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Canada's Success is Tied to All its Cities, Not Just the Thriving Ones

10/15/2013 12:14 EDT | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

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.

As with our images of Canada, so it is with our sense of government. We still see them as a "nested hierarchy": the municipal governments -- "creatures of" we usually say -- nested within the Provincial government which is in turn nested within the Federal government. So says our Constitution and so follows our political protocol.

But our reality is far more complicated. Apart from this constitutional reality, the architecture of a global economy has been constructed. It connects our cities in all kinds of ways to an urban economic network with a different order of governance -- one that stands alongside and in many instances transcends national boundaries.

So, it is through our cities that we are connected to the rest of the world in the most meaningful and immediate ways. It has become this engagement, more than anything else, that has shaped our cities and the present and future fortunes of most Canadians. Dhaka shapes Toronto and Toronto shapes Dhaka. The garment sweatshops of Toronto's downtown became the Rana Plazas of Dhaka's outskirts. The clothing from Dhaka's garment mills fill the big box stores where Toronto's Golden Mile once hummed with industrial production but now the underemployed -- including professionals from Dhaka's universities -- work for little and shop for less.

What is true for Toronto also holds for other Canadian cities, though we consider these cities more regional than global. But the Saskatoon Chamber of Commerce has a very big boardroom, lots of leather chairs and a very big bigscreen television in order to entertain frequent delegations of investors from China. And so it is with the Regina Regional Opportunities Commission -- directions to the washroom are written in Chinese characters.

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. Witness Detroit. 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, putting commercials on television showing images of a Canada that very few Canadians will ever see and clinging to the real but formalistic and dangerously incomplete notion of how this country is governed. They have disavowed responsibility, shown no interest and only rarely and exceptionally provided some help to Canada's cities. They have left Canadian cities and the vast majority of Canadians with only local resources to contend with global forces.

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 a new form of governance -- all levels of government working together to shift Canada's cities to the centre of our collective economic future and ensure that the eighty percent 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.

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