As our cities go, so goes our country

As I write, the next Conservative budget is scheduled to drop within days – with a thud, no doubt.  What can easily be anticipated is its indifference to the city we live in.

It’s an indifference that’s been evident in previous budgets, yes, but also in the government’s response to urban-oriented bills and motions put forward by the official Opposition.  They’ve said no to our national public transit strategy – in spite of the $6 billion annual cost of congestion in Toronto alone.  They’ve said no to our national affordable housing strategy – in spite of record and growing Toronto Housing waiting lists.  They’ve said no to a long-term, predictable and accountable infrastructure plan – in spite of a national infrastructure deficit north of $150 billion, and growing.

Such indifference is alarming if for no other reason than the fact that 80 per cent of Canadians live in cities.

That makes us an urban nation.  The implications are profound for policy and governance in Canada.  Cities have to be not just part of our national project, but central to it.  What we want for our country, we must also want for our cities.

It is alarming too because what we commonly call globalization has enhanced the economic and political importance of our cities to the fortunes of our country.  Some may argue the flip-side – that we are witnessing not the rise of cities but the limitations of federal or national governments.  Either way, what’s clear is that we got to this place quite deliberately.

Investment in affordable housing has been on the decline in Canada since 1989 – but for the exception of Jack Layton’s 2005 budget intervention.  Federal investment in infrastructure has followed a similar pattern, reaching its lowest level of investment through the 1990s.

The defence of successive federal governments has always been a resort to the constitution – ‘That’s not our responsibility.  Check out the British North America Act of 1867!’ – neglecting the habit, historical and current, of downloading responsibility and costs to, ultimately, the municipal level.

Our cities have displayed remarkable resilience in the circumstances.  But that resilience is not sustainable.  And what is presently being wasted and verging on lost is the economic, social and environmental potential of our cities.

Capturing that potential is the great opportunity of our country.  What is required is not different government – as the strict constitutionalism of the Conservatives would suggest – but a different form of governance.  Canada needs a new co-operative, collaborative and inclusive form of governance.

Take urban economies as an example.  It is increasingly recognized that economic development is dependent on innovation – an undeniably social and, therefore, urban process. Innovation depends on proximity, clustering, inclusion and creative interaction. It also requires an institutional context that connects people to capacity and knowledge. Therein lies a role for the federal government in urban economic development.

But everywhere one looks, growth is constrained by the absence of a model of governance that enables collaboration, co-operation and inclusion – that embraces communities, post-secondary institutions and the private sector in strategies for mutual success.

Our cities are crying out for a deeper federalism, not a retreat of the federal government from the life of our cities.  Our cities are failing to realize their potential – economically, socially and environmentally.  And Canada is falling short of the country it could be as a result.

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