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Why We Must Build Resilience Into Canadian Cities

03/20/2014 12:24 EDT | Updated 05/21/2014 05:59 EDT

Tom Mulcair came to Toronto's City Hall last month and delivered this simple message: urban issues have to be a federal priority. And, he promised that the NDP would make them so.

The occasion for Tom's visit was my urban summit, "Re-Imagining Our Cities II: The Resilient City." As the title suggests, this was the second urban summit that I've co-hosted in Toronto along with the CITY Institute of York University. Each summit engaged about 100 smart, experienced participants from all walks of life, all of whom understand the importance of, and are committed to, building successful cities.

The premise for our first summit was this: cities have to be at the forefront of a national agenda. Nearly two years later, after considerable consultation -- latterly as the NDP's Urban Affairs Critic -- the starting point has to be, in fact, a bolder one: there can be no national agenda that isn't also an urban agenda. This was Tom's point and this was the starting point of a draft White Paper on urban affairs that I asked the Summit participants to kick around.

The draft White Paper urges us to understand how Canada is connected to the rest of the world in the 21st century. It puts our cities in a global context. It is not really that dotted line out over the deep blue sea that we see on a map that defines our interface with the rest of the world. It is through those little dots on the map -- our cities -- that we connect, not exclusively but predominantly, with the rest of the world.

This isn't just about Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. The ordinary Canadian city is a rapidly globalizing city. Saskatoon is a great example. It is deeply embedded in the agricultural and resource economies of its surrounding landscape but makes those economies urban through research and innovation and makes them global through trade and investment. It is evident on their university campus. It is obvious from the massive board room of their Chamber of Commerce -- sized to entertain the large and frequent delegations of investors from around the world.

Saskatoon, a booming place, shows what's possible. It also reveals its vulnerability. That comes in the form of lack of child care and affordable housing, food insecurity, and a vast and growing income inequality. These appear to be the hallmarks of the global and globalizing cities of Canada.

So the draft White Paper talks about the need to address these vulnerabilities so that we can keep alive what's possible for our cities and all of its citizens. That I call resilience. We need to build into our cities an infrastructure of resilience.

That infrastructure is "knowledge" so that our cities are creative, innovative and competitive places. That infrastructure is "soft" -- childcare, for example. It is "hard" -- housing and transit. And, it is "green" so that we take advantage of the potential of our cities to mitigate global warming and adapt ourselves to the increasing frequency of climate events.

The infrastructure of resilience is also about "governance." The deep and deepening connection that our cities have with the rest of the world means that the global is, in fact, urban and local. The federal government must follow the world to our cities and, also, be urban and local if it is to be relevant to Canadians.

This is our starting point. This is what Tom was talking about at the summit in Toronto. It has enormous implications for how we govern this country. There is an urban reality that we must embrace if we are to make things possible for our cities, its citizens and, of course then, Canada.