Opinion: Canadian cities face complex problems in the urban century

The following editorial was published in the Vancouver Sun on March 4, 2016 as part of a series supporting SFU Public Square‘s 2017 Community Summit.

It was co-written by VCPC Chair Nola Kate Seymoar, and former mayor of Vancouver, former premier of B.C. and former chair of the International Centre for Sustainable Cities, Mike Harcourt.  

Opinion: Canadian cities face complex problems in the urban century

We are living in the urban century. Fifty-five per cent of the world population lives in cities, and by 2050 that is expected to rise to 65 per cent. Eighty-two per cent of Canadians live in urban areas, and by 2050 that number is expected to increase to 90 per cent. The quality of life of Canadians now and in the future depends upon the state of our cities.

Still, they are daunted by complex problems — an increasing gap between rich and poor, unaffordable housing, homelessness, urban aboriginal poverty, discrimination, drugs, ethnic and economic segregation, lack of strong economic bases and apathy — to name a few.

Only Toronto, followed by Montreal, Vancouver and Calgary make the lists of “global cities” — those that influence world financial and economic decisions. Yet what our cities lack in alpha economic power, they make up for on measures of livability and on global influence.

Before we become too self-righteous, too critical or too complacent, however, we need to consider the future context in which our cities will operate.

The effects of climate change and the potential use of nuclear weapons threaten global security. U.S. protectionism and nationalism threatens international agreements on climate change, international security and trade. In this critical time, cities can provide stability in the midst of chaos.

So what do Canadian cities need to continue to thrive?

1. Enhanced Direct Federal Funding for Local Housing Solutions.

Since 2006, through a federal endowment, The Green Municipal Fund has successfully provided stable direct funding for infrastructure projects that address climate change and sustainability.

Canadian cities and communities need a similar federally supported Municipal Housing Fund to finance supportive and affordable housing and related communities services. Requiring consistent data to research the efficacy of different approaches to dampen land speculation and increase the stock of housing types, such a fund could support municipal land trusts; non-profit and co-op housing units; and create a private sector rental housing program, blending federal calibrated capital cost allowances, provincial rental supplements, municipal land, and housing. It could be a game changer.

2. Invest in Civil Society and Build More Resilient Communities.

In an increasingly uncertain world, evidence shows that civil society organizations (NGO’s, voluntary and community organizations and charities) are the bedrock of resilient communities that are able to respond to economic shocks, technological or market dislocations, social upheavals or natural disasters. They increase the sense of belonging, inclusion and happiness of people in communities. They make our cities strong and livable and are essential to democracy.

Over the past several decades, as government support for these organizations has eroded, their numbers have decreased dramatically. When civil society organizations wither and die, so do our communities.

Essential to the public good, civil society organizations should be supported in part by public funds. This can be done through direct grant programs and through greater tax relief for donations well beyond the current narrow application of tax deductions for charitable organizations.

3. Establish Regional and National Investment Strategies.

Canadian businesses and local governments compete against each other to attract investment and talent. There are no national, provincial or regional agreements about who does what best and where. Competing trade missions sometimes result in businesses or governments cutting deals that undermine our commitments to action on climate change, peace or international security. The local governments, businesses and professionals in Metro Vancouver, for example, need to build a regional economic strategy — one equal to or better than those of Seattle and Portland.

Accepting that advancing the livability of our cities is a worthier objective than striving to be global heavyweights in the financial and political arenas, three broad investments — a Municipal Housing Fund, a tax regime to support civil society organizations, and broader strategic economic collaboration at the regional and national level are needed. When Canada does so, our cities will be more resilient and will have greater global influence.

Dr. Nola Kate Seymoar is the chair of the Vancouver City Planning Commission and former president of the International Centre for Sustainable Cities. Mike Harcourt is the former mayor of Vancouver, former premier of B.C. and former chair of the International Centre for Sustainable Cities.

This article originally appeared in the Vancouver Sun on March 4, 2017.


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