The prejudice of city-hating seems to be deeper, more persistent and more poisonous to progress in Canada than anywhere else in the world. That’s going to spell trouble in a century experts say will be defined by cities.
This week brought another sample of the disdain leaders in senior levels of government have for cities.
The Federation of Canadian Municipalities on Tuesday warned that close to 80 per cent of the nation’s urban infrastructure, including roads and bridges, water and waste-removal systems, and transit are past their service life. The tab for replacing it is a staggering $123 billion.
Yet pleas for help from the weakest level of government are almost always greeted by sophistry or condescension. This time the rebuffs came from the top tier of the federal government.
First up was Prime Minister Stephen Harper: He boasted of his government’s $33 billion infrastructure program, which actually goes to provinces, not cities, and in any case works out to a paltry annual $4.7 billion over seven years.
Next came Lawrence Cannon, Harper’s minister of transport and infrastructure, who passed the buck: “I call upon the cities to go and sit down with the provinces,” he said.
And finally Jim Flaherty reminded cities of their comparatively trifling place in the universe: “We’re not in the pothole business in the Government of Canada,” said Harper’s finance minister, adding that the cities should stop “whining.”
North America is unique in its traditional denigration of cities.
The phenomenon is especially pronounced in Canada, where the urban centres, in which roughly 80 per cent of Canadians live — the country’s largest voting block — are powerless creatures of the provinces, with no constitutional standing and very limited spending powers, despite the massive downloading on to them in recent years of social-service and other responsibilities.
Almost wholly reliant for revenue on the property tax — one of the most regressive forms of taxation — municipalities are routinely depicted as feckless authors of their own misfortune whenever finding themselves staring into the fiscal abyss, even after, in Toronto’s case, accounting firm KPMG concluded in a study this year that the city is an able steward of its finances.
Toronto just lacks the money to do all that’s asked of it, a story that is repeated in scores of communities across the country.
“Many political leaders just don’t like cities,” says Richard Florida, the renowned U.S. urbanologist recently tapped to help launch the Prosperity Centre at Toronto’s Rotman School of Business. “They ofx ten think they can mobilize rural and suburban voters by running against cities.”
It might be that Western civilization traces its roots to city-states like Athens and Florence.
But suspicion of cities is as old as the Scriptures, where the Christian regard of urban life begins in Genesis with God’s wrath in destroying Babylon, Sodom and Gomorrah.
And in a New World that rejected much of the old, Henry David Thoreau despaired of the stress puppies in Boston and Philadelphia and retired to his Walden cabin far from “the desperate city.”
Even Lewis Mumford, one of the greatest urbanologists of the 20th century, worried about forces of alienation at work in cities grown too large.
“Democracy, in any active sense,” Mumford said in the 1960s, “begins and ends in communities small enough for their members to meet face to face.”
In the early days of modern neo-conservatism, prominent U.S. commentator George Gilder, appalled by the costly social-work burden cities had taken upon themselves beginning in the 1960s, described cities as “parasites,” ignoring the multitude of studies showing that national prosperity is tied to the rising affluence of urban dwellers.
More recently, the neo-conservative agenda has made room for an attack on progressive voters and U.S. cities teeming with Democrats.
“New Yorkers don’t really see themselves as part of the rest of America,” said American pundit Ann Coulter. “Americans understand that Manhattan is the Soviet Union.”
On a more sorrowful note, Joe Clark acknowledged that the easiest way to unite Canadians is to invoke their hatred of Toronto.
It helps when a nation’s capital is also its principal city. That way, federal politicians and mandarins get a daily experience of failing transit systems, decrepit schools and abandoned factories in wait need of creative redevelopment.
Outside Canada, great cities are regarded as national treasures, the face that countries show the world. Principal cities like Rome, Beijing and Kuala Lumpur, and even “sub-national” centres such as Shanghai, St. Petersburg and Edinburgh, are adequately funded by national governments.
Outside Canada, senior governments partner with cities in what are regarded as national projects.
Paris has funded a stunning makeover of the Charles de Gaulle airport in a successful bid to share European gateway status with Heathrow, Frankfurt and Amsterdam’s Schipol.
With Britain’s enthusiastic support, London is attempting to outmuscle New York as the world capital of finance.
Washington, whose ambivalence toward cities contrasts with Ottawa’s resolute disregard for them, financed Boston’s “Big Dig,” one of the largest U.S. urban-renewal megaprojects in American history.
And to help spur tourism in the gritty industrial city of Bilbao, Madrid footed much of the bill for Canadian expat Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao museum.
Outside Canada, cities have authority to collect local retail and income taxes, and they share in regional taxes. All that applies to U.S. cities, as well, which also have long been permitted to engage in debt-financing by issuing tax-free municipal bonds. Canadian cities, by contrast, are in a fiscal straitjacket, forbidden from running deficits, much less issuing and managing debt.
Yet Canadian cities have rarely been blessed with a confluence of conditions favourable to their future prospects — and to Canada’s.
The nation’s public finances are more sound than that of any G-8 country, enabling Canada to invest heavily in social as well as physical infrastructure to a degree not seen before.
Canadian cities consistently rank among the most liveable in the world. Canada’s receptivity to immigrants and America’s contrasting post-9/11 xenophobia is directing an unprecedented share of the world’s talent to Canada.
The strengthened loonie makes recruiting large numbers of leading scientists, academics, software engineers and corporate administrators away from strong-currency jurisdictions possible for the first time in decades.
These people want to live in cities. “Places that bring together diverse talent accelerate the local rate of economic development,” Florida writes on his blog (www.creativeclass.typepad.com).
“When large numbers of entrepreneurs, financiers, engineers, designers and other smart, creative people are constantly bumping into one another inside and outside of work, business ideas are more quickly formed, sharpened, executed, and — if successful —expanded.”
Globalization and the information age are accentuating the importance of cities, Thomas Courchene, director of the Institute of Intergovernmental Relations at Queen’s University and one of Canada’s foremost public-policy experts, writes in a landmark June report for the Institute for Research on Public Policy, Global Futures for Canada’s Global Cities.
Courchene describes a “virtuous circle” by which global city regions can take “actions that make them attractive to human capital, which, in turn, allows them to become magnets for attracting knowledge-based industries.
“Evidence suggests that privileging Canada’s `hub cities’ will propel them and their hinterlands forward economically.”
Yet Canadian cities are starved of the cash to fund such a renaissance.
“The international evidence on our global city regions’ fiscal weakness is striking,” Courchene warns.
“Cities like Stockholm, Berlin, Vienna and Helsinki spend twice as much and Copenhagen and Amsterdam three times as much per capita (on infrastructure, social services and cultural amenities) as Toronto does.
“This suggests that there is ample scope for decentralization in Canada to go beyond devolution of money and power from Ottawa to the provinces.”
Bottom line: It’s time Canada’s communities were funded directly by Ottawa, which is projecting $26 billion in excess funds over the next six years.
Cities should also be given the capital-raising tools common to cities elsewhere in the world.
It would help immensely if mayors like Toronto’s David Miller had quasi-premier status, with complete control over the city bureaucracy and all-important budget that New York’s Michael Bloomberg wields.
It would seem obvious that municipalities have unrivalled competence in understanding and dealing with the multitude of issues in their jurisdictions.
In the prolonged absence of visionary leadership from Ottawa or provincial capitals, “on urban planning, environment, transportation, education, refugee settlement, public health and many other policies the true innovators in Canada and the U.S. have been mayors,” says Florida.
It’s time to withhold political support from leaders who don’t grasp that urbanity will shape this century even more than the last one.
We have nothing to lose but elected representatives who take our votes for granted, impeding municipal and national progress and inviting our civic deterioration.