Snow-capped mountains. Expansive prairie. Frozen tundra. Rugged coastlines. All images evoked by “Canada.” It’s all part of who we are and how we think about ourselves, certainly.
But, in reality, we are an urban nation – one of the most urban in the world. And for some time it has been clear that we cannot envision the kind of country we hope to be without also having a vision for the cities we live in, so connected is one to the other. It is past time that we govern to the urban fact of this country.
The numbers tell a compelling story and point to the need for urban issues to, at last, come to the forefront of our national agenda. Eighty per cent of us live in cities. We can’t imagine shaping the kinds of communities we want to live in, without understanding how to reshape urban communities.
Our cities are responsible for 80 per cent of our greenhouse gas emissions. We can’t get to a sustainable Canada without a plan for sustainable urban development. Canada’s 10 major city-regions account for more than half of our country’s economic production and employment. We can’t prosper without thriving urban economies.
Perhaps most importantly, we need to understand that it is through our cities that we are connected to the rest of the world. Dhaka shapes Toronto and Toronto shapes Dhaka. The sweatshops of our Spadina Avenue became the Rana Plazas of Dhaka and its suburbs. The clothing from Dhaka’s textile mills fill the big box stores where our Golden Mile once hummed with industrial production but now the underemployed work for little and shop for less.
For 40 years or so, the economic forces of this global economy have reshaped – physically and socially, too – cities around the world and even delivered some, once mighty, into bankruptcy.
Here in Toronto, vast expanses of our car-oriented post-war suburbs have become food, transit and social service deserts with scarce opportunity for employment, especially for youth – “Priority Communities” in the parlance of this city.
Our downtown has become home to both the complex business infrastructure that supports the fast and furious transactions that speed between the global cities of the world and the many who do so well by it. In between these places, there is less and less.
Over this same period, successive federal governments shoved our cities into this transforming fray. And then they stood back, disavowing responsibility, showing no interest, only rarely and exceptionally providing some help, leaving Canadian cities to respond to global forces with local resources.
And so we have cities in Canada without enough transit, without enough affordable housing, without enough jobs and with infrastructure crumbling. We are wasting skills, wasting energy, wasting opportunity and defeating hope. And we are less prosperous because of it.
We need a federal government alive to what is possible for our cities and in turn for Canada at this moment when the competitive imperatives of a global economy, the moral imperative of inclusion and the fundamental ecological imperative of survival coincide and call on us to build, in fact, the kind of urban communities we yearn to live in – complete, resilient, sustainable and healthy.
Whether we frame it as our cities needing Canada or Canada needing our cities, it doesn’t matter. What we need most is to recognize that the fortunes of the two are tied too closely to allow for the distinction – that we have a national interest in our cities. What should follow is collaboration – all levels of government working together to shift Canada’s cities to the centre of our collective economic future and ensure that the 80 per cent of us who live the urban life live well, have the opportunity to lend our abilities, knowledge, skills and talents to the success of Canada and share in the prosperity that is created.
Matthew Kellway is the Member of Parliament for Beaches-East York