has caused senior politicians, mandarins and most important, the Canadian public, to tune out. The infrastructure deficit has entered the realm of our “health care crisis”: real but somewhat intractable and thus ignored.
Local leaders must speak of an “infrastructure obligation’ and buttress this new term with an understanding – both with policymakers and citizens – that this obligation is multi-generational and multi-jurisdictional.
Similarly, a shift in mindset and consequent terminology must occur in key areas of municipal services. We must speak of mass (not public) transit, community (not social or public) housing and a variety of other metropolitan (not public) utilities. The present and limited capacity of Canadian cities to raise needed revenues is well documented, and will not change substantially in the near-term.
Therefore, civic politicians must unshackle their ideological yokes to transform and embrace real public-private partnerships – from simple financing to shared service delivery to outright privatization – in a range of service areas including transit, water, housing, recreation, emergency services and local health care.
Before readers accused this author of unbridled free-market profiteering, this transformation must be accompanied with stringent governance (including legislative) changes to hold private providers to the highest ethical, safety and service standards, with disproportionate financial penalties for failure. Meanwhile, respecting successor rights for unionized employees in these new service delivery environments will require imagination and compromise on all sides.
As for land-use planning, new approaches from municipal planners and politicians are long overdue. Adhering to the sustainability principles embodied in the schools of new urbanism and smart growth is laudable, but smart growth is not a function of where, it is first and foremost a function of how. And defining long-term transportation corridors, future employment, power sources and agricultural lands on 25- to 50-year horizons must become the norm as opposed to the incremental planning exercises in which local governments presently engage.
Finally, our cities must price differently for everything from water to electricity to roadways to reflect the true consumption, societal and economic costs of our continued urbanization.
At the provincial order of government, municipal statutes need to be re-written to provide cities with more tools by which they can govern themselves, and yes, potentially raise revenues. This is true for the federal government as well, especially in the context of its responsibility – stemming from the British North America Act – to ensure the effective and efficient functioning of the Canadian economic union.
Given that our cities create the largest share of national GDP, the economic union imperative can mitigate any queasiness that the federal government may have with the delineation of powers vis-a-vis Section 91 and 92 of the Constitution in terms of encroachment on provincial jurisdiction over cities.
Turning to taxes, several studies have concluded that while urban areas in Canada are the primary generators of economic wealth, on average, these cities only have access to a miserly eight cents of each tax dollar generated. Whether it is through the transfer of tax points, dedicated funding vehicles (such as Gas Tax revenues and Payments in lieu of Taxes) or new taxing powers as alluded to earlier, the three orders of government need to sit down and hammer out a deal to re-allocate the national tax revenue pie.
However, as part of this deal, cities will have to ensure that they use new revenues to not only fulfill their service, infrastructure, economic, and cultural obligations, but also that they implement policies and programs in the realms of public health, the environment, and immigrant settlement (among other initiatives) to reduce pressures in areas such as provincial health care budgets and federal strains in terms of providing for our pensioners and new Canadians.
The solutions proffered here are neither exhaustive nor perfect. Some will vehemently disagree with some of the measures advocated. This debate is not only expected, but wholeheartedly encouraged and embraced for it is the hallmark of a mature democracy.
While the implementation of any new urban-focused policies will fall mostly to public officials, it is Canadians who must magnify and marshal this debate to a Gladwell-esque tipping point before our politicians are compelled to act. Hopefully, we w